Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jazz Band Heroism—or—How The Southside Aces Showed Pluck

Do you want to read a story of Jazz Band Heroism? When I say the Southside Aces were “heroes,” I don’t mean firefighter pulls kid out of burning building hero, or Medal Of Honor recipient hero. I’ve never had to discover if I am in possession of that kind of bravery, and for this I feel fortunate. I believe, however, heroism has several different levels, and frequent use of the word is just fine, as long as you understand how quickly the situation can reach parody. For instance, if, after an exhaustive search, my bartender found the last bottle of Blanton’s bourbon in the back of the storeroom, you might hear me exclaim, “My hero!” The definition of hero, in this case, is just a man holding this:

In today’s story, however, I’m talking about Jazz Band Heroism. This kind of valor, depending upon your views on bourbon, falls slightly higher or lower on the Hero Parody Scale than the above pub scenario. Bourbon was made America’s “native spirit” by an act of congress, after all. And June 14th was National Bourbon Day. So in conclusion, I love bourbon! Wait, what was I talking about?
The Southside Aces were hired for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival this year. Yesterday, we played over at Episcopal Homes, otherwise known as Iris Park. This action does not speak of heroism, although we intrepid men did pull off a pretty ripping version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump,” which certainly exhibited some musical bravery. No, I’m talking about today. I stood under the sun and enjoyed four of the Twin Cities finest vocalists take the stage right in front of the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. 

You might say they were “pillars” of Twin Cities jazz vocalist society. Lucia Newell, Maud Hixson, Debbie Duncan and Prudence Johnson, all backed up by the Wolverines Quartet. This was some good music, I can tell you true. Rick Carlson, pianist of said quartet and the villain of the piece, finished playing his last notes, walked up to me and laughed an evil laugh as he said, “We used up all the weather!” 

Sure enough, as various Aces men assembled, the deluge began. The people handling sound rushed around throwing tarps at anything that used electricity, and the whole thing was shut down on account of the lightning. The lightning…it seems like there’s something a person should remember about standing on wet aluminum staging during a thunderstorm. What was it? Anyway, for some reason the band decided to remove ourselves to beneath the overhang of the depot behind the stage. Many of the folks who had come to listen to the music were gathered there between the pillars as well. Erik looked at me and said, “Let’s just play right here. All these people are still here. Come on, let’s do it.” He had his sousaphone up on his shoulder faster than he can eat a sandwich. Before you know it, my clarinet was out, and “Bourbon Street Parade” was echoing up and down the pillars. Dave pulled out sticks and began pounding on the pillar stage left. He was playing the Union Depot, literally. It has to be the largest drum in his arsenal. Soon Steve’s trombone joined the fray, Mark Kreitzer slung his guitar over his shoulder, and Zack put his trumpet to his lips. We had a concert! What mettle! 

You can tell it was raining by how wet Dave's shirt is. This is also when he began beating upon our CD suitcase. Resourceful.

Accounts of most heroes involve them risking life and limb. The Southside Aces can’t claim that. Although Erik is 6’5” and had a large metal lightning rod in the shape of a sousaphone wrapped around his body. But we did save something today. We resuscitated a drowning concert. The folks, thank them up and down, stuck around. Collected beneath the front porch of the depot with the band, or underneath umbrellas out in front or, as in the case of Stan and Mercedes, just swing dancing out under the rain. A word of advice to all you outdoor jazz festival promoters: If you’re going to have torrents of rain hit your festival, make sure you have the Southside Aces hired during that slot. 

On second thought, I'm not THAT heroic. This was fun but let’s not get ridiculous. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Skokiaan—Or—How A Motion Picture Influenced The Southside Aces

Watch The Impostors. I’m not normally given to issuing commands, but this is highly important. I’ve mentioned this 1998 movie in a previous post, Recognizing DCD.
The Impostors was written and directed by Stanley Tucci, and starring himself along with Oliver Platt. I’m talking about a fantastically funny farce that tells the story of two starving actors who find themselves accidental stowaways on a cruise ship. You need every single one of your digits plus a few of your cat's to count up all the shenanigans, which begin the moment the movie opens, and don’t end until the credits are done rolling and you start watching Terms Of Endearment just to balance out all the laughing. I’ve hurt my gut from the laughter each of the eight times I’ve seen it so far. Laughter hernias. Plus, I say PLUS, it’s all accompanied by a soundtrack that knocks me out every time. This is how I was introduced to one of my favorite Louis Armstrong recordings, “Skokiaan.” From the movie to my brain, my brain to the Southside Aces book, and now what do you know, we’ve recorded it ourselves.

