This is the third in a series of historical retrospectives on the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.
January 18th, 2007, marked the first official job with Andy Hakala as a member of the Southside Aces. The Butlers had been teaching swing dance at a joint in a cul-de-sac down in Burnsville called Chateau Lamothe, and put in the good word to have owner/chef Doris hire us. Good thing it was in a cul-de-sac, because it was a French restaurant.
As it turned out, I threw Andy in the fire immediately. I had arrived early enough to set up the p.a. and eat dinner. I leisurely strode to the bandstand at five minutes to start time to take out my clarinet. I found my clarinet bag, but it was empty! Before you become outraged at the scoundrels of the world, this was not a case of thievery. It was a case of idiocy. I had forgotten to pack it.
This is not like forgetting your swim trunks when you go on vacation. Or your canvas bag on the way to the grocers. Does a bus driver arrive at your corner on time but without a bus? Does a hitter walk to the plate without a bat? My clarinet! The only thing I absolutely need on a job. I could show up with one shoe, no music, a sleeve missing and no checkbook. Well, maybe some guys would argue with the last one. At any rate, all of that wouldn’t matter if I had my horn. This would be the incident that precipitated my about-to-leave-the-house checklist: “Do I have my horn? Check. Am I wearing pants? Check.”
It was forty minutes for me to go home and back, so Andy would be without me to welcome him for essentially the first set. As I was speeding home, I began to imagine an even more surreal scene wherein I had opened my bag and found a hammer instead of my clarinet. A lightbulb went off! I got home, grabbed my clarinet, and went for my toolbox. On the way there, I spotted my toaster.
Back at the chateau, I rushed up on stage in the middle of a song. I looked down to see my toaster gleaming in my hands. My face registered mock horror. What had I done?! As a joke, it went over with the band and about three people in the crowd, but I think it mostly made folks wonder why a manic man with a toaster was harassing the band. Security! I did earn a temporary nickname from Erik, though. That night he introduced me as Tony “Crumbtray” Balluff.
February of that year ended up being one of the better months of employment for the whole year for the Aces. We were teamed with a burlesque troupe one night, at a Presbyterian church another night. A Summit Avenue mansion for a school benefit one night, and Lee’s Liquor Lounge another night. Hotel Sofitel, the swanky 494 establishment, then Stasius’ Nordeast bar, which Erik described as being, “like the inside of an ice-fishing shack.” It was as if we spent the entire month of February with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Some of the facts, if you please.
We started February at a benefit for homeless children. A great cause. The organizers decided that the theme should be “Speakeasy.” Thusly the Aces were hired along with Lili’s Burlesque review. We were friends with Lili’s, and both outfits had wondered aloud if the organizers knew their benefactors well enough to be hiring a burlesque troupe for the affair. Don’t get me wrong. The wonderful women of Lili’s were perfect for a benefit event. And it’s not as if they actually had the kids there that night, but you never know the sensibilities of a benefactor. Sure enough, we got just three acts in, and Gina did a beautiful fan dance. I was about to introduce the next act when the Lili’s stage manager whispered in my ear, “They’ve cancelled the rest of the burlesque. It’s all up to you guys.”
My guys valiantly played the rest of the time, which ended up being a long extra hour and a half set. Afterwards, I was standing next to Gina as one of the speakers was pouring guilt onto the crowd because we’d be going back to warm houses on this cold February night while the kids didn’t have that luxury. She leaned close to me and intoned, “They stopped us because of my butt.”
Later in the month we played a Mardi Gras party at North Como Presbyterian Church. Mardi Gras is also known as Pancake Tuesday. The church took this aspect to heart, griddling up tall stacks for dinner. They also had that New Orleans drink staple, the Hurricane, for our libation. Their Hurricane was Tahitian Treat with fruit spears, so I’d say it was only a Category .037, but they had the right spirit! The day before, I was able to collect another pearl from Erik: I had called and left him a message to see if he wanted to carpool to the church. He called me back: “Uh…Tony? I’m actually more in Milwaukee than I am in Minneapolis.” Matt Senjem stepped up at the last minute, so it was he who got to eat the pancakes and Tahitian Treat. North Como loved us when we finished with “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
The next day, Erik was back in town and we were all at Lee’s Liquor Lounge.
