Friday, December 20, 2013

Janssen's Temptation

In terms of jazz content, the following story has to be the most oblique rambling I’ve submitted to you thus far. It would be like writing about the Oscar Meyer hotdog factory in your baseball blog. Your ears would have to stick out as far as Bix’s to find the jazz herein. That being said, this is a subject of too great importance to be ignored.

No wonder he heard things no one else could!

My wife and I were invited to attend a Scandinavian potluck the other night. Erik Jacobson, a.k.a. “Santaphone,” a.k.a. “The Swedish Mink,” co-hosted. After a few minutes on the W3—I think that’s what some of the kids call the World Wide Web—Claudia stumbled upon something called “Janssen’s Temptation.” The first word is pronounced “yahn-sens.” The second word is pronounced “temp-tay-shun.” The name alone should be enough to make a person want to stick a fork in it! I hadn’t been this intrigued by a Swedish dish since Ingrid Bergman. For some reason I pictured Jackie Mason when I wrote that last sentence. Who is this Janssen, and what happened to him when he succumbed to his Temptation? 

As it turned out, it’s basically a casserole made with potatoes, onions, cream and tinned anchovies. Not just any anchovies, but “Swedish anchovies,” which are apparently treated like a traditional pickled herring. When cooked in the casserole, they give the potatoes the salt they need, plus that unique pickled sweetness that I normally associate with herring. It really ended up quite delicious. Tempting, some might say. But before I could stick my fork in it, I had to rustle up the ingredients. 

When faced with a purchase involving any sort of Norse edibles, our house always first thinks of Ingebretsen’s. This is a shop right in the neighborhood over on 17th and Lake. They’ve been serving Northern European food and gifts in this town since 1921, so they know a little bit about what they’re doing. When I had to buy a raffle prize for our feature on the Hall Brother’s Jazz Band last year, I went there. I figured with a Minnesotan band playing New Orleans jazz, what better than to procure a prize from one of the most distinctly Minnesotan stores we have? On that occasion, I found Cajun herring. Perfect! Herring for the Minnesota, Cajun for the New Orleans. The guy behind the counter said that day, “I don’t know why we even call it that. You’d think Cajun food would have some spice, right?” He may have been disparaging the nearly non-existent spice levels in the cuisine of cultures of the northern climes, but let me tell you something. If you want herring, you really should try overwhelming yourself with the choices at Ingebretsen’s.

Anyway, I made my way over there last Saturday. People were streaming in and out. Being the gentleman I don’t have to tell you I am, I ended up holding open the door for about fourteen people. I stood there long enough I was almost arrested for loitering. Finally, I entered into Scandinavian Heaven. It must have been heaven, because there were three young girls, teen angels, standing in a row wearing full white robes. Each held before them silver trays filled with ginger snaps, all the while singing Scandinavian carols. I knew I was still on Earth, however, because if it was heaven I don’t think a man would have to take a number to buy some tinned fish. I found that my forty-six years of Minnesota living had given me enough social preparation to be able to handle the Scandiheavenly Host without any fear, so I waded through the throng in back, where stands the meat counter, grabbed up number 84 and began my vigil.

While waiting, I overheard this exchange. A customer, a lady of seven decades or thereabouts was speaking to a similarly aged man working behind the meat counter. He was dressed in a blue sweater with a yellow shirt beneath, the colors of the Swedish flag.

Imagine a blonde man’s head poking out from the top of this:

The woman said, “I don’t know if I can trust you.” Another guy behind the counter laughed and pointed at Blue Sweater, “He’s actually Norwegian. Can’t you tell?” The woman didn’t laugh, so I’m really not sure she was joking when she said, “I don’t want to talk to a Swede.” 

I decided to mind my own business. I resumed staring at about twenty-eight different kinds of canned fish, many without English language labels. An apron-clad Ingebretsen’s man was next to me neatening the shelves in the cooler. “Say,” I inquired, “Where do you keep your Swedish anchovies?” This made it sound as if I were knowledgeable on the subject. “Do you mean anchovy-flavored herring?” he asked. It only took him that one question to destroy the flimsy camouflage I had constructed around my ignorance. “Well,” I stammered, “it’s for some sort of potato dish.” I pointed at my list of ingredients as if it were the list’s fault. Like flashcards, a series of expressions passed across his countenance. First, there was a kind of disdain for my idiocy. Next, the look of resignation upon remembering that it’s his job to cope with the Scanda-challenged. Finally, he softened somewhat into pity. Pity for a man attempting to function in the world without a complete knowledge of canned fish from the Baltic Sea. He looked me in the eye. “Are you making Janssen’s Temptation?” “Yes!” I answered, in surprise and excitement. Before the sibilance of my “Yes!” finished traveling through the air, his arm swung in an arc with his index finger leading the way, and landed without hesitation on a specific pile of cans. This unhesitating action made superfluous any further speaking on his part. The whitening of the distal joint of his index finger as he pressed his fingertip down on the cans indicated our conversation had finished. I thanked him with what I thought was a proper amount of humility.

When my number was called, I took my two cans up to the counter. I set them down, and another Ingebretsen’s man looked at them and stated in the manner of a jovial, confident Swedish detective, “Somebody’s making Janssen’s Temptation!”  

