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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Seven '11

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

The Southside Aces Big Four represented the band at the Eagles to start 2011. It was a meager winter crowd, but at least they didn’t outnumber the band. During the second set, we had to pause to let Erik disassemble his sousaphone to actually remove snow. I wonder if insurance covers ice dams in your sousaphone? We also played a 1923 A.J. Piron tune, “Bouncin’ Around,” which Erik introduced as, “the second oldest song ever composed.” 

The Best of Midwest Burlesk again happened at the end of January. I had arranged ACDC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” for the band to open each show. The crowd seemed to love the hard rock put through the New Orleans filter. This year had more than seventy different performers over four shows in two nights. As one of Andy’s coworkers mentioned later, “I kept expecting them to run out of ways to take their clothes off, and they never did!” 

January 31st is my birthday, and I spent it at Famous Dave’s on the Aces job. The Butlers made me do a birthday dance, which meant I was given the opportunity to break Claudia’s, Shannon’s, Lisa’s, Heidi’s and, yes, Bill’s toes. The band was determined to never stop, so I ran away from the dance floor in terror of the liability I was facing causing injury to any others foolish enough to join the brawl. 

We played in February at the Eagles, for the first time with six guys. Mark Kreitzer was on guitar again, and Darrin Sterud played his hot trombone. Erik showed up early so he could get the $7 steak dinner. Mark sang seven verses of “Mack The Knife” in the original German. Oppressive! We also spent St. Patty’s Day at the Eagles. All six Aces assembled to play the dance, and to have band photos taken for our upcoming new album. We did one of those old-fashioned band pictures, like some Midwest territory band swinging through Minneapolis in 1934, pausing long enough for a photo to be taken and sent ahead to Rapid City for advance publicity.

Erik came back from the bar after procuring whiskey, and told me about a 96-year-old WWII veteran named Ernie, survivor of Pearl Harbor among other things. Ernie was a harmonica player and had asked if he could sit in. The band got started, and for some reason during the set played “I Found A New Baby,” “Bill Bailey” (which Robert sang as “Bill O’Bailey” in honor of the holiday), and “I’ll See You In My Dreams” all in a row. An old guy, sitting upright in his uniform, shouted, “They’re all in F!” I think a good jazz band makes an effort to separate songs in the same key, but that was the first time in my experience someone actually noticed! Erik whispered, “Tony! That’s the guy who’s going to sit in!” After a few seconds of all of us looking at him, Erik said, “Doesn’t he look like the white Uncle Lionel?” Ernie Mattson played “Jambalaya On The Bayou” and “Saints” with us, combining that mournful prison tone with a rhythm like a square dance. Rick Rexroth sang “Danny Boy,” and the Beaujolais Sisters gave us “Everybody Loves My Baby,” ala the Boswells, with Randi singing for two! What a night!

Everybody Loves Randi’s Baby!

On April 1st, a quartet of Aces was asked to provide music at Temple Israel for a memorial.  Since most New Orleans memorial and funeral music comes out of the Baptist hymnal, I had a conversation about not wanting to bring offence into Temple with that repertoire. It was solved when I learned that the deceased had loved Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. The man’s son didn’t want to conduct the transaction on the day of the memorial, so we met the day before and he handed me, a perfect stranger, an envelope with cash payment. A very rare case of a 21st Century handshake deal. It felt good to work on trust. We ended up playing “Mahogany Hall Stomp” in place of “Saints” for the postlude. 

The Eagles was shaping up to be a special place for us by this point. It has a culture all of its own, and it always seems easy to settle in and be comfortable there. The barkeep’s name is Royal, so over the past few months I had grown fond of walking up to him and placing my order, “Royal. Crown Royal.” When I found out, however, that Jim Beam was $1.25 cheaper, I decided to forego my whiskey-ordering haiku from then on. Erik had his hyperbolic burners on in April, so he introduced Andy this way: “Andy Hakala. He’s a blues man! The Roughrider! He eats three steak specials before he plays a note!” Ernie Mattson sat in with us again. When I went to collect him the second time at his table to help him to the stage, he handed his wife his cane and said, “Hang on to this. I don’t need it. I’m all exercised up!”


The following week, a Big Four outfit made it down to New Ulm’s Grand Café again. Joe, the now former mayor, who had led choruses of “Ein Prosit” during earlier visits, shook my hand at the break and said, “You guys create the flow out there! The harmonious juices of society!” If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me!