This is another Bill and Shannon venture, so there we were about to go onstage after the dance lesson. On this night I had my first experience of barkeep George. George is in his seventies, and has served all manner of folk for a lot of decades. If you’re the sensitive type, you might call him surly. I prefer to think of him as laconic. Laconic George. My very first interaction:
George—“What’ll you have?”
Me—“What kind of beer do you have?”
George—“What kind do you want?”
Me—“Well, do you have a list?”
George—“We have forty or more kinds, no list. You name a beer, and I’ll tell you if we have it.”
If I ever make a personal best bartender list, George will definitely be in the top five. But believe it or not, it was Robert who surged to the best line of the night with his offering. We stepped up onstage to begin and I asked the fellas, “So what should we play?” Robert, very serious, said, “Nothing pretty, nothing stupid.”
At the end of March we played a double bill at the Cedar, opening for the Twin Cities Hot Club. We had a good night that night, playing a lot of our Jelly Roll Morton. We knew we were doing well when the crowd erupted merely after our tight four-bar introduction to “Kansas City Stomps.” The other side of such heady stardom was this bathroom conversation. Dave, Andy and I went into the small men’s room there just as a father and his young son were about to leave. I called to Andy, who was in the stall, “Andy, do you know the verse to ‘I Found A New Baby’?” Dave looked at the father/son pair and said, “That’s the way professionals rehearse.”
Omaha Jitterbugs hired us for the “Big Apple” dance contest night of the Balboa weekend. The contest was held at the Naughty Lounge, placed in an ugly strip mall way out on the west side of Omaha, 107th Street. I would describe the joint, but why not use their own website:
“The Naughty Lounge is an elegant bar that reflects the sex appeal in all of us. Established for those of us who need to let their inhibitions go. One of the most stylish hot spots in town, the Naughty Lounge is a vision in red. Just slide in and relax in this hip den of cool luxury. Our staff has been hand-picked to serve you. From looks, charm, sex appeal and style. Are you naughty enough to visit us?”
Andy couldn’t make this one, so we had hired Kid Ben Bell Bern, who would drive down from Chicago to meet us in Des Moines. Our crazy plan was to leave the Twin Cities Sunday, April 1st in the morning and meet Ben at his hotel in Des Moines about 1:30, get to the Naughty Lounge about 3:30, set up, rehearse, go eat dinner, play the show and drive back to the Twin Cities dropping Ben off back in Des Moines along the way. This we hoped to accomplish all in a 24-hour period. The trip started with a masterful April Fool’s joke perpetrated on the band by Robert and Katie. Previous to this day, I had uncomfortably denied passage in the band van for her, citing as my reason the It’s A Guys Trip defence. But there she was loading up with us at Dave’s house. Robert even had her sitting next to him in the front seat as we pulled away, only to drive around the block to her parked car. Kudos to their straight faces!
After a stop for lunch, Erik did the driving. This is a man who likes to look people in the eye when he talks to them. Given that, wind sheer, and the van’s loose steering, Erik used as much road as possible from line to line. This earned him the nickname, “Rumblestrip Jacobson.”
As previously mentioned, the Naughty Lounge was pretty ugly from the outside, but the inside was filled with Deco features that had been salvaged from a downtown bank. This included stained glass, mirrors, a brass angel statue, leather sofas and regular tables and chairs. The paint and lighting throughout truly had a red hue. The stage had a railing with pickets on the front, and the dance floor had a floor-to-ceiling pole in one corner. The green room also had one of those poles on a small stage right next to a pew-like bench—another salvage item from the bank—that actually had the word “Fidelity” carved into it.
One of the owners was there to greet us. “Hi! I’m BushHog. You could ask for Mark, my real name, but nobody would know who you were talking about, so just ask for BushHog!” Dave, Steve and I go back outside to get another load. Steve looked up at the sign. The G in Naughty was fashioned into a devil with a tail and horns. Steve got reflective for a moment and said, “I’m switching all my insurance to Naughty of Omaha!”