I’m determined to contrive future Eagles Club raffles in order that they consist of goods from that wonderful shop. I never did look up Janssen to find out how he’s doing. And I wonder. Is he only tempted around Christmastime? That casserole is Balluff’s Temptation now. Don’t tell Ingebretsen’s that a German/Polish man said that!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Recognizing DCD

“Oh wait! You have to hear this!” There we were, comfortably ensconced in the post-prandial, wine-sipping candlelight of my dining room, and instead of my friend being able to finish a sentence in a story of meeting a medicine man in the mountains of Guatemala, she has to listen to what Louis Armstrong does with his vocal at about 1:40 in “Hotter Than That.” Afterwards comes my excited response. It might be brief. Sometimes I’ll merely emit a sort of punched-in-the-gut noise when a musician achieves something that is unfair to all other musicians for the rest of time. The people who know me probably feel lucky when all they get is that visceral response. But many times a single moment in a recording acts upon my brain like the last left turn of a spanner wrench on a fire hydrant, and from my mouth streams a history of the recording, the musicians responsible, what the temperature was that day, and about the time they injured their leg. In this instance, to my meager credit, I remembered all on my own to wander back to the previous conversation and bid my friend to continue HER story. My etiquette, however, does not always rise up to being so barely adequate. Fortunately for me, my friends seem to love me despite this “charming” trait of mine. 

I have decided to call this DCD, the DeVore Compulsive Disorder. I should probably ask my mentor’s permission before naming a disease after him, but I think he may understand. Do you suffer from this malady? This is a disease who’s chief characteristic is that no matter where a person is or what they’re doing, their ears will hear any and all traditional jazz no matter how faint, and said sufferers will commence struggling, or not, to squelch the urge to illuminate it’s presence. Charlie is stricken with an advanced case, wherein he displays all of the above, but also the symptom of providing music from his own head if there is none in his immediate ambient vicinity. He’ll also provide a song if you happen to string three words together that almost match one of the thousands of lyrics he stores in his noggin. I'm well on my way to this expression of the disorder.

"O-81, O-81. That reminds me of that Gershwin chestnut, 'Oh, Lady Be Good.'"

Despite all of that, I consider myself a good listener. In my previous career as a reflexologist working with patients in a hospital, my years of experience taught me to just be quiet and open my ears. That it’s best to not even tell your own stories of how you can relate to a patient’s pain and suffering. Doing that, in it’s own way, can diminish a patient’s narrative, and most patients want you to know what’s happened to them. The advantage in those circumstances was that in my twenty-four-year career, I think traditional jazz was playing within earshot maybe a total of four times. I almost never had that itchy feeling fever up my brain, making me want to ask questions in the middle of a session like, “Which Fats Waller is that?”

But I no longer do that work, and have been released into the world on my own recognizance. Maybe I’m sitting in a restaurant and my left index finger spasms up in the air, demanding the attention of those at my table as I stare into the middle distance. The middle distance is where I keep all my jazz esoterica. Somewhere buried in the noise of cutlery, other diner’s conversations, ice being restocked at the bar, and that patron yelling at the umpire on the overhead tv, the thread of a Sinatra tune reaches my ears. “That’s from his Columbia years,” I might let slip out of my piehole, while I nod appreciatively. Then I’ll oh-so-smoothly come back, my eyes refocusing. “You were saying?” I ask, as if I were the one waiting. I have actually perpetrated a version of the above scenario on an anniversary dinner. Again, I want to point out how I am a lucky man, having married someone with a high degree of tolerance for my disorder. Her tolerance is partly born of her own love of the music, but still, at our anniversary dinner? I guess, darling, I only have middle distance eyes, but not ears for you, as it were.

The same happens with soundtracks for television and movies. One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1998 film, The Impostors. 

Throughout this fantastic farce, they use a 1962 Eddie Condon release of the song “China Boy” for the chase scenes. Other jazz recordings populate the soundtrack, including a brilliant use of an Armstrong recording of “Skokiaan.” The movie knocks me out every single time I see/hear it. Now that I've taken in about seven viewings, I largely restrain myself from comment, but that first time? I wonder how many times I said, “Are you hearing this? What a soundtrack!” 

Yet another classic presentation of the illness may occur with live performances, especially those that are part of a party. In this case, based on true events, a musician—I’ll call him McHenry Henryson—thought it a lamentable state of affairs that another musician on the bandstand—whom I’ll call Sam Miltich—wasn’t being given full attention, despite his stellar playing on the song “Swing Gitan.” Understand that when I say “bandstand,” it was actually the space in a basement rumpus room formerly occupied by a ping pong table, and that same rumpus room was elbow to elbow with happy, happy wedding guests shouting, drinking, hugging, and otherwise celebrating the nuptials of good friends. Also understand that when I say “rumpus room,” I’m saying it pretty much so that I can use the phrase “rumpus room,” which makes me laugh. At any rate, McHenry’s desire was that one of the grooms be dragged from the middle of the fracas and planted directly in front of Sam’s guitar, so that he could know what kind of genius music was being played right in his very own rumpus room. I don’t really blame him. Many a time I’ve asked someone at a club if they heard the way the band did this or that, only to be given the I’m-sincerely-trying-to-remember look before they answer, “I must have missed it.” But I had to stop him from insisting.

