Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Brew Review

Last Saturday the Southside Aces provided our inestimable talents on a job for which I had truly built up great anticipation. The 11th Annual Autumn Brew Review. Over eighty brewers provided samples of their craft under tents in the back yard of the Grain Belt Brewery building off of 13th and Marshall, in good ol’ Nordeast Minneapolis. 

Last year we played a set or two from a stage on the grounds situated about forty feet from the nearest tap. This pretty much only attracted a few people who needed to sit down in a chair, chairs being a rare commodity. They might listen for a couple of songs, and then the siren call of the suds would draw them back into the fray. There was no reason to expect anything else. In fact, I might be suspicious of the priorities of persons who would choose to comport themselves as concertgoers at a beer festival. Sure, find out if that’s really a sousaphone you thought you heard as you quaffed your third different Oktoberfest. Sure, avail yourself to the Port-o-potties lined up next to the stage. But don’t let me catch you listening to more than three songs in a row! Not when there’s an “imperial stout aged to perfection in bourbon barrels” within throwing distance. I’d have to frown and shake my head at you.

Wiser for their experience, the organizers hired us this year to harass the imbibers at close range, walking amongst them between the rows of tents. We played for the last half of the 10-2 morning session and all of the 3-7 afternoon session. Jazz musicians roaming free for seven hours at a Jamboree of Brewmasters. Like a pack of dogs set loose in a fire hydrant factory. This may be an unfortunate analogy, but at least you get the sense of our excitement. 

Dave Michael, card-carrying Ace, couldn’t make the Heyday of Hops so I hired Chuck DeVore to bang his drum some. I hired him because he’s a good drummer, but also because I know he likes and—this is important—can hold his beer. It seemed like a prerequisite for the day. He was talking about arriving early to be sure he found parking and was ready to play on time, “You know, like a professional,” he said. “Well,” I replied, “we’ll at least start the day as professionals.” I was predicting an exciting 6:00 set given the band’s daylong propinquity to all that free beer. Chuck reminded me, “We’ll still be professionals; we’ll just be drunk!” I had briefly forgotten that professionalism in Jazz is not necessarily predicated on sobriety.

To be accurate, the festival attracts connoisseurs as well as inebriates. If connoisseur was a one and inebriate a ten, I’d probably be a three. If you’re asking me, there were too many quality, interesting brews there to simply go on a spree. I do like my beer. But I also like being able to play my clarinet in tune and at a faster rate than four notes per minute. Too much beer can throw up roadblocks between my brain and my fingers, so I tend to be judicious about alcohol when I’m playing. For instance, at one point our trumpeter, Andy, and I sampled the creations of Glewwes Castle Brewery, who was providing root beer, raspberry ginger ale, cream soda and orange soda. Very tasty indeed, and for me a nice break. Andy enjoyed his sample as well, but concluded; “Bringing root beer to this festival is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.” 

Judiciousness didn’t enter into the strategies of many folk that day, a benefit to us since it was proven in both sessions that the more people consumed, the more likely they were to buy a CD. Erik capitalized on this by pulling out his supreme hawking skills. Congenially barking at the crowd, making sure they knew just who we were, where we played, and just how much they couldn’t do without our record. To be fair to us, I thought we were sounding pretty good. Crowd-pleasers included when we worked up a pretty great version of “Iko, Iko” on the spot, and when we played “Do Whatcha Wanna,” and dropped the theme to the television show, Treme, in the middle. So you couldn’t call it a con, exactly. But I can’t say we weren’t helped by the people being in their cups.

We took on the part of the Nordeast Pied Pipers at the end of the morning session, second-lining the happy partakers off of the Grain Belt grounds up to Marshall Avenue. The last half of the afternoon session was even wilder. We’d be hemmed in on all sides, people dancing and shouting. One young gentleman kept slithering around and obscenely ringing a small cowbell. You don’t have to use your imagination too hard to know what I mean. People were drawn to Erik’s sousaphone like jalopies to the magnet on a junkyard crane. Three young men and their new companion, a life-size cardboard cutout of Samuel Adams, had their pictures taken with the band as Erik started up “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” During “Jambalaya On The Bayou,” I leaned in to Robert—playing his banjo that day—and said, “Take the next solo!” Thus set in motion a conspiracy to get myself another sample of Spoetzl Brewery’s Shiner Black, a delicious black lager. A first for me, procuring beer during a song, but I am blameless, as Spoetzl’s tent was right behind the band!