But first let’s head back to 1947, when The African Dance Band of the Cold Storage Division of Southern Rhodesia released the original, the B-Side of which was a rough but spirited version of “In The Mood,” By the way, I’m serious, that’s the name of the band. I mean, it would be like if the Southside Aces were called The New Orleans Traditional Jazz Band of the Men Who Are Aces Department of South Minneapolis. I’m not here to criticize marketing choices, but just imagine the band stationery! How much you’d have to pay to make teeshirts! In 1954, the same recording was released under the band name Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms:

Doesn’t that feel better to your tongue? Can you imagine there must have been some days before the name change when someone asked one of the musicians what the name of the band was, and they started, “The African Dance Band of…oh, forget it.” Sometimes a man can’t be buggered to finish a sentence. The leader of the band, August Musarurwa, published his tune in 1952—

This is the sheet music I have...Secret Weapon!

—and the 1954 release became a nice hit for the Zimbabweans. The melodies and rhythms really are great. I mentioned "rough but spirited." The rough playing may have had something to do with the source of the title. Skokiaan is a type of African homemade liquor. It’s usually pretty harsh stuff, a single-day brewed moonshine concoction that can sometimes include ingredients like kerosene or battery acid…for flavor. When you listen to the Bulawayo fellas play it, notice how the trumpet enters at about 1:08 and only lasts about twenty seconds. Like a barstool debater, who interrupts with slurry eloquence to say what's already been said, and subsides shortly afterwards when he forgets he's the one talking. Spirited indeed. Too much skokiaan will do that to a person. I imagine him tipping out of his chair. I don’t have any proof of the high proof—the session may have been a sober affair—but I may or may not have personal experience with how a horn sounds after an unwise amount of imbibery. 

The record reached the ears of the western world that year, and several diverse artists decided to cash in:

But my favorite, of course, was by Louis. His All Stars recorded it with the Sy Oliver Orchestra. If you compare the original instrumental’s great rhythms and melodies to the Armstrong recording, you can really tell Louis absorbed the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms version. But he also sings! Where’d those words come from!? Now, here’s the thing about the lyric. An American, Tom Glazer, added words during the 1954 American craze for the tune. It comes off like an African tourist bureau song. 

Oh, ho, Far away in Africa, happy happy Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…
Oh, ho, Take a trip to Africa, any ship to Africa, (nonsense, nonsense, nonsense)…

You get the idea. As far as I can find out, nobody consulted August to see if any insult was brought about by what I like to call “racist fluff.” “Skokiaan” was from that era of song when it was considered harmless popular diversion to write lyrics with minority stereotypes. But don’t underestimate Louis! He never was one to let a silly lyric get in the way of a superb performance:

Now here we are sixty years later about to put it on the next Southside Aces record! It was one of those where we go, "Eh, if we get a good take, we'll put it on the record." If it didn't make the cut, we wouldn't have exactly been despondent. As it turns out, it's becoming one of my favorites. It's a strong cut! We, however, dispensed with the singing. The Zimbabwe tourist office never got back to me. My arrangement, though, is obviously influenced by the Louis version; Zack even nails the high B-flats at the end. We’re in the mixing and mastering stage right now, so you’ll have to wait a little. In the meantime, get your hands on that movie, The Impostors. Do it! And if you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll have a screening over here at the house. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

How To Get Through A Long Winter

February 24th was one of those days this winter with which we Minnesotans became so familiar. It spent a few hours below zero, and the rest of the day not much warmer; mostly single digits above zero. The Aces were in the studio that night recording “Winter Weather” among other things. It’s a 1941 tune that’s been recorded by folks including Fats Waller, Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford. Fats has my favorite. The first line of the vocal starts, “I love the winter weather…” I remember laughing at the rest of the guys on account of the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing. None of them were loving the winter weather at the moment.