On May 12th, four Aces were hired by the Minnesota Historical Society to play the first annual Retrorama. This event celebrates the vintage, targeting Mid-century. That year featured a Munsingwear exhibit which showed examples of undergarments from the 19th century all the way through the 1980s. A vintage boutique, vintage cocktail and cooking demonstrations, and the opportunity for patrons to decorate their own pair of boxers, including the optional Munsingwear penguin logo! This led to the line of the night, uttered by Robert. We were playing near the tables full of boxers. “Look at those people…drinking and making underwear!”

Zack subbed for Andy at Famous Dave’s that month, Steve Pikal for Erik. After wandering a bit on the bridge to “Coquette,” Zack apologized to me, “Sorry about that bridge. I was pretty close to the melody, wasn’t I?” I adopted a sage expression and replied, “That’s actually our job. To get pretty close to the melody.” As was mentioned previously, I’ve been accused of possessing the vocal stylings of Vincent Price. Our chart of “My Very Good Friend, The Milkman” is keyed low enough that if I had any good sense I wouldn’t sing it. I like the words, though, so I did. When I was finished I looked back at the stunned expressions of my bandmates and called out, “One of you save me!” Steve Pikal’s smile never wavered when he called back, “One?!”

The last day of May had Robert and I in KBEM’s studios with Mary Ann Sullivan on her show, Corner Jazz. We were building up steam for the next week’s release of our third album, an eighteen-month journey from conception to finish. We had experienced delays in the shipment of the CD. I was in Andy’s backyard drinking margaritas on June 8th, the day before the CD release, wondering why I hadn’t heard from Erik yet about a FedX delivery. I said, “I’ll bet in the next conversation I have with him he says something like, ‘Well, Tonya’s sister’s friend’s uncle owns a fleet of ice cream trucks, and he was at a Blue Bunny convention in Milwaukee, and so I got him to swing down and pick up the CDs. He should be in town tomorrow about 7:30.” But there was no more drama after all. They made it!

A Big Fine Thing was released to the world at the Eagles. We had a great crowd of dancers and listeners. From the title tune to some of my favorites like “Perdido Street Blues” and “Back To Black,” we were loose and having a blast all night. We packed up and as Andy left he said, “I’m going to go home and check our online sales. I bet I find out we’ve gone viral and we’re going to be on the next episode of Veronica Mars!” Back at my house I fed Erik snacks and a cheese sandwich. This was like one of those moments when you have to let go of the dog treat quickly or get your fingers snapped up. Erik vowed, “The next time at the Eagles I’m going to order two steak dinner specials, one for before the show, and one for after!”

What you see there is about a ninety-year age range of fans!

Erik working up another appetite.

On June 13th, we helped a family memorialize their dad in the morning, helped Steve’s daughter, Rose, celebrate her 21st birthday at Famous Dave’s that night (even playing “The Rose Of The Rio Grande”), and, Dave and I anyway, ended up at the tavern called Cuzzy’s over on 5th and Washington much later. I was wearing my “Bix Lives!” tee shirt, a memento of the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa. Danny, the young barkeep, said, “Cool shirt. I love Bix’s music.” This dropped Dave and I on the floor in shock. The chances of someone in his thirties working a downtown bar in the 21st Century who knows Bix is probably in the .000something percentile. He explained, “My mom grew up in the Quad City area and I grew up listening to that stuff.” I told him the story of Bix and his “pivot tooth,” which I got out of Eddie Condon’s book. Bix and those guys were traveling one winter, and Bix’s false tooth flew out of the car. They apparently spent an hour looking for it in the snow, before someone miraculously found it. This led to the creation of a shot called the “Pivot Tooth.” Rail gin—Bix drank too much of the bathtub variety—with a garnish of a white Good-N-Plenty. It was awful, but we felt we appropriately honored that Davenportian. 

Cuzzy’s—Open ‘til closed

I was hired to put together a brass band for Westminster Church’s Town Hall Forum. A few Aces and a lot of brass band guys were otherwise occupied that day, so we had to do a big time shuffle. Steve moved to sousaphone, Erik strapped on a bass drum, Chuck DeVore played snare, Wittacee trombone, and I still had Robert come in with a banjo. We were a brass band without a trumpet and sporting a banjo. When we all assembled in the green room, I asked out loud, “Is this what people mean when they say, ‘perpetrating a hoax’?” Erik gave me a quick, affirmative nod. But Wittacee could fill the sanctuary of Westminster by himself, and we only had to play six songs, so we ended up doing great. Although it took us three choruses to find each other on our parading exit song, “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” Back in the green room, I remarked how good it felt to finally gel on “Mardi Gras.” Erik said, “Like getting a rock out of your shoe.” Robert riffed, “The Rock In Your Shoe Brass Band!” Erik exclaimed, “We should hire out all the time!” I commented, “As long as the job’s only thirty minutes.” Erik—“The Thirty Minute Brass Band!”

