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.