Monday, January 7, 2013

Highlights of 2012

Do you hear that? It’s the sound of me coughing and hacking after blowing the dust off my blog. I pulled it down off the shelf and decided not to bring it into the Goodwill along with the four extra Thesauruses and those skinny-Tony pants. I’ve had a week to ponder the year past—from Buttons to Aces, Eagles to Santaphones—and I want to tell you some about it. 

2012 began with me at the Aster Café with Patty and the Buttons. The café had just given us a raise, a rare occurrence in the world of playing for restaurants. A propitious start to the year for sure. Andrew “Diz” Gillespie joined us on his drums, and baritone sax man Scott Fultz also found a place on the stand. We gave the crowd what for all that afternoon, blazing away on “Big Chief Battle Axe” to finish. On our last, ferocious chorus I caught Diz in my peripheral vision coming out of his seat to put his whole body into the last note of the day. The crowd roared. The Aster’s raise is money well spent, I don’t mind saying.

The Aces were again the house band for the Best of Midwest Burlesk. During the last show of the weekend, we surprised the cast by removing our black and whites to reveal what a jazz band looks like performing in red Union Suits. We liked this so much, we made it a part of our Christmas album. Now everyone can own a copy of us in our long underwear:

The Southside Aces featured the music of the Hall Brothers at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie #34. Several of these monthly features would be in my top ten musical experiences of the year. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, just to name some. And Erik loves MC-ing the raffles. In fact, he is unsure which is more exciting for him at this point, playing the music or drawing raffle tickets. I know I’ve painted a couple pictures of the scene there in the past, but I can’t resist giving you a couple more. I overheard this shouted bar conversation from my vantage in the ballroom: “Hey, Rick! What was that that shot my dad’s finger off?” A man, presumably Rick, laughed and answered, “I think it was a Red Ryder BB Gun.” Another barstool percher weighed in, “No, that’s how you shoot your eye out.” Another time, I was there with Patty and the Buttons when I heard an impassioned monologue from another Eagles Denizen. I had joined the conversation with the smokers out on the patio when she launched it: “I don’t understand our government. They work so hard to get Americans to quit smoking and drinking, but those are the two vices we got that they make the most money from! Now, I don’t drink that much,”—we had to take her word for that—“but I’ve been smoking for forty years and I’m never going to quit! With all the taxes I pay for smoking, you wouldn’t think they’d want me to quit! Look at me!” she yelled, waving her cigarette aloft, “I’m a patriot!” The Eagles, ladies and gentlemen.

The Aces played at the Social Dance studio. Erik came running back down 38th Street during our second break, dismayed that the Tom Thumb a couple blocks away was closed for the night. He was SO hungry. A somewhat perpetual state for that man. “I think I’m going to order a pizza!” Sure enough, Pizza Luce showed up during the third set.

The Midwest Lindy Fest had the Buttons on the Anson Northrup riverboat. Some of you may not know this, but Patty is a genius at target marketing. Looking to capitalize on the swing dancer’s ability to sniff out a deal, he offered them an extemporaneously-created contest he entitled Once Over Lightly. “The first dancer to come up to the stage with a Summit for me gets a free CD. Now,” he added the fine print, “if there is more than one Summit, the band will take care of them, but we can only give away one CD.” In the second set, “The first person to bring a whiskey for Tony gets a free CD.” The third set Once Over Lightly contest procured a Bombay Saphire for Meat Plate. 

May also saw me on the stage of the Cedar in a Butch Thompson band. For anyone there, this had to be one of the most memorable concerts ever. We had just finished “Mournful Serenade,” the third song of the second set, when poof! No lights or sound! The West Bank had been thrown into a brownout on account of a blown transformer. Charlie DeVore yelled out into the darkness, “Well, I guess they’ve already cut the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund!” Butch was feeling certain that they would stop the show, given as how they only had flashlights and some crepuscular light creeping in through the thrown-open back doors. I urged him on, “We can play in the dark! We don’t need power!” He agreed, sat back down at the piano, and a few seconds later cheers erupted in the crowd when they heard my foot stomp off “Isle Of Capri.” We finished the tune to the loudest cheers of the night. Our drummer, Peter Johnson, shouted, “They like us better when they can’t see us!” We played for forty minutes in the near-dark, including a great moment when everyone got really quiet, both band and crowd, to hear Charlie sing “Mister Johnson.” And the dancers danced! Shadows, moving about the Cedar.

Near the end of the month, the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band played several tunes to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Doggie Berg’s death. My favorite moment of that night at Bennett’s was when I had the opportunity on a break to sit next to Mimi, Doggie’s widow, and share a few quiet words. She was tearful at first, but then she smiled, determined to shake it off. “You know what Doggie would say right now?” she asked me. “Let’s all get drunk and be somebody!”