Listen to what Fats was talking about:

It’s been a doozy of a winter so far. But that’s not a complaint. I’m a winter man. Of this there is no doubt. Snow and cold give me a thrill. I actually don’t remember a year in which I have once stated the common refrain, “I’m so ready for this winter to be over!” I don’t ski or skate, so it’s not about the athletics of the season. In fact, I abhor having anything beneath my feet that has blades or wheels. I’ll leave that to you adventurous types. No, there’s something about the solitude and introspection that gets me. It sparks my creativity. The amount of music I learn and arrangements I put to paper generally increases dramatically during late autumn and winter. Then, around this time of year, I get a little perverse and sadistic. You know those six-inch snowfalls that come after two weeks of spring weather has raised the hopes of the populace? I get downright gleeful. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been saying things like, “It’s too bad we couldn’t hold out for another ten days of below zero so we could break the all-time record.” I wanted that record. I’m probably lucky people have other things to do, or I might find myself the victim of a grisly murder brought on by my hibernal cheerfulness. “How do you like winter now?!” shouts the mob as they dump my pummeled earthly remains into a snowbank. 

So now you can see how for me “Winter Weather” is a theme song of sorts. Nine days later we were in the studio again to have Steve sing his vocal. I know it was a struggle for him to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He cracked us up when he sang “I love the winter,” through his gritted teeth. But what are we talking about, really? It IS a song of love. But Fats loves the winter weather for ulterior motives. What with the cold temperatures he can pull his honey closer so they can both warm up! Mother Nature as wingman. 

He and his band recorded it the day after Christmas, 1941, in New York, along with a few other sides. He ostensibly urged America to apply themselves to the WWII scrap drives in “Cash For Your Trash.” But if you listen closely, and remember Fats’ history of naughtiness, you can’t be certain that “Cash For Your Trash” might not be a euphemism for the oldest profession. It is a debate that rages to this day. At any rate, in “Don’t Give Me That Jive,” he admonished the object of his missive to basically hush up and “come on with the come on.” And my favorite title of the day, “Your Socks Don’t Match, “ wherein Fats proves to be somewhat of a perfectionist in regards to his women. “Winter Weather” is easily the sweetest, warmest song of the session. Although I can’t resist the cleverness of “Your Socks Don’t Match.”

Fats was so very playful. He had enough twinkles in his eye for eleven men. Imagine him and his band gathering in the studio after Christmas to put down that great, just-a-little-bit-naughty music. That’s what I’m thinking of tonight when I reminisce back all those three weeks ago to when six Southside Aces assembled at a mere four degrees Fahrenheit to make sweet winter music. 

Get some more Fats in your diet:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Curse—or How Bob French and Butch Thompson Saved The Day

Well, we’ve gone and done it again. On Wednesday, the Southside Aces warbled away into microphones in order to stick a fork into the perfectly barbequed, tender meat of our latest recording. That made me sort of uncomfortable to say. Steve insisted that what we were doing wasn’t overdubbing vocals, but “underdubbing.” If you want to know exactly what that means, you’ll have to ask him. He conducts workshops and autograph sessions after gigs at the Stop and Shop on 17th and East Lake Street. Confession: I appropriated, purloined, pirated and otherwise directly stole that joke from Erik. Although how do we know Steve doesn’t sign autographs at the Stop and Shop? We don’t keep tabs on him. We again employed Mr. Lance Conrad, the owner and talented engineer of Humans Win! studio (the exclamation point is his). Before our vocal night, we Aces men first spent two chilly February nights up in his Nordeast, Minneapolis joint to capture all the sounds necessary from the brass, reeds, strings and skins. The chill was kept outside, though, as all six of us were staring at each other in this room:

Now with the vocals, we have a carton chock full of jazz, some assembly required. It will be a good handful of months, however, before you can put your ears to it, so until the time comes I’ll be building up your excitement. Can you even tolerate the thrill? All sarcasm aside, I’m actually in a tizzy wanting to get it into your hands! Instead, for the time being I’m going to have to content myself sharing with you some of the originals that inspired us to play and record these great tunes. 

I’m going to begin with The Curse. Over the years, you may have heard Erik announce “Bogalusa Strut” from the stage as his favorite tune. It’s a great song that gets in your hips and stays there, moving you around despite yourself. Back in 2005, when we were figuring out which tunes we wanted to record for our 2006 release, Bucktown Bounce, it was a natural selection. The Aces found the song from a couple different directions. There was Erik, who came to the tune through one of his mentors, the late New Orleans drummer Bob French. 