His motivations are noble. This is not a man who bases his self-esteem on how many people at the party are paying rapt attention to the band. He is not an Artiste demanding, “Silence!” before a performance. We sufferers of DCD see our actions as a sort of public service announcement. For instance, there exists in our world the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. Their whole purpose is to bring awareness to the little buggers, essentially so that those folks who live in Hedgehog Land don’t run them over. There is even a Hedgehog Awareness Week in May. 

Hedgehog Crossing
I didn't know they carried bindles.

This makes two blog postings in a row where hedgehogs have come up. I think I have an infestation. Anyway, whether it’s me at a candlelit table, or Charlie in a movie theater, or McHenry Henryson at a rumpus room reception, we’re just providing the same service. Jazz Awareness. “Look! Jazz!! Don’t run it over!” Where our nobility falls flat, however, is in our utter disregard of the etiquette of each situation. A man shouldn’t oughtta drag his friends away from their lives every time he hears the Bix and Tram recording of “Singin’ The Blues.” Of course, those of us with terminal cases of DCD believe that it’s everyone else in the world that is failing to observe proper etiquette for when jazz is crossing the road. 

As the years go by, it occasionally occurs to me that there are some areas of my behavior in need of improvement. In the case of my DCD, I have had to develop a conscious ability to be aware of my surroundings and maintain a state of repose when confronted by the tunes about which I’m so keen. I once had to actually tell myself, “No, Tony. Right now you don’t need to mention how amazing it is to hear the Bechet/Spanier ‘Four Or Five Times’ in a coffeeshop. Let your friend tell you about his seasonal depression.” To my friends, I would have you all know that I truly do value your conversation and your company. My distraction has nothing to do with a boredom brought about by the stories of your days. I always want to know what’s going on in your lives. It’s purely a mechanism of my brain and spirit that automatically lights up when I hear this music I love. But I love you more. Really, I do. Really…Oh!  But check out Barney Bigard on this trio recording! Zutty Singleton’s on drums and…

Here are the other links to the highly distracting soundtrack for this post:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Nine '13

This is the Ninth and final installment in a series of historical retrospectives covering the first ten years of the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.

It took a while for me to recover from our big tenth anniversary party last month and find my way back to the last chapter of this story. According to the people who make this stuff up, a tenth anniversary is often celebrated with aluminum. I tried to get the Aces an Alcoa sponsorship, but my “Does your local jazz band shield their homes with aluminum?” ad campaign fell on deaf ears. So did my offer to change the band’s name to “South Siding Aces.” Some ideas take time to gain acceptance.

It took a few weeks before we touched down in 2013. We re-entered that hallowed hall of ribs-and-such called Famous Dave’s. We were offered more money and a year’s worth of dates. Our previous negative experience was just enough in our past for us to say yes, so there we were. I decided we would go in there as the “Southside Aces Big Five,” always as a quintet, to make the money slightly better for each man, and to give guys the option of not always playing. Famous Dave’s didn’t exactly come off firing on all cylinders for us this first night back, advertising us as “Jack Knife and the Sharps.” A bemused band, we. At the end of the first set, Erik introduced Zack as “the brass knuckles of the band,” me as, “the Secret Weapon of the band,” Robert as, “Mr. Class,” Dave as being “all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota,” and himself as “Santa Claus on the Santaphone.” The legend continued.

Our appearance at the Eagles was considerably classier than usual. And Robert wasn’t even there! A satellite looking down on that portion of the earth would have detected a huge surge of sophistication beaming from the south ballroom. A Johnny Mercer flare. Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson joined the Aces to feature the music of that Savannah legend, from “Moon River” to “I’m Old Fashioned,” to “That Old Black Magic.” Maud and Rick were incredible, as were the raffle prizes. Mercer’s hometown is also famous for it’s hushpuppies, so one lucky fan walked home with a $1.99 package of hushpuppy mix. Like I said, classy.

Some hot oil away from deliciousness!

The jazz was played on the first Monday of February at Famous Dave’s, with Steve Pikal on bass and Reid Kennedy on drums. We launched with “Under The Bamboo Tree,” and stuck a fork in it with Kermit Ruffins’ “Goodnight.” How’s that for a 95-year span of jazz? In between we comported ourselves well on tunes such as “Blue Again,” “Comes Love,” and a very hot “China Boy.” 

Check out Kid Ory on that 1901 classic, “Under The Bamboo Tree.”

The following Sunday found us the unfortunate recipients of a huge, wet snow storm, which fell right on top of our Mardi Gras Tea at the Sokol (Czech Hall) in St. Paul. Not enough folks emerged from their hibernaculums to ensure the Sokol a profit that day. I believe I still take issue with the people who were scared off by the snow, on account of the example our good friend, Mimi, set by driving TWO HOURS from Wisconsin so she could get her second line on. Let that be a lesson to you people! A good ol’ time was had nonetheless. The Southside Aces with New Orleans caterer Cajun 2 Geaux in a beautiful 1897 hall made sure things were done right. From “If Ever I Cease To Love” to “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” Jim, one of our fans, gave us one of the best compliments a performer can receive. “You guys! You could have folded up your spirits with this small crowd. Back in my younger days, I played in a crummy scab band and we couldn’t hack a small crowd. But you guys just shined, played all out!” It’s my blog. I can let you know when someone is patting me and my band mates on our respective backs if I want to.