Do those looks say, "We got away with it!" or what?

During rehearsal in July, we pulled out our calendars to talk about upcoming shows. Erik had a worried look on his face as he looked over Steve’s shoulder. “Steve! That’s a 1983 calendar!” Sure enough, it was. Steve shrugged, “I lost this year’s calendar, so when I looked around the house, I found this one. It turns out the dates matched.” You’ll have to ask Steve why he still had a 1983 calendar sitting around the house.

We played on the grassy knoll at Abbott under beautiful skies both for lunchtime and for dinnertime. We started the afternoon slot for some reason in a perversion where we decided to play only songs in Ab. “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Tiger Rag,” “Postman’s Lament,” and “San” happened before Erik finally gave in. “We gotta get off the Ab! That much Ab in a row, I feel like I’ve been eating butter brickle for an hour!” During the evening show, Andrew “Diz” Gillespie subbed for Dave. He showed up with what used to be a white dress shirt in his hand. “This is Erik’s.” It was stained yellow by sweat and beer. When Erik arrived, he and Diz discussed the shirt’s history. “This was from Seattle?” Erik asked. “That was years ago. I thought I lost this shirt.” The shirt had traveled from Minneapolis to Seattle for a Mama Digdown’s show, then on to New York where Diz currently lives. It hung around there until it was perfectly ripened. Erik began using words like “vinegar” and “bleach” and “sun,” boasting, “I bet I can bring it back!” I said doubtfully, “To what, ecru?” He unrolled the shirt he wore that day to show a six-inch tear in the sleeve. “Maybe I can swap out the sleeves.” Robert chimed in, “Then you can sell the rest of the shirt on craigslist for parts.”

I hired Chuck DeVore to play snare for the Autumn Brew Review. There would be two sessions this year, so we would be on the brewery grounds from noon to seven. I told Chuck to get there early because of the paucity of parking. I said, “We should at least start the day as professionals,” predicting that, what with a jazz band being around that much beer for seven hours, something might happen to diminish that image. Chuck was confident, “We’ll still be professionals! We’ll just be drunk!” Andy and I visited a brewer who brought root beer, cream soda, and raspberry ginger ale. Andy said, “This is great, but bringing root beer to a beer festival is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

Jazz band and beer connoisseurs 

We were hired for the first annual Oysterfest, put on by Meritage restaurant in St. Paul. Chef Russell Klein and his wife, Desta Maree, have themselves quite the joint, and we loved them for our inclusion in this fantastic party! They blocked off St. Peter Street and flew in oysters from all over. There was even a special Oyster Stout from Lift Bridge Brewery. Did you hear me? Oysters, beer and jazz! Chef friends from other restaurants were part of an oyster-shucking contest. It was unseasonably warm for October 9th, so people were in shorts and sundresses, looking summer beautiful. Robert ran late, biking up wearing one of those fit biking outfits. He had his whole suit stuffed in his banjo case. Erik managed to stuff three-dozen oysters into his craw throughout the day. Never let that man near your mollusks! But we were a great fit, especially when we second-lined through the street and into the restaurant. 

On October 13th, we went into the Eagles Aerie #34 with a mission. It was the first time that we were to feature a specific artist or composer from jazz history. This was the night we featured the music of George Lewis. This also started our tradition of conducting a raffle for our fans to win fantastic prizes. Sometimes “fantastic” might be a bit of a strong word to describe our prizes, but you still get to feel like a winner! Our second raffle winner of the night complained, however. “We thought we were going to win one of you guys!” Steve told her, “I’ll meet you in the parking lot later.” 

In November, we featured Jelly Roll Morton. Our “Winin’ Boy Blues” kept clear of the Library of Congress filthiness that Jelly recorded. How often do you get to read the phrase “Library of Congress filthiness?” I scandalized Dre, Heidi and Mrs. Butler with a private reading of those lyrics later. One of my favorite tunes of the night was “New Orleans Bump,” a sinister, minor key song with a manly swagger. 

