Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Two Worlds of the F.O.E.

As of late, the Southside Aces have been enjoying the F.O.E. #34 for a once-a-month, including this last Thursday, St. Patty’s Day. Perhaps, when making plans to celebrate this religious holiday of the saintly snake-repeller, your first two thoughts didn’t include New Orleans jazz and fraternal orders. I’m here to correct your idea of things. 

I have dual associations with the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie #34. On one hand I think of it much like the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans. They work hard for charities in the community. Additionally, the supports members receive include funeral benefits that can boast, “No Eagle was ever buried in a Potter’s field.” (Now if I could only convince them to have some sort of regular second line parade!) I can call up another picture, however, that involves $7 steak dinners, beer, whiskey, a human’s ability to remain stationed on a barstool for inordinate periods of time, and loud and garrulous natures the volume and friendliness of which are proportionate to the amounts of said beer and whiskey consumed. Benevolent work as well, although less predictably and assuredly so. That, too, represents the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie #34. I am in love with the place. 

The maroon, cinderblock building at 25th and 25th in good old South Minneapolis, itself has a dual personality. The bar side includes the aforementioned good fellows, televisions for the purveyance of sports, and a specimen of the symbol of the fraternity—a bald eagle—stuffed and mounted in a glass case. I swear he wears an expression that says, “Buddy, you think YOU have it rough!” like one of those cutaway scenes from the Flintstones. Finally, let me introduce you to the bartender, name of Royal. I usually let his name determine what I have to drink, as in, “Royal. Crown Royal.” You throw a friendly nod in there, and put your emphases in the right places, and your glass gets filled. My drink order, however, is the only symmetrical thing in the place. This brings us to the ballroom side of the building, which is in possession of a capacious wood dance floor and tables all along both sides. Strings of lights and gauzy material running this way and that across the ceiling lend just enough romance to the room to make you forget the word “utilitarian” for a few seconds. A one and a half-foot high, recessed stage, lined with gold and maroon pleated curtains nestles itself on one end, and when a soiree is about to have at it, one of those room-dividing accordion curtains on a track is heaved to on the other end, shutting out the bar side. This effectively creates the Two Worlds of the F.O.E. You can guess in which of the Two Worlds the Aces got some serious business accomplished this most recent St. Patty’s Day. Or maybe you feel like that one’s too close to call…I’ll continue with my story then.

Travel between the Two Worlds of the F.O.E. is easy and encouraged. The Aces had just taken one of those old-fashioned band photos. You know, all in one straight line across the stage, instruments in front or on the knees, the big bass drum in the middle. What with our formal attire and formal poses, and pleated curtains and string lights, suddenly the place began to take on an aura of just one more stop for a Midwest territory band in 1934, the boys pausing long enough for a photo to be taken and sent to Rapid City for advance publicity. But let me bring us back to 2011, and what happens when you travel between two worlds. We began setting the stage proper for the night’s music. All except Erik, who set off for Barworld to procure beverages. “I know what you want!” he said to me, having been witness to my previous exchanges with Royal.

When he returns with my whiskey, he tells of meeting a 96-year-old veteran of World War II, a survivor of Pearl Harbor, who happens to play harmonica and will be sitting in with us on “Jambalaya On The Bayou” and “Saints.” This sums up the magical power of the Eagles. When Erik left Ballroom World for Bar World a mere seven minutes earlier, I can assure you that none of us would have spotted Ernie on the horizon. Maybe next time, Robert will come back in the room with a 103-year-old Armenian √©migr√© who remembers serving Django Reinhardt dinner during a youth spent in Paris. Or maybe Dave comes back in the room with a Canadian Mountie who’s going to sit in with us on the spoons. It’s all possible at the Eagles.

A great crowd had landed on Ballroom World. Dancers filled the floor throughout the evening. We got underway, and by virtue of not paying attention had called a few tunes in a row in the key of F. There is argument amongst musicians about whether or not an audience would ever notice a band staying in the same key from song to song. Just after Erik announced “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a wizened old man in military uniform called out, “They’re all in F!” 

I said to Erik, “See! Sometimes they DO know.” 
Erik offered this by way of a justification, “That’s the guy who’s going to sit in! Doesn’t he look like the white Uncle Lionel?” (Ask me and Erik about Uncle Lionel sometime)

                                                       Ernie Mattson with the Aces

                                                    Uncle Lionel looking more dapper
                                                      than any five Aces put together

After staying in F for a few more minutes, I escorted our new nonagenarian friend to the stage for “Jambalaya.” He was great. Some of you may know that I’m not the biggest fan of the harmonica. This man, however, combined sweet melody, mournful like a prison scene in an old Western, with rhythm like a square dance. The end of the song brought cheers from the crowd, and an Eagles regular helped Ernie Mattson, World War II veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor, and harmonica player back to his seat. He would later give us what for on “Saints.” And later still he would give me a picture of himself standing next to an American Flag. “That flag came from the Reagan White House. They cleaned it up and gave it to me after my award ceremony.”

