Sunday, June 26, 2011

ARGO

On June 25th, 2008, one of the best drummers the world ever had the privilege to hear passed away at the age of 78. Donald “Doggie” Berg played drums with the Hall Brother’s Jazz Band and Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, among others. I had the honor of having played with him for several years, including his last job, the night before he died. There are those who could tell a much more complete story of Doggie: Charlie DeVore and Bill Evans to name two. Charlie and Bill spent decades with him after all. I only managed to be lucky enough to be around for one of those decades, so my story is incomplete, but here’s what I saw.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to use the names of other musicians as adjectives when describing or asking for a certain way of playing. For instance, you might say, “He did that Baby Dodd’s thing!” I will even occasionally turn a guy’s name into a verb, as when I request the Southside Aces drummer, Dave Michael, to “Sammy Penn it up!” You could hear a man long-immersed in the history of jazz whenever Doggie played, but his style was so unique, so much an organic function of the man himself. He did that Doggie Berg thing.

The man himself could also sing the hell out of a song. The stamp he put on certain tunes to this day makes us utter phrases like, “That’s a Doggie song.” A short list of my favorites would include “Sing You Sinners,” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Celito Lindo,” (a tune on which Doggie used his career as a Spanish Professor to great advantage), and finally my all-time favorite, “Winin’ Boy Blues.” I only have my memories of him doing that, but take a listen to “Sing You Sinners” from a Hall Brothers recording:

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It was through my association with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band that I had the great pleasure of Doggie’s friendship and jazz mentorship. In fact, it was he who originally pulled me under the collective wing of that band. This was an act, unbeknownst to him, which would eventually lead this clarinetist to make what is tantamount to a blood oath to play the music as long as I can hold up my horn. Back in August of 1998, my friend Mike and I had just returned from the Bix Beiderbeck Festival in Davenport, Iowa. We possessed a deep need to find a source of the music back here in our hometown. One of the cooks at Chang O’Hara’s on Selby Avenue in St. Paul (nowadays called the Happy Gnome and without music of any sort) told Mike about Sunday afternoons, and this band that seemed to be what we were looking for. We showed up one Sunday and took our seats in a back booth. The music began, and what we heard dropped our jaws. This was one of those moments when a whole new universe opens up in front of you. We had just picked up a new Sunday habit.

The first set finished, and before we could push our jaws back up into our faces, Doggie marched off of the bandstand and right up to our table. You see, if you looked around that room on that day, or any other Sunday during the band’s run there, you would have noticed a distinct lack of folk from Mike’s and my generation. We had at least thirty years of catching up to most of the people there. Doggie certainly noticed how we stuck out, and he wasted no time getting to the bottom of it, “What are you two doing here?” 

Those were the first words he ever said to me. It wasn’t the voice of someone accusing you of trespassing; it was the voice of incredulity. What possible reason could two people of our age have to sit ourselves down in front of this band? We told him about Davenport, and how we had developed a real urge to hear the music. He asked us how long we even knew about the music. I said, “Well, I remember when I was about eleven years old [this was twenty years later], my parents took me out to a place called the Emporium of Jazz to hear a band called the Hall Brothers.” He said, “That was us.” My jaw stayed south of my face. I eventually got around to mentioning I played clarinet. “You do?” he said excitedly, “Bring it down here next time. We’ll get you up there.”

And that’s how it started. He invited me into the music without ever having heard a single one of my notes. I began to sit in, first for a couple of tunes at the end of the night, slowly improving until a couple of years later Bill Evans began to hire me. That band patiently saw to my jazz education then, just as they do now. And it all came about on account of Doggie’s curious, gregarious nature. 

I haven’t yet mentioned his mischievous sense of humor. Here’s one of my favorites. The aforementioned Dave Michael, drummer for the Southside Aces, had not yet met Doggie. We were invited to a Labor Day pool party at which many of our local traditional jazz luminaries would be present. Dave and his wife Mindy showed up and were standing next to the pool sort of shyly looking around at a lot of people they didn’t know. Dave had hold of a beer he had just opened. Doggie, resplendent in a pair of drawstring trunks and a very tanned shirtlessness, walked up to the couple. “What kind of beer is that?” he said, pointing at Dave’s beer, “Do you mind if I try it?” Dave said “Sure,” and handed it over. Doggie proceeded to tilt the full bottle up and didn’t tilt it down again until every drop had disappeared. “Pretty good,” he said nonchalantly, handing the empty back to Dave. Then he turned left and jumped directly into the pool. Those were the first words Doggie ever said to Dave.

                                               Pontchartrain Owls at MRB in April of 2008
                                              (you can see Doggie's head behind my left hip)

The April before he died we were in New Orleans. Every spring, members of the Bill Evans band, plus musicians from around the world form a once-a-year band called The Pontchartrain Owls for the French Quarter Festival. We were down there playing, eating, and drinking, like you do. One night a few of us were in a joint called Johnny White’s, on St. Peter Street off of Bourbon Street. Doggie kept buying himself, my wife, Claudia, and me shots of Bulleit Bourbon. You can see my nose in the foreground. Well, you can see my nose in most foregrounds. Anyway...

                                                 Johnny White's, April of 2008

He and Bill Evans regaled us with stories of the jazz life, and we all traded several jokes of the blue variety. A somewhat honed sense of propriety prevents me from printing them here; you’ll have to approach me sometime to get the full skinny. The upshot though, is that a certain joke told by a certain wife of mine burrowed in to Doggie’s mind to stay. Forward to Doggie’s memorial, only two and a half months later, and horn man Dave Braun stood up at the microphone and told how he sat down with Doggie before his last gig, “I was with Doggie before the job that night, and he told me this joke. I believe it was the last joke he ever told.” And with a straight face, Braun went on to repeat that which Doggie had learned from Claudia in that late night session at Johnny White’s. Not your usual funeral fare, I can tell you. Crickets and stifled laughter from the back of the room was all there was to be heard. All the aforementioneds—Mike, Dave Michael, Claudia and I—we were the said laughter-stiflers standing at the back of the room, bent over in delighted disbelief. Doggie’s mischievousness striking from the beyond!

Some time later Mimi, Doggie’s widow, bequeathed to the band-members several of his ties. When I spot my Doggie tie on my tie-rack, it seems as though I can see a whole Doggie standing behind it. The twinkle in his eyes, the ready wit, the fantastic drumming. I will wear that tie this Tuesday when we take the “stand” at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse. And if there happens to be some Bulleit Bourbon about the place, I may have to bend my elbow a bit. I owe him a permanent and roomy place in my memory. To the Dog!




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.