“New Orleans Bump” Wynton Marsalis-style 

Butch Thompson was also on hand that evening to capture the band for his four-part radio series “Classic Jazz MN,” and later in the night turned in a great, quiet solo on the very same “Winin’ Boy Blues” I said was so dirty. If you don’t sing the thing, it’s a gorgeous bit of music!

November saw us in an unbelievable 1902 Stillwater lumber baron’s ballroom for a wedding, and down in Richfield at the American Legion for the Third Annual All Airborne Ball. We had Zack in the lineup, and were graced by Rick Carlson on piano. Charlie DeVore sat in. In his customary singing exuberance, he accidentally kicked a mic stand off the stage, which took out a whole row of decorative paratroopers. He’s so punk rock! He apologized to Bill Butler during break. Bill said, “That’s all right Charlie. I’m just glad you didn’t go over with the mic, or next year we’d have to call it the Charlie DeVore Memorial All Airborne Ball.” 

Our December Eagles featured Christmas music; including the first time we performed Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” It was a fun night. One of our raffle prizes was a carton of eggnog. Despite it being advertised as a Christmas show, a ballroom dancer appeared in the middle of the feature set and yelled, “No more Christmas songs!” Erik, with full approval of the Southside Aces board, of which I am a trustee, replied on mic, “This is our Christmas feature. We get one set a year, and we’re going to play it. If you don’t like it, you can go sit down until we’re done!” It was one of my favorite Erik speeches ever. We love to please our fans, but sometimes you have to hold your ground. Plus, isn't your sweet caramel chocolate that much better with a little salt?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Six '10

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

Whether you believe in psychic abilities or not, jazz is full of phenomena of that sort. Certainly there are high moments of unspoken communication. For example, on the 4th of January, 2010, we were in our chairs at Famous Dave’s. During a delay in picking out the next tune, “Diga Diga Doo” popped into my head. Before I could say anything, Erik announced, “Now we’re going to play this old tune, ‘Diga Diga Doo.’” You have to understand, we have over 300 songs in our book, and so it is kind of amazing. I turned in my chair to say, “Whoa!” in that you’re-blowing-my-mind sort of way. Later that night, Erik said, “We need an old drinking song.” For some reason, “Some Of These Days” popped in my head. That song certainly fulfills the old requirement, being composed in 1910, but is not a drinking song. Robert calls out, “How about ‘Some Of These Days’?” I pointed to my head then to his head and said, “Psychic!” Robert shot back, “It must all be coming from you. You think it, Stretch and Stump [referring to Erik and himself respectively] say it.”

For the Nomad a few days later, I called Chuck DeVore to help out in Dave’s absence. When I told him the job was only for beer, food and about $1.70 in tips, he said, “Playing jazz for beer and food is a hell of lot better than helping a friend move for beer and food.”

Chuck’s head floating above the bell of Steve’s trombone.

That year, the Best Of Midwest Burlesk fell on the same weekend as my birthday. What could be better than that? I’ll tell you. I traveled with Erik down to New Orleans to experience my first Krewe du Vieux parade. So the Aces hired Witacee for Erik’s chair, and Gus Sandberg for mine. One of the best things to happen out of that weekend was Gus earning the nickname “Tomato,” or, alternately, “Tomato Can.” This on account of the violent blushing he would experience whenever a dancer came within three yards of him. The dancers, of course, picked up on this early on and began using poor Gus’ crimson attacks in their acts. Wait a minute? Poor Gus? Genius Gus!

I know it seems contradictory to say this, but I was back from New Orleans in time for one of my favorite Mardi Gras ever. A great night! The Aces put together a show at the Nomad with seven bands. Count ‘em! We provided jambalaya and a King Cake, and bartender and native New Orleanian Rashad put together $3 Hurricanes from his own hometown recipe. A pick-up band began and ended the night. Up first was Erik, me, Gus Sandberg on tenor, Wittacee, trombone, and Mark Kreitzer, guitar. On the spur of the moment, Erik called us the “Ragtag Tuesday Jazz Band.” 

Wittacee, Tomato Can, Kid Jelly, The Secret Weapon and Big Delicious!

Next was Patty and the Buttons. Wittacee moved over to the sousaphone while Mark and I stayed in our respective chairs. Patrick Harrison showed up in black makeup which melted under the lights. 

The Accordion Bandit!

