Local combo Hillbilly Jazz returns to Hyattsville roadhouse the Surf Club tonight. Hillbilly Jazz was the Thursday night house band there from 2003 until 2009, when this longtime honky-tonk dropped live music and became simply a drinking bar for the neighborhood (that is now mostly Hispanic). But as noted here, last August Surf Club owner James Byrum began occasionally featuring live music on Thursday nights.
Hillbilly Jazz is led by guitarists Chick Hall, Jr. and Jim Stephanson. Hall is the son of the late Chick Hall, Sr., the bar-owner/guitarist who bought the original Surf Club in 1955 when it was located on Bladensburg Road in Colmar Manor, Md. before taking the name and building the current Surf Club in 1975. The younger Hall, now in his 60s, began playing onstage with his dad as a child. Jim Stephanson has been playing D.C. clubs since the late 1970s with groups such as Jimmy & the Blue Dogs and the Blue Rhythm Boys (who recently played on NPR). He released his first album of all original material, Say Go, last year, joined by members of NRBQ. It was recently hailed by a DJ at New Jersey’s WFMU as one of the top CDs of the year.
As Hillbilly Jazz, Hall, Jr., Stephanson, bassist John Previti,and drummer Brooks Tegler play music inspired by Django Reinhardt, Nashvillecountry, Memphis rockabilly, and more. Stephanson explained to me via e-mail that Hillbilly Jazz differs from his other groups because it has “an emphasis on arranging twin guitar parts (harmony and octave/unison parts) for Chick and I to play. Western swing, jazz standards, pop and oldies, gives us a broad range of material to arrange as well as originals that both Chick and I have written.” As Stephanson’s website notes, “[t]he dynamic twin guitar arrangements pay homage to guitar legends Hank Garland, Jimmy Bryant, Roy Lanham, George Barnes, and Les Paul. ” (Garland was a Nashville studio musician who played with Patsy Cline and Elvis. Bryant worked on soundtracks for westerns in the ‘50s. Lanham played with the Whippoorwills and the Sons of the Pioneers, Barnes was a swing jazz guitarist, and Paul was a legendary jazz and country player and guitar designer.)
Stephanson is looking forward to bringing the music back to the Surf Club this evening. He writes: “The Surf Club is probably the last club like so many that have disappeared in the last 20 years. Where you can walk in, put your amp on stage and crank it up. It was a music venue for local musicians to learn and ply their trade. You can only learn so much sitting on the couch with your guitar. There is no substitute for the experience of getting on the band stand and working with other players. That’s how you really learn your instrument. And on that note Chick Hall is a true gentleman and has always shared his expertise with many a local picker.”
Hillbilly Jazz perform tonight, Thursday January 6 at 8 p.m. at the Surf Club, 4711 Kenilworth Ave., Hyattsville, MD. $ 10. (301) 927-6310