One of six stage backdrops at Sokol Hall painted in 1932

Mardi Gras proper found us doing our “Thirty Minute Brass Band” routine in between Cajun bands at the Eagles again. The Aces with Chuck DeVore on snare, and Wittacee on sousaphone. Six musicians, twenty-seven minutes, three hundred dollars. Wittacee had received the call to sub for Erik less than an hour before we played. I met him at the bar, handed him a PBR Tallboy and $60, ten dollars more than everyone else received. “You get the twenty percent bonus for the rush job,” I told him.

I entitled our Valentine’s dance at the Eagles, “Sweethearts On Parade.” Unprecedented in our history was our online auction of a romantic night for two. Peg and Emily won this unbelievable prize package: two entries, a table for two up on the stage with the band, pizza from bartender Royal’s toaster oven, two vending machine deserts, $2 in quarters for the skill crane (Peg actually won something called a “Love Bear”), ten song requests, with the band committed to honoring two of them, and three opportunities throughout the night to yell “Hit it, boys!” All of that was beside the raffle! A heart-shaped tin of strawberry lollipops with Yoda on the lid, Valentine-colored peanut M&Ms, chocolate-covered dried Bing cherries, an oinking Valentine pig that pooped candy into a tray by it’s butt, and a pair of predominantly red Popeye boxers that said, “Thinking of you” across the butt. Oh yeah, and we played some music.

On March 1st, we traveled to Des Moines to play the Heartland Swing Festival. I recommend Velma’s homemade rhubarb pie that she sells out of the second story of the red barn that is the rest stop part of Diamond Jo’s Casino and rest stop off of 35. I had that with some Dr. Pepper and Cheetos. I bought the Cheetos so I could get some protein in my lunch. 

We featured the music of Fats Waller at the Eagles, with pianist Steven Hobert subbing for Robert. Before the show, Dave tells me a clove of garlic fell out of his suit when he took it out of his closet. This from the late night pizza we had after the last job. There’s where a fella can be happy he didn’t have his suit pressed between shows. We began the feature set with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Erik wanted to announce it as Waller’s “most popular hit.” I told him it wasn’t necessarily true, and Zack made sure I remembered how much of a nerd I am. Erik announced it as, “arguably his most popular hit.” I washed my hands of him, saying, “I ain’t protecting you from the Charlies out there!” referring to how Charlie DeVore was sitting fifteen feet away, and would probably know exactly which tune topped the Fats Waller hit parade. He and Zack laughed at me. Erik displayed mock fear, “When we’re done, I’m just going to run out of the building, talk to no one!” The very next song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” he also announced as, “arguably his most popular hit,” thus diluting his original declaration, and perhaps saving him from the wrath of historians.

In April, Henry Blackburn gave us what for on our show, “The Alto in Jazz.” Captain John Handy, Joe Poston, Harold Dejan, and “Singin’ The Blues,” Frankie Trumbauer’s famous recording. I know Frank was technically on a C-Melody saxophone, but who—except for you three people who sent me emails— is going to argue? Among many greats, the crowd heard “You Can’t Escape From Me,” “Ice Cream,” and “Curzon Hall Boogie,” a tune I got off of an album Henry did with Kid Dutch. Henry told the story of how I had asked where Curzon Hall was in New Orleans. The piano player on the date with Henry was named Andrew Curzon Hall. Not a place but a man! Erik said, “I hope someday someone names a song ‘Owen Jacobson Boogie.’”

We played Famous Dave’s in May with Keith Boyles on bass. Zack wanted to dig deeper into our book, so I took him at his word and called several that don’t usually come across our desk. A couple of Irving Berlin numbers, including “The Song Is Ended.” When I sang my high E flats on that one, it sounded like someone was cinching me too tightly. “Jazz Me Blues,” Bix style. A King Oliver “Riverside Blues.” In the second set, I called three from the A.J. Piron repertoire, “Red Man Blues,” “Bouncin’ Around,” and “Mama’s Gone Goodbye.” Keith admitted that he’d been liking the repertoire, but he begged, “Tony! Can we play something I know?” Zack chimed in, seconding the motion. I looked at them, perhaps a bit too triumphantly, and said, “I broke you guys! I broke you!”

The Guitar in Jazz was our feature at the Eagles. We added guitarist Dean Harrington in order to hot club it up. We played “Montmartre (Django’s Jump),” and a great version of “Nuages” with the stormtrooper introduction. Our instrumentation on “Minor Swing” was Zack on rhythm guitar, Dave playing brushes on HIS guitar, Dean, Robert and Erik. Four guitars and a sousaphone. That can’t have happened before. Robert did the famous Santo and Johnny solo, “Sleep Walk.” 

For the raffle, I had done my research. One of Django’s favorite foods was roasted hedgehog, or as he knew it, “niglos.” I even found a recipe for it’s traditional preparation. Needless to say, however, I didn’t have time to find, kill, herb up, roll in clay, throw in a fire, de-quill and package one of the little darlings, so I settled for a large bag of in-the-shell peanuts and a best of Django recording. The peanut bag was at least in the shape of a hedgehog. Erik told the crowd I had made a mistake not calling him first. He said, “I have hedgehog.” Then he added, “I’m not saying it’s fresh…”

Uncooked hedgehog

The Aces played at the Dakota on Mother’s Day. Craig Eichhorn told me “It’s not a performance, but it’s not a background job either.” Somewhere between the spotlight and the potted palm, I guess. I remember the incredible grits they made that day. We had Matt Peterson on bass both for that one and the June Famous Dave’s. Matt and Robert spent every non-music moment talking feverishly about their other shared passion, bikes. 

