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Knockin’ your socks off: Don Dworkin (aka Reggie, center) and his Red Hot Feetwarmers.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Track Record

As another Saratoga season draws to a close, Don Dworkin of Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers reflects on what his band did this summer

By Logan Crusan

It would be difficult for a passerby to miss Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers if they were performing anywhere within hearing range. It’s not just the percussive thumping of the stand-up bass, or the melodic interplay of brass and clarinet that separates the Feetwarmers from other regional jazz acts; it is the wholly uplifting vibe of their music. Led by bassist Don Dworkin, the Feetwarmers revive the sounds of New Orleans circa the 1920s with uptempo tunes intended to make audiences dance—and possibly open up listeners to a new style of music.

“We bring New Orleans to the region,” says Dworkin, who got on his feet (pun intended) gigging in Doc Scanlon, a self- proclaimed “blend of big-band swing and rockin’ rhythm and blues.” If that name sounds familiar, it may be because the sextet have performed alongside big names like B.B. King, and at SPAC’s annual Freihofer’s Jazz Festival. Or maybe the reference to Jack Nicholson’s 1975 classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rings a bell. Either way, 2008 marks the 30th anniversary of Doc Scanlon, and the band continue to play throughout the region. (Just this summer, they’ve logged gigs in Stony Creek, Stockbridge, Mass., and at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.)

Juggling both bands is no easy task, but Dworkin would not have it any other way. “It’s like running a marathon,” says Dworkin of the especially hectic schedule with Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers. Between the end of July and throughout August, the Feetwarmers play roughly 50 shows in six weeks. A typical week for the quintet includes five four-hour days of performing at the Saratoga Race Course as the “house band”—a position funded by the New York Racing Association—plus two to three other shows during the week in various places in the Northeast. “August is the best month,” Dworkin says.

Constant gigging can grow repetitive for a band playing the same set list over and over. Fortunately, the Feetwarmers have at least 100 songs in their arsenal—including both covers and originals from their three CDs, Happy Feet, Instant Mardi Gras, and Saratoga Shout—allowing the group to call audibles in the middle of a performance to keep things spontaneous and entertaining.

“The kind of music we play was originally music that was heard on the street,” explains Dworkin. “Dixieland originated from marching bands in New Orleans.” The group’s batch of Dixieland mixed with traditional jazz and “hot jazz” of the 1920s and ’30s make Reggie’s a near-perfect fit for track crowd. “People hear us when they win or lose, but the music is always meant to be positive.”

The quintet’s appearance is as flamboyant as their music, with each member proudly sporting a Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers custom-embroidered red jacket, black slacks, white hat, and long red socks. Similar to the high-school athlete who dyed his hair purple before the big game, an eccentric band name and vibrant clothing may indicate one of two things about the artist: that they put on a hell of a performance, or that they need a “crazy” name and image to compensate for its lack of skills. The former is the case for the Feetwarmers, whose music typically turns heads and grooves bodies. The galloping pace of Dworkin’s bass-slapping and Dan Levinson’s colorful clarinet solo make “Sunny Side Up” a highlight of their set list; they also offer a few tender tracks to allow the audience to catch their breath, and to give new life to Peter Davis’ banjo tone and Reggie’s vocals.

Though their style’s commercial and popular prime passed more than 70 years ago, the Feetwarmers are proof that Dixieland transcends time and trends. “It’s unfair to dismiss any style of music,” says Dworkin, who spent his teens listening to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin on AM radio, and who now considers himself a fan of everything—even hip-hop.

As summer grinds to a halt, the Feetwarmers go out with a bang. A few weekends ago, they performed at the Race Course for the event of the season—the running of the Travers Stakes, which drew an audience of more than 40,000. And while a great number of those 40,000 took in a song or two from Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers, it’s possible many of them were perplexed by the origin of the band’s name.

“The ‘Feetwarmers’ were a hot-jazz band in the 1930s—and Reggie is my stage name,” Dworkin explains. “And our music’s red hot.”

Saratoga seems to agree.


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