The Barbary Coast Dixieland Jazz Band holds a special place in Minnesota music history — and not just because its members were inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
The jazz band has been cranking up the energy level in churches for 35 years, bringing a banjo, bass and trombone to more than 2,000 religious services.
That’s in addition to gigs across the state and nation, including a performance for President Ronald Reagan during his visit here and dozens of top national jazz festivals.
But last week, the Barbary Coast band ended its long run, this time at a Bloomington senior housing complex. It was a bittersweet farewell for an upbeat group of musicians who spent decades harmonizing their faith with their musical talents.
“It’s bittersweet to stop, but we have wonderful memories,” said Dick Petersen, the band’s banjo player and leader. “This is happy music. We’ve had a ball all these years.”
For churches that have come to depend on Dixieland’s services, there is a ray of hope. Longtime band member Jim ten Bensel is creating a group to continue the religious services. It just won’t be the Barbary Coast Dixieland Jazz Band.
Barbary Coast traces its origins to 1967, when Petersen and a group of other banjo players began performing in St. Paul under the name “Doc Wesley’s Barbary Coast Banjo Band.” It morphed into Barbary Coast Dixieland Band in 1986, adding clarinet, trumpet, trombone, bass, drums and banjo.
The group initially played typical musician gigs such as nightclubs, music festivals, corporate events and the Minnesota State Fair. But one band member was a church music director, and in the early 1980s he asked them to be part of the church service. That led to a performance at an annual conference of pastors and faith leaders of the then-American Lutheran Church.
‘It just took off’
They apparently liked what they heard.
“It just took off from there,” said Petersen. “That was 1984. We’ve been playing at churches ever since.”
The group averaged 40 services a year, said Petersen, an original member of the group. But the band has always juggled other work, including high-profile gigs.
When St. Paul Mayor George Latimer brought a delegation to St. Paul’s sister city of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1980, the Barbary Coast Dixieland Band was part of the entourage.
Turned out that a Japanese group from Nagasaki visiting St. Paul earlier had heard the band and wanted the rest of their city to hear it too.
“I was surprised,” said Petersen. “The Japanese really liked Dixieland.”
The band members, mainly Lutherans and Baptists, particularly enjoyed joining the Sunday faithful. They had a repertoire of church songs such as “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which often provided for a rousing end of service.
They were regulars at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, where the band performed at three services last month. Worship coordinator Jill Cowan said the Barbary Coast band was playing there even before she started her job 15 years ago.
“I think their music brings a different kind of energy and joy, doing familiar hymns in different ways,” Cowan said. “And over the years, people have gotten to know the band. They like to see them and catch up.”
Cowan added: “We’re sad to be losing their music.”
At the band’s final performance at Friendship Village of Bloomington, Petersen reminisced with the crowd about how the band got started, its church ministry, and how it toured the country for years. He marveled that there were never personal conflicts. Just good music.
He then introduced the band, whose members are well known in the Twin Cities jazz community: ten Bensel, Tom Andrews, Russ Peterson, Steve Pikal and Fred Richardson.
And after that, the band belted out its final set.
‘Music is great therapy’
Afterward, trombone player ten Bensel explained that he is forming a new group — the Mardi Gras Ramblers — that he hopes can continue the Dixieland worship tradition.
“The music is great therapy for the audience,” he said, “and for the musicians.”
“We’ve traveled all over the world, played for President Reagan, done so many things,” he said. “But what I’ll really miss is playing in church services.”