Later that week, Lance Conrad, owner of Humans Win! recording studio in Nordeast, Minneapolis: “What could be better than a New Orleans Christmas album recorded in the middle of summer by an atheist Jew engineer?” Indeed. Not much can be better than that. The Southside Aces went into his studio at the beginning of a Twin Cities 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 Northerners. I remember the day in late May when I sat at my piano in nothing but a tee-shirt and madras shorts, hammering out an arrangement of “The Christmas Song.” I looked out my open window across the short space between mine and my neighbor’s house. I imagined the conversation he had with his roommate later that night. 
Roommate: “Were you just humming ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire?” 
Neighbor: “I guess I was.”
Roommate: “What’s wrong with you?”
Neighbor: “I don’t know. It’s in my head for some reason.”

The Mississippi River Fund hired the Aces for the first in a series of chautauquas, this one entitled, “Drinking The River.” A band playing New Orleans music, a Mississippi River brewery historian, a waste treatment scientist, a singing Park Ranger, and a dude in fur-trapper attire walk onto a paddleboat. No punch line, this really occurred. I want to know what kinds of things have to happen in your life in order to find yourself in the position to make some of your livelihood by slipping into your fur-trapper getup…not for the purpose of trapping fur. Of course, some people want to know what happened in my life that I find myself making my livelihood playing eighty-year-old music on a clarinet.

The Buttons also had their fare share of July fun. We were at a farm helping a couple celebrate their nuptials, when we met a man, six feet six, eighteen-inch beard, wearing a kilt, and claiming to possess skills at the arts of Jews harping and gargle-singing. I feel more certain than anything else ever, even than of the love of my dearly departed mother, that that particular list of attributes has never been applied to just one person before. I have trouble deciding on my favorite line of the night. “I recently attended a Jews harp convention.” Or, when he gargle-sang “Harvest Moon” with us, “You can’t use beer because it foams up too much.” Or, “I haven’t worn pants since last September.”

Sidney Bechet feature at the Eagles, special guest Henry Blackburn. One of the best concerts of the year. While getting set up, Henry had trouble with his clarinet reeds. He looked at Steve Pikal and me and said, “The reed is the most important thing.” He paused, smiled, and said, “Actually, it’s Attitude number one, reeds number two, and…” he trailed off, pausing again to consider. “And talent, number six.”

At the end of the month, the Buttons play “Corinna, Corinna” in the Ramberg Senior Center at the Minnesota State Fair, accompanied by 42 trombones. That sentence can stand alone.

In one week, I play a kielbasa Fest, a beer fest, and an oyster fest. What a delicious week! At Meritage’s 2nd Annual Oyster Fest, the Aces experienced the pleasure of being booed by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and his cohorts. This on account of the band being “all the way from Minneapolis.” It was in good fun, but Erik still made an effort to calm down the border tensions by offering up Dave as our Ambassador to St. Paul, him living over there on Snelling after all.

Halloween playing jazz and Balkan folk music with Sam Miltich up north in the Grand Rapids VFW, dressed as the historied Dallas Cowboys coach, Tom Landry. Another sentence that needs no further elaboration, right?

On the 21st, the Southside Aces released the video for the title tune to their Christmas album, “Santaphone,” our paean to the adventures afforded by procrastination. Friend and fellow musician, Roc, said it helped him to feel better about shopping at 6:45 on Christmas Eve. We followed up two days later by the release of the album itself. 

The Santaphone CD release party. The band and a cavalcade of guest singers, plus a spare sousaphone player, entertained the biggest crowd the Aces have ever seen at the Eagles. Charlie DeVore’s clucking chicken vocal on “Winter Wonderland” may have been one of the best uses of a chicken vocal I’ve had the pleasure to hear. You’d think that there would be a narrow range of uses for such a thing, but seeing as how I’ve spent a lot of years around Charlie, I know this not to be the case.

Maud Hixson knocked “Sleigh Ride” out of the park that night. This was an especially proud moment for her. She had confessed to the song being somewhat her nemesis: “I’ve been putting that song off for so long. Every year, I would tell myself I was going to do it, than I would avoid it until Christmas was past. It’s like that scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when the pet shop is on fire. Pee Wee keeps running in saving animals. Each time he passes the snake cage, he makes faces and shudders and saves the other animals instead. Finally, just the snakes are left. He fills both his fists full, runs back outside screaming, holding them over his head, and faints on the sidewalk. That’s me doing ‘Sleigh Ride.’”

Finally, you should know that I’m writing to you as a full-time musician. I ended my year by jumping with both feet into being, as George Lewis called it, a “musicianer.” For many years I worked as a reflexologist at a local hospital to support my musical habit. I now get to awaken every day with only music ahead of me and it feels great! It must, because I seem to be using some form of the word music in every single sentence. I am a happy man, even when my good friend Bill ribbed, “You’ve left gainful employment to become a musician.” I love my good friends. And I loved my year of music. 

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