Those marvelous purveyors of world brass band music, the Brass Messengers, gave us two sets that day.

Why is that clarinetist in every single band?!

The Roe Family Singers, a great band playing old-timey music, slid in between. If you want to hear a little of what that means, check out this video of them at their regular spot, the 331 Club. "Crow Black Chicken"

Kim Roe singing and washboarding

At some point, Erik realized there were five sousaphones in the joint, so he pulled them all together to form a conglomeration he liked to call The Sousaphonic Five. They ripped up “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” and “Saints.” I still can’t believe it. I know you're not. 

Brass Bass Spectacular! A Sonority of Sousaphones!

The Brass Messengers resumed their high-energy zaniness, followed by we Aces men. The last band of the night Erik called The All City Brass Band, another pick-up outfit. All told that night, 26(!) musicians helped see people into Ash Wednesday. There was an English man named Paul who got the winning King Cake piece. It turned out he earned it. Various accounts from his friends described between four and six pieces of cake being wolfed down by Paul until he almost choked on the king. That’s how you do it!

March saw us head south to New Ulm to grace the tiny stage of the Grand Café. Steve had forgotten he booked himself a California Hot Springs spa weekend, so at the last minute another trombonist named Steve filled in. Steve Rogness ended up driving all the way from Duluth to make it. Yeoman’s work. That night, the mayor of New Ulm led a table full of people singing “Ein Prosit” to the band. Gemutlicheit! He also requested “Saints.” I suggested it was more of a command performance than a request. We also played the WWII tune called “Don’t Give Up The Ship” for a veteran who told Dave he got to see Buddy Rich when he was in the service. On the way home, we spent some time coming up with new nicknames for a few bandmembers. Here’s what came out of that brainstorming session: Robert “Butters” Bell on account of his creamy vocals, Dave “Gripes” Michael, on account of how he gripes, and a progression of mustache-wearing Sconnie names for Andy—“Furtrapper” became “The Furrier” became our favorite, “Pelts” Hakala. And let’s not forget “Hot Springs” Sandberg.

“Hot Springs” says “Come on in; it feels great!” 

The next weekend was a big one in our history. On Friday night, the band climbed in three vehicles with recording engineer Dave, instruments, recording equipment and too many groceries. We drove up to the Hakala family cabin on Potato Lake in Wisconsin. We got there through a thick fog. It was so foggy we decided to repair to the Backwoods Grill for dinner. Pizza was the main course, but Erik and I became fascinated by all the pickling going on around there. A plateful of turkey gizzards, sausages and eggs ensued. A bunch of briny pickled scariness that was. I'm pretty sure my digestive system still hasn't forgiven me. I played “Beer Barrel Polka” on the jukebox, and overheard a women at the bar say, “I hate this song. You can’t make love to it.” Back at the Hakala Shack, we continued cultivating band chemistry through the agent of brown liquor. We learned something important that night. If Erik makes his way through a bourbon or three, don’t let him make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! We awoke the next morning with jelly all over the cabin. How’d he get it all over the place?! When we peered into the refrigerator, there was an actual stalactite of peanut butter jutting from the Smuckers. Dave decided a moniker was born. For a day or two he called Erik “Jelly Jar” Jacobson. You can’t hang around a jazz band for more than twelve hours without getting a nickname.

We had our troubles for the first half of the day. We just couldn’t shake recording anxiety or something. I was taking it a little too hard, maybe. But then Erik reminded me how we were at least getting to be jazzmen hanging out in a cabin eating good food and drink. I relaxed some. The whole band seemed to fare better in the night session. We didn’t get enough good takes to make the whole album that weekend, but there were some good times. When it was time to leave, we still had too many groceries, so Erik created draft lots of the goods. He would say things like, “You can choose beer, but you can’t have all the beer.” Or, “You can take all the French bread, OR two loaves and a pack of cheese.” We laughed at his focus. He simply said, “I’m the Parcel Master!”

"Jelly Jar" listening for the ocean

Bob of the PBR Brothers at the Nomad passes away, and we were on hand for his memorial at the end of March. Bob’s barstool was painted gold, as was a can of PBR and a coaster. At the April Famous Dave’s, Zack subbed for Andy. There is a habit bandleaders have developed of introducing Zack by pronouncing Lozier, his last name, as “Looshwah.” I want to say it’s an Erik thing; at least that's from whom I heard it first. That night at Famous Dave’s Erik kept saying, “And Zack Looshwah from French Minneapolis!” 