At seven bells, an attempt was made to second-line the crowd out of the afternoon session, but the band found itself on 13th Avenue with not one person following! But soon enough, the realization that the taps had been turned off was all that was needed to ease the beery throng back into the real world. I ended up the day with a mellow glow of happiness that jazz, beer and sunshine can give a man. I also had the glow of a slight case of sunburn and dehydration, but this isn't a medical blog, so we'll skip it. I walked up to Marshall Avenue to await my ride. I sat on the Southside Aces CD suitcase, finally resting my feet. People walked by yelling, “Clarinet dude!” and giving me high fives. People yelled the same out of car windows. But before my head could become too enlarged by my stardom, a woman leaned out the passenger window of a car waiting at the red light. “Are you the tuba player?” she shouted. I tried to imagine how she thought I was hiding a tuba on my person, smiled and informed her, “No, I’m the clarinetist!” She whooped and screamed, “We love the tuba!” I busted out laughing. Her friend, the driver, must have said something about her obliviousness to the etiquette of that moment, because I saw her head turn toward the drivers side for a second, then back to me, “We love the clarinet, too!” She didn’t seem quite as convinced, but it was a spirited, if late, offering. 

The Southside Aces already have dreams of next year's Barley Pop Gala. What do you think about a couple of women in beer wench costumes selling our CDs and handing out schedules? Do you think my tax man will let me write off two beer wench costumes?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Between Chops and Ears

It’s been awhile since I last blessed you with my ramblings and pontifications. I expect your anticipation must be at it’s keenest, for sure. I occupied my last month with a not-so-minor obsession with Sidney Bechet. I was asked to provide a presentation on the great jazzman for the OLLI Cats. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has a special group that grew out of a jazz history class, and has been meeting regularly for several years now to, among other jazz activities, listen to folk like me orate. I was extra pleased to be able to put my love of jazz history to work.

I’m not going to give you the whole Sidney spiel. It would encompass a lot more information than I believe blog etiquette allows. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of Sidney that I find fascinating, and which also made me examine my own playing and music philosophy closely. It was his competitive nature, always brewing up excellence or acrimony, or both, often in equal parts. 

But first, there may be those of you who are saying, “Sidney who?” Let me tell you how you may have crossed paths with his music recently, other than in front of one of my bands. If you took yourself to see Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Bechet’s recording of his own composition, “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” was what you heard during the entire opening sequence of shots of modern Paris. Sidney knew a lot about Paris from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, where he spent a good portion of his life off and on. He began life in New Orleans, a clarinetist who was so determined, and worked so hard to be the best from those earliest beginnings, that by 1911, at the age of 14, he was already considered a phenomenon. And not one of those, “Isn’t that cute how the kid can play his horn?” kind of phenomenon. His dedication to his craft made him a professional musician even before he became a teenager. He certainly was a great clarinetist, and he would play it throughout his career. The instrument on which he gained the most fame, however, was the soprano saxophone. He began playing one in 1920, influencing saxophonists then and now. Let’s hear that soprano in on that old tune, "China Boy," from quartet recordings with cornetist Muggsy Spanier. The Bechet/Spanier Big Four:

Many people say he was an equal to Louis Armstrong in his musical prowess. By the early 1920s the two of them were so far ahead of other musicians in terms of their facility for improvisation, that they forever changed the roll of the soloist in a band. We are fortunate to have these two jazz giants on record together. Several sides were recorded in the mid-1920s, and a reunion album in May of 1940. This finally meanders me around to the point of this piece. The competition. John Chilton wrote an excellent biography called Sidney Bechet, the Wizard of Jazz. In it he describes the meetings of Louis and Sidney: “Whenever Armstrong and Bechet met, each man knew instinctively that he was facing his closest rival in the jazz hierarchy. In those days they always greeted each other effusively but they made no effort to meet socially. They might share an animated conversation about the merits of New Orleans food, but such talk never took place around a meal table. No one ever recalled seeing them out on the town together.”

Both men were competitive, but Sidney took it to some eye-popping levels. And not just in his music life, but in EVERY aspect of his life.
On Cooking
Sidney’s friends said that if he had ever decided to abandon music as a career, he could have been a chef. Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt: “He liked to cook different kinds of Gumbo, Creole Beef Gumbo, Chicken Gumbo Spare Ribs Creole Style. Sidney Bechet didn’t like to hear me say that John Marrero or Simon Marrero, or any other New Orleans people could cook good Creole food. He wanted to be rated the best Creole Food cook!”

On Women
1928 in Paris, Sidney and another musician got in a gunfight over what one witness described as an argument over a chord progression. Other witnesses suggested, however, that the chord progression dispute was just the last straw for Sidney, who didn’t appreciate the other musician’s good looks and smooth ways with the fairer sex. Clarinetist Claude Luter, with whom Sidney worked throughout the fifties, told this story: “He loved to find the girls, but if anyone in the band found a girl that Sidney liked the look of, he would show his displeasure by cutting out all of that musician’s solos, often for nights on end, sometimes for a whole week.”

On Dogs (yes, I said dogs)
The summer of 1926, Reed-player Garvin Bushell: “At 5 a.m. in Berlin there came a knock on my door at the hotel. I asked who it was, the reply was, ‘Sidney, open up!’ With all of that talking my Great Dane, Caesar, began to roar then another dog began barking out in the hall. Sidney had brought his Doberman to challenge my Great Dane to a fight. I thought it best not to let Sidney and his dog in; he left making all sorts of threats to me and my dog if ever we met again, so I made it my business to stay out of his way while he was in Berlin.”