On the sixth we played at the Harriet Tap Room over on Minnehaha Avenue. We were able to partake of their beer, and Chef Tim from Cajun 2 Geaux brought his food truck out and was very generous to the band. It was a bit cool and damp for June, but not unlike most of the nights by this halfway point of 2013. Steve said with a straight face, “This winter isn’t going too bad.” We had a regular sound check. “Kick,” said the soundman, and Dave played his bass drum. “Set for the overhead,” said the soundman, and Dave flailed around on the rest of the drums. “Oboe,” said the soundman for me, and the band cracked up. Zack called me “Kid Oboe” that night. Outside of the comedy highlight, we knocked out a sweet version of “Smoke Rings,” like you do when you play in a brewery.

The Minnesotan legend, cornetist Doc Evans, is whom we featured that month. We recreated the record that was made of his 1953 appearance at the Walker Art Center. We began with one of Doc’s quotes regarding how he was happy to play anywhere: “Jazz doesn’t know where it is, and it doesn’t care.” Then we launched with “Under The Double Eagle.” Doc tended to play with West Coast Dixieland tempos, meaning that they really stepped on it. Be careful not to fall off the back of the truck! But the Aces are the Aces, so we marked the difference between Doc and us right off the bat. Our “Double Eagle” had a groove, despite it being an 1893 march. Charlie DeVore came right up to the stage upon the last note to shake my hand. “That was the perfect tempo!” he extolled. “None of that racehorse business with you guys!” In response, Erik said on mic, “You have to feel pretty good about the way you played a song when Charlie DeVore comes up and shakes the band’s hand!” As an introduction to “Muskrat Ramble,” Zack had Erik tell this story to the crowd:

“We’re all adults here right? So, the other day Zack was standing on a bank doing some fishing when he noticed a couple of Muskrats, well, in a romantic situation.” I said in an aside to Zack, “A ramble, so to speak.” Zack got up to finish the story. “When they saw me, the male muskrat ran back into its cave, and the female was so mad at me for the interruption!”

Muskrat, perhaps angry, I'm not sure

We had a rehearsal at my house for an upcoming big show at the Old Log Theater in July. With twenty tunes to get through, I set the bar low for what passed for moving on to the next song. “That’s my goal,” I told Rick Carlson, “a minimum of familiarity. That way, when the band has entirely forgotten about the music by next month’s show, they can open the books and experience déja vu.” 

July Famous Dave’s featured the Southside Aces Big Four Brass Band on account of Robert being in Wisconsin at the start of the night. I, too, once received that phone call that gives you that terrible sinking feeling, when someone tells you that you aren’t where you signed up to be. But we rolled with it just fine. At the Eagles the next week, we featured the music of Benny Goodman, with Keith Boyles on bass and Rick Carlson on piano. My personal pantheon of clarinetists tends toward the New Orleans men, but the King of Swing has been impressing my listening ears as of late, especially his small group recordings. We performed tunes like “Shivers,” “Pick-a-Rib Part 1,” the trio version of “Oh, Lady Be Good,” with the four key changes, and “Slipped Disc.” I had a ball! 

The Southside Aces Big Four—this time Zack, me, Robert and Steve Pikal on bass—made our way down to New Ulm to please the denizens of that famous German town at the Grand Café. Steve is the nephew of a legend in those parts, Wally Pikal. Wally was famous for being able to play three trumpets at the same time while on a pogo stick. When I told Zack this, he sort of frowned and said, “Why would you do that?” I also remember how we couldn’t fulfill five requests in a row. FIVE. The crowd still liked us that night, but I’m not sure if they trusted us.

On July 15th, we went into the Old Log Theater with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson to do it up in large fashion on the music of Johnny Mercer. This was one of the last shows in which owner Don Stolz involved himself. He had sold the theater after 73 years of running things! Maud and I began collecting what we called Don Stolz Hangups. Don is great to work with, but we had to accustom ourselves to his way of using a phone. The second he obtained whatever information he needed from us he would hang up. No wasting time on the usual niceties. For instance:

Me: “So do you write up a contract, or would you like me to put one together?” 
Don: “Could you do that?”
Me: “Sure. Where…” 
Click, dial tone

Or the time Don called Maud to ask her to change the date:
Maud: “I’m looking at our calendar, and that looks fine with us.” 
Don: “You’re a good girl! And I love you for it!”
Maud: “Thanks, Don, I lo…”
Click, dial tone

We would always find ourselves finishing sentences to a dial tone. We sort of became perversely proud of these. “I got another one!” we’d say when reporting in to each other. At any rate, we were very grateful to Don for having us out there. I really felt like it was a magical night, and a perfect place to present that music. Maud sang beautifully, Rick made you go “Dang!” and the band proved we belonged in a concert hall just as much as we do a joint. Charlie DeVore made an appearance as well, laying us all low with his rendering of “Strip Polka.” This was one of my favorite nights as a musician.