Bob in the New Orleans Times Picayune. Click here for his obituary

My route to the tune was through my mentor Charlie DeVore of the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. The original was written by Sam Morgan and recorded by his band in 1927. It all came from this:

In the video, check out the first picture of the Sam Morgan Jazz Band. You can see a young Jim Robinson on trombone. You may also have noticed that Sam spelled his tune  “Bogalousa Strut.” That is how they spell the name of the Louisiana town down there, after all. At some point we jazz folk all dropped the O after the L. Maybe it’s because silent Os are dangerous. 

So while you were listening to that, did you run and get your copy of Bucktown Bounce? Maybe you scanned the tune list up and down and couldn’t find the song. It’s because we simply couldn’t get it done. We tried and we tried, until we got fed up with ourselves and left it alone. “Oh well,” you think. You try to be philosophical because there’s always going to be a tune or two that doesn’t make the cut. We were disappointed, but didn’t yet think of the song as cursed. But then came the 2010 sessions for A Big Fine Thing. Take after take of the tune only served to produce enough wincing to get a headache. I believe Erik was the first to say, “That song is cursed.” What was wrong with us? Dave, our band archivist, likes to point out that we could release a whole album of failed “Bogalusa” takes. Don’t worry. That won’t happen unless we get really famous, pass away after long and glorious careers, and our record company (because we’d actually have a record company if we were famous) thinks they could drag a few extra bucks out of you, the fans, if they released all our garbage. They could call it Bogalusa Cut. Or how about Bunch-a-Losers Strut.

It wasn’t the song’s fault, though, and we still loved it and kept working it out on our many stages. The Bob French version originally guided us. He had even added a vocal about a troubled girl—not in the Morgan version—that we used. On top of that, we began to dig into the Hall Brothers recording. Young Butch Thompson produced an epic clarinet solo with the band building up behind him all the way. He starts out alone, and on each chorus they keep adding instruments until they run out of musicians. It’s exciting stuff. 

Check out young Butch on the left. If you have your magnifying glass handy.

So here we are in 2014, after all this absorption and hard work, ready to break The Curse! Right? For us, it would be a double homage. Maybe The Curse could be overcome by the inspiration of two bands. In fact, Bob just passed away in 2012, and this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Hall Brothers recording. Talk about inspiration! We better do it right.

We set a good Bob French tempo, not quite as slow as he liked to do it, but still with that great mischievous bounce that he perfected. Like a man walking by a bunch of women hanging out on a stoop. We all relaxed into that for a couple of minutes, followed by the middle section, where the rhythm guys laid down a couple of choruses by themselves. This was so we could “underdub” Bob’s vocal later. Then came my clarinet odyssey, the Hall Brothers portion of the homage, where I was supposed to burble along by myself to start things, just like Butch did half a century ago. What happened? Dave accidentally played through for a bar, almost yelling an expletive as he did it. 

You have to understand something. Dave NEVER makes a mistake like that. I’m not exaggerating. He NEVER does. We all finished the take, sort of pounding away at it with a lack of dynamics born of frustration, and looked at each other mystified. None of us blamed Dave. It had to be supernatural causes. Did The Curse grab Dave’s arms and force him to play through, like some sort of evil windup monkey drummer?

I’d like to build the drama here. Tell a story of a baker’s dozen of takes each ruined mysteriously. A mistake here, a power outage there, the ghost of a Gypsy woman appearing before Robert pointing her long, bony finger at him, a ceiling tile falling on Zack’s head. The camera spinning around the room showing the men, pale and sweaty, lashing out at each other in frustration as the tension grows and the night wears away, but then…just when they were going to throw in the towel someone grittily says, “We’re going to break this curse if it’s the last thing we do!” They take deep breaths and you see a finger hit the record button, and they valiantly forge on to victory! That’s a good tale, but I’m actually glad I don’t have to tell it that way. As it turned out, victory was right around the corner. We got it on the next take. No drama, we just plain got it! The Bob French mischievousness combined with the Hall Brothers buildup is story enough. The Curse was lifted, and I can’t wait for you to hear it.