The dance was fantastic. Ben dropped our jaws. He had never played with a trad band before, but he took to it like a veteran. Like a Cornhusker to football. The music was loose, but swung hard, and BushHog kept trays of shots coming to the bandstand. I recall a moment late in the night looking down at my feet during a song to see another tray with six shots on it. I saw my Aunt’s arms reaching through the stage railing, and her fingertips just grabbing the edge of the tray and sliding it toward her. I looked away while we finished the song. When I looked back, there were only three shots left. Aunt Barb is fun. Another late memory has several of the dancers challenging each other to hang by their legs upside down from the dance floor pole.
The dancers even coughed up more money to keep us there later. We were flopped in the green room after burning up the extra set, but the dancers wouldn’t let us be! They were shouting and stomping and generally causing a great ruckus. We were already past two in the morning and facing a long drive ahead of us, but we all sort of shrugged and decided we had to go back out. This was one of the only times in my life when I truly felt like a rock star, despite the fact that I hold a clarinet in my hands. There was a twenty-foot hallway that went from the green room to the dance floor. The hallway shared the back wall of the stage. The guys walked ahead of me down that hall, and I truly experienced it in slow motion, like a documentary scene. I have a vivid memory of the motion of our suit coats as we turned the corner to the stage. The place erupted, and we mounted the stage and gave them “Four Or Five Times” for an encore. I will never forget the Naughty Lounge. I have even had Omaha natives come up to me in years since and say, “That night was legendary!”
On Mother’s Day, May 13th, we played the first of what would end up being a three-year run at the Nomad World Pub over on the Cedar Avenue in the West Bank. We launched a grand and noble idea to provide a jam session on the second Sunday of every month. The idealistic dream was to cultivate a larger scene of traditional jazz players, helping to inspire those closer to the beginner end of things and even bringing some of the professionals over from other genres. The down to earth desire was to have a party once a month. To that end, we would always provide some sort of food, that department usually headed up by Erik. For this first one, he brought barbecued kielbasa. Over the three years, we always made it a party, whether we packed ‘em in, or it was just us and a handful of close friends. There were also definitely times it felt like it reached it’s ideal, with both pros and amateurs creating an honest to goodness scene, but not consistently enough to make it last. The main factor in its eventual demise, if I’m honest, however, was a total lack of financial support from the bar. But we sure had some good times in there. The first one was, in fact, more than merely barbecue kielbasa. It was a balmy Sunday afternoon out on their patio against the brick wall. It reminded me of the times I’d played in relaxed jam sessions in courtyards down in New Orleans. A bunch of players showed up to enter the donnybrook. In addition to the band, Zack and Milo brought trumpets, Steve Rogness his trombone; Paul Fonfara and Gus Sandberg brought clarinets; Henry Blackburn his reeds. Bill Butler had just begun drum lessons, and is a brave (foolish?) man, so he readily agreed to sit in right away. In the time-honored tradition of abusing apprentices, I said to him, “I better collect tips before you play!”
May also brought us the honor of playing for good friends, Rick and Randi Rexroth, on the day of their nuptials. They first-danced to the Gershwin’s “Love Is Here To Stay.” We also played at Shamrock’s bar in St. Paul, where they wouldn’t let us play until the Twins game was done, as they had the large projection screen rolled down in front of the stage. You’d think we would’ve been dismayed when the Twins tied Toronto to send the game into extra innings, but Erik was running late, so we felt relief. Erik’s excuse was, “I was ready to go on time, but then these people came over.” I hate to paint Erik as an Irresponsible Ignatius, but he’s so funny when does these things! Erik was running really late that night, but it was ok—the Twins tied it again in the bottom of the eleventh! Our hometown team would go on to lose that night, but not before Erik made it through the door.
July at the Times was Andy’s first time there.