How does all of that affect my musical philosophy? It doesn’t. I’ve never had a need to best another man in the kitchen, or to worry about the size and strength of my dog over another man’s dog, or to punish a man for liking a woman to whom I took a fancy. And, so far, I haven’t pulled a gun out on one of the Southside Aces over a chord progression. Where I’ve learned something these past few months is through Sidney's main expression of that competitive urge, his music.

That scoundrel I described above managed to be an extraordinarily poetic scoundrel with his descriptions of jazz and the jazz life. His autobiography, Treat It Gentle, read like an epic poem. “New Orleans, that was a place where the music was natural as the air. The people were ready for it like it was sun and rain. A musicianer, when he played in New Orleans, was home; and the music, when he played it, would go right to where he sent it. The people there were waiting for it, they were wanting it. That music, it was like where you lived. It was like waking up in the morning and eating, it was that regular in your life. It was natural to the way you lived and the way you died.”

But I beautifully digress. I was about to explore the musical side of his competitive urges. I took that side road, however, to show you something of the depth and warmth of his love of the music. He was no mere ice-cold gunslinger, as the stories below may seem to suggest. Here's another example: “When you’re really playing ragtime, you’re feeling it out, you’re playing to the other parts, you’re waiting to understand what the other man’s doing, and then you’re going with his feeling, adding what you have of your feeling.” That was a man professing his love of the ensemble playing in traditional jazz. Right? It's a wonderful description. I would agree with him. To me, it’s the highest point of this art. Solos give me satisfaction, but in the middle of great ensemble play is where I soar. Perhaps the point could be made that if I possessed the skills of a Louis or Sidney, it might be that I would take more of a shine to soloing. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Almost all of my hair-raising thrills in music have come as a result of the whole band swaggering around, chasing each other, each man leaving space and filling space at the exact right moments, with the occasional collision only adding to the excitement. I know that Sidney knew that feeling; he describes it more than once. And he even said words disdaining the practice of “cutting contests,” where two or more musicians go after one another in musical one-upmanship. So how does it come to be that Chilton can tell this story about Sidney's early days in New Orleans? 

“Bechet and his friend, Emile Barnes, used to operate together in seeking out any challengers; Barnes called these musical contests ‘cutting hay.’ Barnes and Bechet went to dances with their clarinets hidden in their back pockets. Barnes usually sat in with the band first and proceeded to cut his opponent with a display of superior skills, but if the home clarinetist proved difficult, he would then have to face the overwhelming power of Bechet’s playing.”

Or the time somewhere around 1924 that Coleman Hawkins made statements to the effect that New Orleans musicians didn’t know how to play jazz. Sidney sent him a note naming the time and place; it was a duel! Duke Ellington said it was a duel that went on all night. According to bassist Wellman Braud: “Bechet blowing like a hurricane embarrassed the Hawk. He played and continued to play as Hawkins packed his horn, and as he walked out angrily Bechet followed him outside and woke up the neighborhood; it was six o’clock in the morning.”

Or in the mid-1930s when Sidney played with the Noble Sissle orchestra. Pianist Charlie Lewis: “Bechet was not sociable, he often argued with other musicians because he thought they were stealing one of his choruses.”

Stories the likes of those are scattered liberally throughout his career. Yet I believe in the last years of his life, when he said those words about ensemble playing, he fully meant them. The man possessed an uncanny ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths inside himself at the same time. I would bet that he loved wholeheartedly to play ensemble. He just was going to make sure that everyone within earshot knew who the best player was in that ensemble. Sidney did not suffer any cognitive dissonance with this. You either kept up with him or you didn’t, usually the latter. But even if a musician couldn’t quite run with his musical company, that musician’s level of play might rise just for trying. If you did keep up with him, some stunning music could be produced. Let’s go back to that May, 1940 session with Louis Armstrong, when Sidney picked up his clarinet again on “Perdido Street Blues.” This recording is one of my absolute favorites. Listen to Sidney swoop and growl, and Louis build a fantastic blues over the riffing front line! 

My lesson in all of this has been simple. Play hard, listen hard. I have to be careful that my innate Midwestern politeness, such a fine thing in other arenas, isn’t a deterrent to good jazz. It can be a dangerous thing for a musician’s development to sublimate everything to the ensemble. You won’t get in anyone’s way, sure, but you’ll also be forgetting to contribute. On the other hand Sidney, on an occasion or six, musically stomped all over another man or a whole group. This I also wish to avoid (and maybe I have a ways to go before I need to worry about that particular pitfall). Where’s the middle? Somewhere between Chops and Ears. Somewhere between “Listen to that clarinetist!” and “Listen to that band!” I say go after it! Don’t “save” your best playing for a solo. Whether you’re keeping up or lifting up, the band’s going to sound better.