Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Big Fine Thing

“Quietly we waited for the playback. When it came, pounding out through the big speaker, we listened stiffly for a moment. We had never been an audience for ourselves. Then Joe’s piano chorus started and smiles began to sprout. MacParland, Tesch, Bud, Lannigan—as each heard himself he relaxed. At the finish we were all laughing and pounding each other on the back…When we walked out of the studio that day and headed for the Three Deuces we weren’t even close to the sidewalk: everybody wanted to buy the first drink. ‘Wait until the records come out and people hear them,’ we kept telling each other. We were convinced that if the public were given a chance to hear our music it would like it and understand what we were trying to do. We were young, very young.”

This is from Eddie Condon’s book We Called It Music. Condon told this story about recording with Okeh Records early in his career. Even at the green age of twenty-two he was one of the oldest in a band that included the then 18-year-old Gene Krupa on drums. The McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans recorded four sides in December of 1927: “China Boy,” “Sugar,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and “Liza.” This was the first time for these guys to hear themselves on record and, per usual, Condon delivers a perfect description of the musician’s common condition. 

Today I’m experiencing some of that levitation Eddie talked about. On Thursday night the Southside Aces had the extreme pleasure of releasing our third recording, entitled A Big Fine Thing. It’s been nearly five years since the last time we created some musical posterity, and eighteen months since we started hammering away on this project. I had no idea how heavy a long anticipation could be on the metaphysical shoulders. A five-year gestation could drive anyone a little kooky. But when I held the real thing in my hands, and began listening, all of that went away. I smiled until I hurt my face. “I swear,” I told Erik Jacobson later, “the finished CD sounds even better!” He vigorously nodded in agreement, practically shouting, “I know!” You’d think it was the first time either of us had been on a record, the way we giggled like schoolgirls. Well, pretty manly-sounding schoolgirls, but we did giggle. It is technically impossible for our duplicated disks to sound better than the master disk to which we’d been listening for several months, but the music on a master is still somewhat theoretical in terms of its existence. A Big Fine Thing is now a tangible record, available to the whole world. That IS better.

We unleashed the disks at the Eagles Aerie #34 in South Minneapolis. How is it that I can at once feel so at home at the Eagles while still being caught up in the excitement of visiting a strange new land? The Aces have been performing there several months in a row now, but when I leave my house in Phillips to drive the five minutes to that squat little building I feel an adventurous tingle. Refer to my previous treatise on the Eagles for a fleshed out picture. My wife, Claudia, and I arrived early to set up. She was done up for the affair, what Cab Calloway might call “togged to the bricks,” including silver Devil Doll bangs sitting atop a short black and yellow dress that was within shouting distance of high black boots. She stepped out of the ballroom to get a drink at the bar. She returned with tales of drink-buying offers from several of the gentlemen attached to their stools. “I still got it with the middle-aged barflies!” she reported. Erik ate his $7 steak dinner special while Duke Ellington small band recordings warmed up the assemblage, which was, well, beginning to assemble. Ahh, the Eagles. Finally all six Aces sat on the stage, ready to go. I took a deep breath, and at 8:15 counted off the first tune of the night, incidentally the first tune of the album, Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues.”


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Three tunes later and I already knew it was going to be a great night. This may sound like I'm a Boasting Barney, but as Don Meredith once said, “If you can do it, it ain’t braging.” The band was “in the pocket,” as we like to say when things are swinging loose but with swagger, with the fire in the belly. The swinging was easy and powerful, as if the Eagles was the batter’s box, the Aces were Harmon Killebrew, and the jazz was the Louisville Slugger on his shoulder. And the crowd made me giddy. Jazzhounds, dancehounds, boozehounds, and blood relatives. We had them all, in various combinations. I commented several times, “Imagine this many people coming to see a jazz band in the year 2011!”

Over two hundred people nested in the Aerie that night. One of my favorite musical moments was when Rick Rexroth reprised his debut recording from A Big Fine Thing, joining the band to sing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” It afforded me the opportunity to tell the crowd my original tip to Rick on how to sing it. Rick has pipes, let me tell you, but he occupies himself as a history teacher, husband and brand new father, not as a singer. So he asked me how we wanted it done. Knowing he was more of a singer than I am, and a smart soul to boot, I gave him these vague instructions, “Somewhere between a New Orleans front porch and the St. Olaf Choir.” He stepped into the studio a week later and dropped all of our jaws. Your GPS couldn’t have found the center between those two points better than Rick! 

A mob like that, and a night of swinging such as the one the Aces provided for that mob, will tend to imbue a man with overwhelming optimism about the future of the music. Some may pronounce my optimism unrealistic. But just like Condon, perhaps my naivete comes from being so young…ahem...I am twice the age he was in 1927, but I still share that sense of idealism about an art I love so much. Condon’s records did end up selling pretty well, but as his eye-rolling about his own youth suggests, the world didn’t exactly figure out the McKenzie Condon Chicagoans. Here it is almost eighty-four years later, however, and I think I understand perfectly what they were trying to do. 





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