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Mark Mossey

Every four years riverboats hailing from all the great river cities steam into the Port of Cincinnati to celebrate the Tall Stacks festival. With their paddle wheels churning and smoke billowing from tall stacks, the riverboats gather for a festival that includes riverboat cruises, races, and entertainment. My Generation X Dixieland Jazz Band traveled to Cincinnati to perform at the most recent Tall Stacks last October.

   What is the Generation X Dixieland Jazz Band, you ask? When I arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia to start medical school a year ago I searched high and low for traditional jazz but could find none. I did find a thriving acoustic/bluegrass musical scene, including a group called Walker’s Run, composed of University of Virginia students from rural Rockbridge County who grew up playing and singing bluegrass. I loaned a tenor banjo and a Federal Focus style tape to Brennan Gilmore, the mandolin player for the group (mandolins are tuned the same way tenor banjos are tuned), and a few weeks later I had a trad jazz banjo player. With several fellow alumni of Federal Focus, we performed at Michael’s Bistro on the Corner, and at private parties including one at the nationally-known Prism Coffeehouse.

   How did our modest musical crew get picked to join the esteemed ranks of top-notch performers at Tall Stacks last year (performers including early folk guru John Hartford and Cincinnati-based traditional jazz pianist Ted des Plantes)? Call us the hometown favorites. Banjo player Brennan Gilmore was born in Dayton and clarinet player Halley Shoenberg’s family is from Cincinnati. My sister Ann and I both grew up in Cincinnati, and I performed in a herald trumpet ensemble for the first-ever Tall Stacks when I was in high school (using three-foot-long trumpet bells and clad in garments that fashion experts would later describe as a “walking pop tart,” but that’s another story).

   We began our day early on Saturday, October 16; the Generation X musicians flew in from Charlottesville and Dulles, and my sister Ann flew in from St. Paul, Minnesota to play washboard and sing with us. Delta Airlines graciously gave us the use of a hospitality suite at the airport in which to assemble. We had space to rehearse, industrial-strength coffee, and an unlimited supply of soda and airline peanuts!

   We were transported by our personal chauffeurs (a.k.a. my parents) downtown to the Ohio side of the river in the early afternoon and found the waterfront bustling with activity. Nineteen steamboats graced the water, including the Belle of Louisville from Louisville, Kentucky, the Memphis Queen II from Memphis, Tennessee, and the gargantuan 418-foot American Queen from New Orleans, Louisiana. Some of the smaller boats had mere ornamental paddle wheels, but many of the larger ones were authentic steam sternwheelers. The temperature was uncharacteristically in the seventies, and the sun was shining from a cloudless sky on the majestic ships. Some were racing; some were crowded with riverboat fans aboard for a leisurely cruise; some were docked stately in repose.

   On Saturday, we roved the Ohio side of the river, performing for the multitudes of riverboat enthusiasts strolling Sawyer Point Park and downtown Cincinnati. Mark Twain impersonators and parasol-toting dames in period dress, inspired by our toe-tapping music, waltzed up a storm around us. We made our way to the Serpentine Wall along the river, where crowds waiting for riverboat cruises were lined up along the tiers of the wall. Many of the riverboats docked directly at this wall. Several more were docked at the Cincinnati Public Landing, where we performed for folks waiting to board the unbelievably huge American Queen.

   On Sunday, the sun was gone and the Cincinnati winter had set in. It was the last day of the five-day festival, and the throngs of tourists, like the sun, were nowhere to be seen. Undeterred by the frigid weather, our persevering crew boarded the historic Anderson Car Ferry in Covington, Kentucky, and crossed the Licking River to Newport, Kentucky where the Licking empties into the Ohio directly across from downtown Cincinnati. In the chilly open air of the ferry, bundled in our overcoats and striking determined poses, we were the spitting image of the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” that is if Washington and his revolutionary soldiers had been lugging not just muskets and cannons but also tubas, washboards, and banjos.

   The Newport Stage was situated beside a Civil War re-enactment village that was no longer populated with Civil War re-enactors. Except for the occasional passersby, the complete roster of people in our audience was as follows: a. My Mom b. My Dad c. My sister, when she wasn’t singing d. a very nice married couple who had come specifically to hear trad jazz. But perform we did, and the crowd was appreciative, especially the portion of it directly related to me. Night fell, and the steamboats began departing for warmer and less rainy climates as we wrapped up our set.

   Several incidents involving missing wallets and missed flights marred the rest of the evening, but the members of Generation X managed to travel home successfully with most of the personal possessions with which they had come. Invigorated from the performances on Saturday and thawing rapidly from the performance on Sunday, the members of Generation X settled back into school and work routines, eagerly awaiting the next Tall Stacks and the joyful proclamation: “Steamboat’s a-comin!”

   For more information about Cincinnati’s Tall Stacks festival, visit the Tall Stacks website at

   Mark Mossey is an alumnus of the Federal Focus Jazz Band training program. He can be reached at or 921 Cherry Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
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