Erik had just become a new papa, and Andy put himself on a sort of paternity leave from the band to become a new papa himself. We had Henry Blackburn in Andy’s chair for the May Famous Dave’s, and Kid Ben Bell Bern came up from Chicago to join us for The Big Teasy. This was another huge Lili’s Burlesque Revue joint up at the Ritz. As in the December previous, the band would play ALL the music. This required a lot of back and forth between me and the dancers about how they wanted things done. I had professional conversations where I was given instructions like this:

Dancer, said sincerely without salaciousness—“So there are three points in my act where I take things off—my gloves, my dress, and my bra—could you guys make sure during those times to make the song more…um…dirty?” My favorite memory was our performance of “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” with Sweetpea and her hula hoops. 

Henry saved us again at Famous Dave’s in June, and that was also the month we decided to play our last show at the Nomad. While it might have been very noble of us to host this jam session for three years, a sense of nobility wears thin when a couple beers is your only payment. I consider it, however, a great part of our history. 

June brought us into the St. Paul heavy metal bastion, Station 4, for part of the Hot Summer Jazz Fest. They were recruited for the jazz festival on account of their propinquity to Mears Park. The soundman was used to high volume extremes, but did a great job learning on the fly to capture our acoustic outfit. From Station 4’s mosh pit to the Oak Ridge Country Club for a 90th birthday party. During the first hour, we were like a split squad in spring training. They had the brass guys out in the parking lot greeting guests, while Dave, Robert and I played cocktail music inside. We were all together for the dance. This time, we got the Butlers hired for the job, demonstrating some dance moves to about eleven women and one reluctant man. Our rendering of “Smoke Rings” was the hit of the night.

July found Andy back in his chair at Famous Dave’s and Erik introducing him all night as “Coo Coo Chocula.” It occurs to me as I’m writing that, that if we had a Southside Aces Most Nicknames contest, Andy would probably win. I haven’t even told you how his mustache caused me to call him “General Beauregard” for a few weeks.

We were in New Ulm again that month and for the first time we appeared at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34, over in Seward neighborhood. We began our association with them as a Big Four unit, just rhythm section and me. 

It was so dang hot on August 8th! The Bloomington Jazz Fest out at the Normandale Lake Bandshell went on as scheduled despite triple digits on the thermometer. My favorite moment was when Erik told the crowd this: “So last night I’m going to my twentieth high school reunion, and I told my wife I wanted to make up a tall tale about what I do for a living. I asked her, ‘Should I say I’m a spy? I’m in the Secret Service?’ She said, ‘Why don’t you tell them you play sousaphone in a traditional jazz band?’”

August was busy. We played in Chaska in the town square, and in Outing on a barge on a lake. On Labor Day weekend, Sam and his bride Becky had five of us play the dance. “Smoke Rings” again provided a warm fuzzy of a memory. Sam is a humorist, so he may appreciate some of the other goings on. While waiting to go into the ballroom, Mark Kreitzer and I are sitting with Wittacee, who has his sousaphone resting on the floor. A mom and her daughter, probably about seven, came through the room. The mom created a pop quiz in the moment by pointing at the sousaphone and asking her, “Honey, how does he play that?” Mark jumped in before the daughter formulated an anwser. “Poorly,” he said.

I think the people were enjoying the dance with us, even though I had to turn down several requests for not being in our book. “Poinciana” and “Charlie Brown!” was as close as anyone got to a jazz song. We also were asked to play some Neil Diamond. Wittacee gave them about six sousaphone bars of “America,” as well as the first six notes of the theme to Sesame Street when that was requested. Steve Rogness, playing trombone that night, asked Dave, “Does Tony know what he’s getting into telling people they can make requests?” Dave replied, “Yeah. I think he likes saying no to people.” I love trying to field requests, of course, but sometimes you strike out a lot. Another wedding guest asked for “Sweet Home Alabama.” Dave was the only one to hear her. He had his smartass turned all the way up, so he said to me, “We just got a request for ‘Stars Fell On Alabama.’” He fooled me into a false happiness that we could finally honor one. The Skynyrd was not done justice that night. 

Cowtown Jamborama 2010! 

