Dixie Devils bring traditional jazz to ASU

ASU Dixie Devils, a traditional jazz ensemble, performs at various events around ASU.

Rollicking strains of Dixieland jazz streamed from a small office on the second floor of the west music building earlier this month.

Inside, the closely-knit ASU Dixie Devils laughed over their instruments as they practiced playing their “happy music.”

The traditional jazz ensemble, composed of music professor and trombone player Sam Pilafian and six students, plays before home football games and represents ASU at other events.

“Everything is acoustic and all of our instruments are really portable so we can be on the go,” jazz piano graduate student Gabe Hall-Rodrigues said.

Hall-Rodrigues, who plays the accordion and sings in the group, joined the Dixie Devils as a sophomore with his girlfriend, ethnomusicology graduate student Amy Swietlik.

Five years later, the two are engaged and still playing in the Dixie Devils.

“We’re all great friends,” Hall-Rodrigues said. “When we’re playing we have a really good time and we laugh a lot, and I think that’s an important thing to have as a musician.”

Hall-Rodrigues has played piano for 18 years, but has found himself shifting toward the accordion after his time with the Dixie Devils.

Swietlik, whose primary instrument is the euphonium, plays trombone in the Dixie Devils and manages the band.

“We’re just a big old family, and Amy’s like the mom,” anthropology senior and Dixie Devils washboard player Aaron Hudson said. “Anything we need, she takes care of.”

Swietlik, who will graduate with her master’s degree this May, has studied with Pilafian for the past seven years.

She plays with several other groups, including the Arizona Wind Symphony, the ASU Gamelan and the ASU Concert Jazz Band, but is most dedicated to the Dixie Devils.

She said she likes all parts of performing and rehearsing with the group but most enjoys playing in concerts where the Dixie Devils are the showcase performer.

Their next performance is at the Tempe History Museum at 2 p.m. March 24. The afternoon-long event sponsored by Classical Revolution PHX will feature several brass bands and food trucks.

“Everybody’s very musical and creative, and we all have really good chemistry between us,” Swietlik said.

Marketing junior Dan Blaker, who plays trumpet with the Dixie Devils, said the band’s schedule has become calmer this semester.

Blaker also plays the lead trumpet in the Sun Devil Marching Band.

Like the other members of the Dixie Devils, Blaker has been playing his instrument for years — since eighth grade — and never plans to stop, but he chose to major in marketing instead of music.

“I want to keep performing and playing music, most notably jazz music, until I die,” Blaker said. “But I also want to have an alternate skill set. With the way the times are changing, a freelance jazz trumpet player is not the most reliable job to have.”

Hudson, also the son of ASU’s marching band director James G. Hudson, first played under his father in the marching band at the University of Kansas, but followed his father to ASU where he played baritone euphonium and now works on staff.

In the fall of 2010, Pilafian approached the percussionist at marching band rehearsal and offered him a chance to play the washboard with the Dixie Devils.

“I was like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s not every day you get the chance to play the washboard,” Hudson said.

During the early days of jazz, musicians often used the clothes-washing tool as a percussion instrument because drums were too expensive. Washboards, though, were portable and found in every house.

He and Pilafian worked to modify his washboard's sound, and Hudson has performed with the Dixie Devils ever since.

“The music we create adds to the joy,” Hudson said. “Like (Pilafian) says, it’s happy music, so it makes us happy and makes the people we play for happy.”

Music education senior Connor Hailey, who plays the sousaphone for the Dixie Devils, said he’s learned a great deal from the band.

“It gives me an opportunity to express myself in a way I haven’t been able to before,” he said.

Hailey talked his friend, alumnus Jeremy Lappitt, into joining the group in fall 2009. Lappitt graduated from ASU in May 2011, but he still plays clarinet and soprano saxophone with the Dixie Devils.

“The past three years have been a blast,” Lappitt said in an email. “We get the rare opportunity of performing great music on great gigs with great people.”

Reach the reporter at julia.shumway@asu.edu or follow @JMShumway on Twitter.

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