I remember the crabcake po’boys! But I also remember Erik bringing a music stand light that night. It was actually more like one of those clamp lights you’d have in your basement workshop. I sit in front of Erik, so I could actually feel the heat coming off of it. “Am I going to need sunscreen?” I asked. Before the show, he walked out on the dance floor and noticed it was shooting a glaring light at the crowd. “Well, that’s no good,” he said. In the process of adjusting it he gave Robert spots in his eyes. Dave and Andy at about the same time said, “What, are you incubating eggs over there?” Steve waited until the very end of the night to throw in his two cents. We finished our last song and he turned and said, “Is that chicken almost done?”
In August, we had the honor of opening a jazz club. Alexander Dixon, chef and owner of Zander Café on Selby Avenue, decided to make his side room an official joint, and gave it the moniker, Ferdinand’s Jazz Palace. It was a small place, but I loved to play there for its intimacy. And Zander really was a genius. Just look at how he used the copper salvaged from the renovation of the St. Paul Cathedral down the street.
In October, we were offered a regular third Friday dance out at Chateau Lamothe. For this one, I managed to show up with a clarinet and no small kitchen appliances.
The day after the Chateau, we played a wedding that had included this email correspondence:
Customer—“Access to the open bar is intended to provide the Aces needed refreshment—can you verify that this open bar access would be respected?” Did the groom think I could provide references as to our ability to handle the hooch? This was my actual response—“On your question of refreshment, the Aces wholeheartedly respect any bar that’s open.” Then I let him off the hook, “That last was meant to be humorous. If I understood your question correctly (and well-asked by the way), you have my assurances that the band or any subs we use have never adhered to that particular Jazz Musician stereotype regarding overindulgence.” On the evening in question, any time someone in the band was heading for a beer or the like, he would say, “Fellas, I think I’ll go respect the open bar now.” The young matron of honor, the bride’s sister, had done a fair amount of respecting the bar herself, which led to her carrying on all over the dance floor and to join us on the bandstand several times to sing along, play beer bottle solos and engage in other gregarious activities. She was quite fun, to tell the truth, but I had my limits. At the end of the night as we were packing up, she came up to me and blurted, “Can I play yer killernet?” (I have a witness to the fact that she actually pronounced “clarinet” as “killernet”). I disappointed her with the information that it was packed up. “Yer shittin’ me!” she accused. She saw a mic on a stand and reached for it. I gently placed my hands over hers and said quietly, “No, no, no. We don’t want to do that.” She looked around the room and whispered conspiradrunkenly, “Why? I don’ mind if I get’n trouble.” “I don’t mind if you get in trouble either,” I said agreeably, “it’s just time to pack up.” Her husband appeared at that moment to guide her away, so there was no further altercation.
The November Nomad saw Erik arriving with a good-sized katzenjammer. He said, “I’m beat. My head’s like a buoy floating in a sea of High Life.” I looked at him and commented, “I think it’s listing.” But he was highly creative that afternoon in asking for tips. He tore us up with his extemporaneous, fictitious account of the West Bank bluesman, “Woodtick Johnson,” who needed the crowd’s generous support for “bus passes and haircuts.”
That month we also played at Magers and Quinn booksellers in Uptown for a reading and signing of Sugarcane Academy, an account by author Michael Tisserand, a friend of Erik’s, of how he and other New Orleans parents responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by creating temporary schooling for their children. It’s a great story of perseverance, and we were honored to make loud brass band sounds for him in the middle of a bookstore.
With Zack there for the Nomad jam in December it made for a high concentration of Sconnies in the place. Zack, Andy, Robert and Claudia all hail from that state directly to the east. Erik provided brats soaked in beer and sauerkraut that day and said on mic, “You should all feel at home. It smells like Wisconsin in here!”
The Aces last job of 2007 was out at Chateau Lamothe, where we met superfans David West and his dad, Rip, for the first time. We had Steve Rogness on trombone that night. We finished with a couple of Christmas numbers, an instrumental “White Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” which I sang with my usual baritone. Rogness turned to the band while I was singing and said, “He sounds like Vincent Price in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’!” This begs the question, why didn’t Vincent ever record a Christmas album?