That year featured an all-sub rhythm section. Matt Peterson, bass; Dean Harrington, guitar; and Nik Bortolussi, drums. Nik turned 21 that night, so I had prepared myself for the coming-of-age chaos. Down at the Eagles #38, $5 rum and cokes the size of movie theater sodas found their way into his hands. By the time we started the late night sets at Studio 906, he sort of sort of looked like a picture hanging on a post-earthquake wall. His father is a jazz drummer, however, so nature and nurture combined to keep him relatively upright. What a way to turn 21!

Nik appears to be listing starboard

Hospitals have overhead public address codes. These tell the staff if there’s a fire or other things going on. “Code Green” at Abbott Northwestern means someone is causing a ruckus, and the ruckus needs quelling. On September 23rd, the Aces went into Abbott to play for the employees. Charlie DeVore was on hand for Andy, and Liz Draper for Erik. As I was setting up the bandstand, I heard the hospital call a code green, and I thought, “Oh, Dave, what did you do now?” But everyone made it to the bandstand without incident. I told them the code green story, and expressed gratitude that none of them were involved. Later in our second set, Charlie performed “Tiger Rag.” If you haven’t witnessed this miracle before, I need you take a few minutes to make sure that it doesn’t become one of your life regrets. The below video was from a Famous Dave’s night. If you want to get right to it, check it out starting at 3:42. Make sure you’re sitting:

So back at Abbott during that day’s version of “Tiger Rag,” I’m trying to prevent Charlie from getting up in his chair, even though the thought occurred to me that at least we had an emergency room close at hand. During my attempted restraint of the wild man Liz started shouting, “Code green! Code green!” When I told Erik about Liz later, he lamented, “Man! Think of all the people I’ll never get to meet. Abraham Lincoln, and all my subs!”

People Erik won't get to meet. The one on the top is Liz.


A couple of days later, Robert marries his sweetheart, Katie. A fine function in which the Aces were proud to take part. Included was a“By And By/Bourbon Street Parade” second line out to Central Avenue in Nordeast Minneapolis. 

Look who Robert caught!

In October, we provided strolling music for the Autumn Brew Review. This is held in the back yard of the old Grain Belt Brewery building on 13th Avenue Northeast. Dozens of brewers providing samples of their wares under tents on a crisp fall day. I met a couple that told me about their son wanting to play clarinet. They were expressing doubts about this as a career choice. I gave them a what-are-you-talking-about look and said, “Look. If you become a professional clarinet player,” I gestured around the grounds, “you get free beer at beer fests!” The mother laughed, “I’ll go right home and tell my ten-year-old son.”

On November 3rd the Southside Aces Big Four went back into the Eagles Aerie #34. We were approached immediately by one of the dancers, “We are ballroom dancers, so please play rumbas, waltzes and foxtrots.”  Mark, in Robert’s chair that night, whispered to Dave, “What the hell’s a foxtrot?” This became the genesis for new band language. “We announced “Mama Inez” as our “New Orleans rumba.” Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” was our “New Orleans tango,” and so on. By using the words “New Orleans” in front of the names of the dances, I believe it legally releases us from any responsibility to authenticity. That was also the night one of the barflies asked me, “You play the clarinet? I like that.”  I thanked him and he continued, “Are you from Vienna?” Maybe his brain was set up thusly: Clarinet + Grey Tweed Fedora = Vienna. I don’t know. “Close,” I said with a straight face, jerking my thumb in the direction of my neighborhood, “Phillips.”

Bill Butler got us another job, this one the 2nd Annual All Airborne Ball at the American Legion down on 65th and Portland. This dance was to benefit the Airborne Circle monument at Fort Snelling, and also featured a vintage uniform contest. It was a Veteran’s Day affair, so we swung out on Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” 

On the 10th and 11th of November, we went into Humans Win! studio in Northeast Minneapolis to record the rest of our album. 

Owner and recording engineer Lance Conrad made things go smoothly, and we really had a great time. We spontaneously decided to record a tune that had recently come up on our radar, “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing.” This would end up being our title tune. Rick Rexroth came in to lay down his vocal on “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” the second day. I had asked him to sing it “somewhere between the St. Olaf Choir and a New Orleans front porch.” He floored us! 

And in December our appearance at the Eagles included a vocalist who goes by the name of Jimmy sitting in on “St. Louis Blues.” He was of the Italian crooner sort, and even had a little stage maneuver I liked to call his “jazz moonwalk.” And in one of the most important historical events in Southside Aces history, Erik began introducing himself as, “Erik on the Santaphone.” Eventually this became “Santa on the Santaphone.” As Fats Waller once said, “Don’t give your right name. No, no, no.”