At the end of July we played for Abbot Northwestern Hospital in what’s become an annual occasion. The beginning of August had us at the Social Dance Studio on 23rd Avenue and 38th Street and, of course, Famous Dave’s. Steve Pikal subbed for the rib joint hit. I think Erik is going to drop in on that job maybe only once every four months or so, like a retired uncle who comes back into town from his travels once in a while to tell stories and hand out souvenirs. 

Speaking of stories, this wraps up ten years and brings me up to the actual anniversary show. I’ll have to tell that one another time. For now, I want to thank all the fans who’ve made it out to a decade’s worth of the Southside Aces. I am always grateful that I get to play this music I love so much, and that there are people who want to hear it. And I want to thank my fellow musicians for being such good Aces. To another ten years! Cheers!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Eight '12

This is the Eighth in a series of historical retrospectives on the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.

We began 2012 with a changing of the guard. Andy put in his notice. If these trumpet men were actual guards, and the Decade of Aces was the night watch, Zack drew the first two hours, tried to get some sleep for the next four hours while Andy peered over the wild jazz frontier, and finally returned to duty. I would be dishonest if I said that in the end Andy and I had no differences, that the situation was as cheery and flip, crisp and clean as the above analogy suggests. But we are peaceful and reasonable men, and managed to come to the conclusion of this chapter without fisticuffs…even though he is from Wisconsin.

He served the rest of his time with two shows. The first was at the Eagles on January 12th. We featured the music of Duke Ellington that night. Some of my favorites in our repertoire, including “The Mooche,” “Stevedore Stomp,” and... 

Before the show, a dancer who had never seen us, and wished to know what kind of music we played had approached me. I thought I had given a good explanation, but then he asked, “Well, tell me this: do you perform polkas?” I dryly replied, “The New Orleans repertoire is not famous for its polkas.” He persisted for several minutes, “But could you play a polka?” Eventually I smiled and explained we might be able to provide a “New Orleans polka.” Later, I called “Moulin a Café,” and the band tried to create a polka feel with this nineteenth century ragtime. I think it created more doubtful expressions than a polka feel.

Zack was on the Famous Dave’s in January, but Andy did his last shows with us at the Ritz Theater in February, for the Fifth Annual Best of Midwest Burlesk. The headliner that year was a woman from New Orleans, Perle Noire, who featured a Josephine Baker act. 

I often commented how my work to pay ratio on those shows would have made the union wince, but I also liked to say, “It’s a burlesque house, not a coalmine!” I really enjoyed the sense of accomplishment I got from these shows, but a last-minute request from a performer sometimes required a reality check. This was my somewhat labored analogy: “Asking me to write out a full band arrangement of a Prince tune the night before the show would be like me asking you, in the same amount of time, to assemble a Statue of Liberty costume by stitching together two thousand Mr. Yuck stickers.” 

I think you could make the colors work.

One of my favorite memories from that year was backing up a singer named Big Mama Red on a old New Orleans dance band tune, “Mama’s Gone, Goodbye.” She knew how to belt ‘em! We also unveiled my arrangement of “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. But what has to stand out for the band was our own unveiling! Four acts into the last show, we ditched our trademark black suits to reveal full red Union suits beneath! This went over well, I can tell you. I've always wondered why Andy kept his black dress shoes on. In case of fire? We wore our red union suits beneath our suit coats at the cast party later. Something Jelly Roll Morton would have called “Shootin’ the agate.”

What a cast! As you can see, Union Suits provide flexibility in your wardrobe.

Lundi Gras at Famous Dave’s included Charlie DeVore working with us and producing his famous “Tiger Rag.” After “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” which begins with ten bars of Bb, Erik said, “Dang! That’s a long time on one chord!” Robert said, “Like a desert!” Erik, “Yeah. I kept seeing mirages making me think the next chord was coming!” And two jobs for the Aces the following day made sure we celebrated Mardi Gras right. 

It bears repeating. I walked into the Eagles of a March evening to set up our stage, and hear this inquiry coming from the bar—“Hey, Rick! What was that that shot my dad’s finger off?” With that proof of place, I prepared for an evening featuring the music of the Hall Brothers Jazz Band, with Charlie DeVore leading the proceedings. See my blog of that time, The Lineage Of Inspiration, for the whole story. 

At Famous Dave’s, Erik let loose a sentence that was probably a historical first. “Now we’re going to play a Duke Ellington song followed by a Lady Gaga song.” The Lady Gaga garnered us a new friend, a young woman who said, “I basically have two things on my ipod, Big Band and Lady Gaga.” It was a good night, but the music booker at the Big Barn of Baby Back had told us he wanted “to shake things up a bit,” so we weren’t offered another show until deep into the summer. We were a bit miffed after three years of history, so turned down the belated offer. At 11:03 that night we began what I'm choosing to call our leave of absence.  

In April, we went into the Social Dance Studio on 38th Street and 23rd Avenue. Terry Gardner of TC Swing had offered us the First Saturday Dance. This was the one where Erik couldn’t wait to get home to eat, so he ordered a pizza delivered while were on the bandstand. Once he was nourished, he was able to drop yet another unbelievable introduction to Robert’s version of “Sweet Sue.” “Half and half poured over perfectly ripe peaches. It’s a warm, rainy night with the windows open. Clean, white sheets. Satin! And Robert Bell stretched out naked! That’s what this song sounds like!” Everyone in the room was either laughing, or uncomfortable, or both.


