Don’t be surprised to see a little extra spring in the steps and sparkle in the eyes of the Atlantic City Jazz Band when they parade through Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point playing traditional Dixieland tunes.
Physically, they’ll perform as one of two featured bands during the South Jersey Jazz Society’s “Mardi Gras @ The Point” celebration 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17.
But no one could blame them if they were mentally transporting themselves back to the days when the band was synonymous with the annual Mardi Gras celebration at the former Showboat Hotel & Casino.
With more than 5,000 casino appearances in the bell of his trumpet, Bob Ferguson says he misses each of the seven casinos that have closed in Atlantic City over the years. But the one he misses most is Showboat, whose casino closed in 2014 but has since reopened as a non-gaming hotel under a new owner.
“I spent a lot of years (playing) at the Showboat. And (banjo player) Franny Smith (of the Atlantic City Jazz Band) was pretty much the poster boy on all the advertising for Showboat,” Ferguson says during a recent conversation that was wistful and reminiscent.
Ferguson, an area native who’s been a professional musician in Atlantic City since he was 14, says he’s looking forward to playing during Mardi Gras @ The Point. The party will be a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras celebration packed into about four hours.
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From the music to the food — New Orleans staples that include jambalaya, dirty rice, étouffée and more — the room will celebrate Mardi Gras, which is also known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras begins on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany and culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday, which is March 1 this year.
There will also be a traditional mask contest with prizes for best overall mask, as well as funniest and fanciest, although costumes and masks aren’t de rigueur. Ferguson is looking forward to something else that will remind him of his years at Showboat, which, because of its New Orleans theme, went all-in for Mardis Gras: the cutting of a traditional king cake.
“There’ll be a little baby king (baked) in the cake, and whoever gets it is going to get prizes,” says Ferguson, a board member of the South Jersey Jazz Society, formerly known as the Somers Point Jazz Society.
The Atlantic City Jazz Band and the five-piece Midiri Brothers, fronted by brothers Paul and Joe Midiri, will play setlists that date back to the dawn of the 20th century.
Ragtime, jubilee and traditional jazz songs originally penned and played by early jazz stars like Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines will be part of the repertoire.
Ferguson knows that groups like the Atlantic City Jazz Band and the Midiri Brothers are among a vanishing breed of musicians keeping the torch flickering for jazz, a musical genre that’s distinctly American but has always been inspired and influenced by artists around the world.
“Even in popular music today, whether it’s a song by Lady Gaga, or sung by someone like Tony Bennett … the songs are still just as fresh today as they were when they first were sung,” Ferguson observes. “And they’ll continue to stand the test of time because they’re well structured. They tell a story, and that’s really what music is all about. Whether it’s something that’s lyrical or instrumental, you’re telling a story.”
A conversation with Ferguson about his years working at Showboat, and every other Atlantic City casino, past and present, is an abridged master class in two different worlds: music and business.
In addition to his career as a professional musician, Ferguson has also been an adjunct professor of business management at Stockton University for a dozen years.
“I think (Showboat) had the best overall (casino) theme, and I was impressed the way they worked the theme for many years,” he says. “From the very beginning of Showboat (in 1987), it was a classic example of just terrific marketing. People loved the (New Orleans) atmosphere. The Showboat was a real jewel as far as an overall theme and a well put-together casino.”
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As a Stockton educator, he was excited when the university bought Showboat from Caesars Entertainment just months after the gaming company closed the property. The plan was to convert the casino hotel into an island campus. But the school was forced to sell the property after conflicting deed restrictions prevented Stockton from operating it as anything but a casino hotel.
“I thought, ‘wow, we’re going to rekindle the essence of that building again,’” he says. “It was sad for many of us musicians (when it didn’t work out).”