Ernie would definitely be included in the musical highlights reel for the evening. Another personal favorite, speaking strictly jazz instrumental, was the Aces version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues,” mostly because the tune is so great. But a goodly amount can be attributed to Dave bringing his custom “Jungle Blues” cymbal. But this was St. Patty’s Day, so top spot has to go to friend of the band Rick Rexroth for his rendition of “Danny Boy,” a planned joint venture. If you missed his “No, I just got something in my eye” vocal that night, you’ll be able to hear him on the Aces upcoming album. He turned in a mighty soulful “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Rick’s wife, Randi, eight months along now, came close to the top spot when she got up and sang “Everybody Loves My Baby” together with Karen Paurus and Andrea Wollenberg. Randi and I have arranged a few Boswell Sisters tunes. She handles the Chirps; I handle the Cats. Her vocal that night was complete with gestures to her round belly at appropriate moments in the lyric. We like to start ‘em young.

So at the end of the night I collected our paycheck from Royal, wrapped up mic cords and suchlike, and the accordion curtain was drawn back, giving the Two Worlds of the F.O.E. unobstructed views of one other. There was a slight deflating feeling that accompanied this motion, like when the mechanics of an illusion are revealed. But it was slight. I have the utmost faith that that gritty magic just lies in wait; ready to spring forth when the accordion curtain is unfolded and clicks back home.

Click here to hear "Jungle Blues" as recorded by the Southside Aces

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Purple-Green and Gold

There exists a unique anguish this time of year that comes of the deep down knowledge that no amount of strident protest will bring about “tulip weather.” That no amount of pleading with a favorite senator, a pious bishop, or even your mother can halt winter’s wily ways. Many morose, icebound folk often resort to pointing out how good life IS in the north in order to rationalize making a home here, all the while dreaming of southerly climes. Prepare yourself to glare at me distrustfully out from under your parka. I’m one of those winter lovers. It’s not the sports. You’ll never see skis, skates, or snowshoes attached to my body. I just love being in this season from that early October frost to that moment around June 17th when you finally feel like winter isn’t going to rise up again like Michael Myers on the other side of the bed in that scene from the end of Halloween. Minnesota serves up Jack Frost as good as any. But come the end of January even I begin to ache for a particular southerly clime. It’s that one provided by New Orleans.

It’s Mardi Gras time. These worldwide, unbridled celebrations are actually associated with the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar. They begin with Epiphany on January 6th and culminate with Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on March 8th. All in the name of getting the party out your system, so to speak, in preparation for the long fast of Lent. In the United States the largest of these celebrations happens in New Orleans. My birthday, January 31st, is considered a huge and important part of the carnival season. I, however, am the only one who considers it thusly, so no need to write the editor. 

Mardi Gras has been celebrated for over three hundred years in the United States, the first one reported in Mobile, Alabama 1703. After establishing themselves on their own corner of that southern swamp a couple of decades later, New Orleans began holding their version. But the first year Mardi Gras really began to resemble the one we know today was in 1872 New Orleans. The colors—purple, green and gold—were chosen, as well as the official Mardi Gras song, “If Ever I Cease To Love.” What with the colors, the song, parades, beads, king cakes and fancy dress balls, the 19th Century provided everything the modern day Fat Tuesday reveler needs.  

While I’ve never spent Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I’ve been nibbling at the edges of it for over ten years now. I more often than not go down there for French Quarter Festival in April. 

Last year I also made the trip down on my birthday weekend and had the honor of playing with the Treme Brass Band in the huge Krewe du Vieux parade. If you look at the below video, I’m the clarinetist in the beige jacket that you see in the first 1.3 seconds. 

I will not be making the trip this year, and I actually experience an unpleasant physiological response every time I say those words. It’s an affliction I know I share with others of my friends who also find themselves staying in Minnesota against their better judgment. Last year we marshaled twenty-six musicians together at the Nomad World Pub to make sure the final moments of Fat Tuesday were properly observed. I won’t tell the whole story unless you ask me, but this picture sums it up:

Tomorrow night I’ll be with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band at Bennett’s Chop and Rail, playing “If Ever I Cease To Love” among others. If I don’t see you there, tip one for the holiday, or wear some gold, green and purple. What other time of your life is it perfectly respectable to wear those colors at the same time?