April Eagles bring Louis Armstrong flowers. We started the feature with “West End Blues.” Zack planted his flag on the peak of that particular Armstrong mountain. We ended the set with “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” Zack holding the chorus of high Bb with the mute in! Another peak scaled for the French Tickler. In between, Dave McCurdy, subbing for Robert, sang his beautiful “What A Wonderful World,” and Zack finished the night with a vocal on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”  And it was around this time Erik began raffling off “A hug from the sousaphone player.” What a night!

The Eagles seems to always provide high moments of music and comedy. In May, six minutes before our feature on Jimmie Noone was to start, I was the only member of the band in the house. I opened the stage door and peered out into the parking lot. It was there I spotted Erik in jeans and a tee shirt helping Dave load firewood from the back of Dave’s Checker Cab to Erik’s trunk. It was a new one on this bandleader, but long years experiencing my band’s relationships with clocks allowed me to merely nod philosophically and say to myself, "Why wouldn't they be doing that right now?" Miraculously, nine minutes later (only three minutes late!) we started the show with everyone suited up. We played great Jimmie Noone tunes, including one new to our book, “Japansy.” 

All six of us played a great job overlooking the pit of the Grain Exchange in May, where we were well paid and given free whiskey. Four of us played for that swanky affair, Retrorama, at the Minnesota Historical Society again. They put us in the same third floor, marbled corner next to the elevator as the year previous. If we continue to do this job every year until we shuffle off the mortal coil it will become known as “The Southside Aces Memorial Nook.” 

We also played the late show at the Dakota Memorial Day weekend. They were using us to lure over some of the Preservation Hall guys after their show at Orchestra Hall. It worked! A good handful did come over, and it was a memorable evening. Evan Christopher and Irvin Mayfield and others sat in with the band for a fantastic night of music that didn’t end until 2:30, late by Dakota standards. We spun together a version of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” that came in at sixteen minutes! Normally my warning klaxons go off when a song heads north of SIX minutes, but I didn’t feel nervous for a second. 

Irving Berlin was featured at the Eagles on National Bourbon Day in June. I wasn’t going to have us play one of Berlin’s biggest hits, “God Bless America,” on account of how he wrote one or two other hits, until I realized it was also Flag Day. Erik kept calling it, “National Buy The Sousaphone Player A Bourbon Day.” We raffled off kosher foodstuffs. Chuck Sweningsen won the hug from the sousaphone player. After he uncomfortably accepted Erik’s hug, we gave him one of our CDs to avoid a lawsuit. 

Earlier in the year, when I had asked the owner of Humans Win! studio what he thought about having the Aces in to record some Christmas tunes, he replied, “What could be better than a New Orleans Christmas album recorded in the middle of summer by an atheist Jew engineer?” So there we were on June 27th, at the start of a heat wave. I’m sure folk in southern climes are accustomed to accompanying their Noels with dripping sweat, but it’s a bit surreal for we Northern Men. I had a great time with this project. From a rollicking brass band version of “Deck The Hall,” to our hot swing version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” to brand new originals—one by me and Erik and one by Claudia and Randi—to songs I called my “Christmas Postcard Arrangements.” These were the ones I fully arranged, with very little, if any soloing. In the studio one night we were recording one of those when Robert asked if he should put a flourish at the end. Zack called out, “Yeah, Robert! You put the stamp on that postcard! Lick that stamp!” We put a Rick Rexroth-sung version of “Away In The Manger” on there, which included a sousaphone introduction. Steve said, “I’ll never be able to look at a Nativity scene again without seeing a sousaphone in the manger.”  

An extremely hot July 3rd evening found we men of the Aces on the hill behind the Minnesota Historical Society to kick off their Nine Nights of Music series. At the Eagles I presented an arcane and scholarly feature—Songs of the Public Domain! If I’d have had a logo made for that night, it would have been an image of an index finger pushing eyeglasses up the bridge of a nose, in the international sign language for “Nerd.” We had half Bill Evans band—Bill, Charlie DeVore and Dave McCurdy—and half Aces. 

Later in the month, we had the joy of participating in a chautauqua! “Drinking The River” featured us along with an historian who spoke of the brewing history along the Mississippi, a presentation by a waste treatment scientist, a singing Park Ranger and some dude in fur trapper attire. I want you to contemplate for a moment what kind of twists and turns your life would have to take in order to find yourself in the position to make some of your livelihood by slipping into your fur trapper get-up. 

Band on Boat

Fur Trapper on Boat

For our August Eagles, we brought in special guest Henry Blackburn on soprano saxophone, alto and clarinet to feature the incredible music of Sidney Bechet. It was a wonderful night, and a lot of people saw it, one of whom went home with a raffled copy of Bechet’s autobiography, Treat It Gentle. Bechet’s famous “Petite Fleur” and “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” were dished up along with “Promenade aux Champs Elysees” and “Moulin a Café.” Henry is fluent in French. Because of all those Bechet compositions with French titles, I joked how Henry was there to judge my pronunciations. “So here we go with the next one,” I paused, “Passport To Paradise.” I looked to Henry for approval, “How was that?” He considered for a moment, “Not bad,” he nodded. Steve chimed in, “What does that mean in English?”

A sultry day on the berm at Abbott produced some lazy tempos to go along with the heat. Zack reminded Erik that Erik owed him twenty dollars, which had been going on for some time. Erik was without the cash that day, too. We usually stand up for solos and for the last choruses, but in deference to the muggy day, I suggested an alternative. “Some of the New Orleans bands just stand up for last song of the set.” Zack said, “I’m in. If some guys did it once in New Orleans, I’ll do it.” Erik saw an opportunity, “Once, in New Orleans, there was this guy who said I didn’t have to pay him the twenty dollars I owed him.” 

September at the Eagles was dedicated to the Gershwins. The raffle prizes included “Potahtoes” and “Tomahtoes” to go along with the tune, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.” This is also where we had a post-show photo shoot for the upcoming Christmas album. If any of you have a copy, you’ve seen the inside cover. Well, here’s one of the rejected photos from that night. If you look closely, Erik just let loose the punch line of a joke I can only tell you in private.

September brought us to Hastings for a wedding and to St. Paul for the second annual Oysterfest at Meritage. Erik gave the crowd a begging story. “I can tell you that the sousaphone player has been able to make it through some hard times with oysters.” Sure enough, trays of oysters began appearing. Later, after I worked myself into a lather on “St. Phillip Street Breakdown,” Erik told the crowd, “The clarinetist keeps his strength up with oyster stout!” Within a few minutes, I looked down to see three cups of the briny brew at my feet. Later, when Erik announce that we were flown in from Minneapolis, the stogie-smoking mayor of St. Paul, Chris Coleman, and his cohorts booed us! He definitely has pride of city. He turned it into cheers when Erik attempted to mollify him by announcing that Dave hailed from Osceola Avenue in St. Paul. This event is tops on my Aces calendar, and Erik will also testify to his overwhelming approval. Anyone reading this ought to plan on seeing us down on St. Peter Street this year!

In October, we played a Foodie Night at the Dakota. Andrew “Diz” Gillespie subbed for Dave. Diz had just completed the Twin Cities Marathon the day before, and said he was sore, but ready to play. “As long as I don’t have to climb stairs,” he informed me. I pointed backstage, “You have to climb two of them to get up there.” Adopting an expression as though seriously assessing the situation, he said, “I better call in a sub.” 

The Eagles was the site of our celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Preservation Hall with all of that music that came out of there. Erik’s first announcement of the night was, “Robert would like everyone to know that the banana is one of the world’s first Super Foods.” This caused me to look over my shoulder at the back line. And there it was, a half-peeled banana resting on Robert’s amp. The raffle included French Market Coffee and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, and actual record albums of Preservation Hall I had dug up at Hymie’s Records on Lake Street. 

Special guests two months in a row! Charlie DeVore appeared at the Eagles with us in November so that we might purvey the wares of King Oliver. Possessive tunes like “Buddy’s Habits,” and “Mabel’s Dream.” Wheelhouse tunes like “Canal Street Blues” and “Dippermouth Blues.” We had an actual meat raffle that night. Chicago hot dogs with sweet and hot peppers, in order that the winner could, as Erik said, “make your own Maxwell Street dogs and invite me over!” We may or may not have procured a rye on the rocks from Royal at the bar, and raffled that off as well! The raffle for the hug from the sousaphone player included Erik’s ever more refined declaimers: “I promise to keep my eyes open,” he said. “Now if you’re uncomfortable with the hug, we can make arrangements. Or you can just not raise your hand if your number is called.” Charlie’s grandson Noah won. He tore up the ticket and threw it in the air like confetti, and raised his arms in the air in victory as he and Erik walk toward one another on the dance floor. A huge hug commenced, and Erik told the crowd, “I’d suggest getting a hug from Noah if you need it. He’s a good hugger.” 

So the last time the Aces met in 2012 was December 13th when we released Santaphone, our first Christmas album. 

If we see our way to a 20th Anniversary, we’ll probably release our second one by then. The Beaujolais Sisters, Nadine Dubois, Maud Hixson, Rick Rexroth, Charlie DeVore made for a ton of special guests. I had even hired Mike Mello to play sousaphone for the title tune. Bob, the raffle ticket dispenser for the Eagles, approached Henry’s table before the show and said, “Hang on to your tickets now, because you ladies can win a spanking from me.” This caused the expected discomfort from the women to whom he was speaking, and no end of amusement out of Henry. 

When Dave launched the drum introduction to “Happy Feet Blues,” Erik’s toddler son shot out on the floor as if from a pitching machine that catapults two and a half year olds! He couldn’t help himself. He was dancing, throwing his arms up, laughing—Dave’s drumming was an electric wire to his heart. I saw him and I never felt so joyous playing that song. Charlie’s present to the assembled was a sixteen bar chicken cluck vocal during “Winter Wonderland,” and our present was a loaded raffle. A candy cane of Hershey’s Kisses, a set of actual candy canes, the Lifesavers Memory Storybook, Christmas Jello molds, eggnog, and four signed CD release posters with the Aces in their Union Suits. Christmas booty!

The album was called Santaphone after the tune Erik and I wrote about Christmas procrastination miracles. I know it isn’t Christmas, but you can feel how we felt putting it all together in the summertime if you give it a listen right now! Plus, Claudia made a cool video.