This is the Fifth in a series of historical retrospectives on the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.
The first time the Aces reconvened in 2009 was at the Nomad. A customer walked up to tip us, but claimed not to have any cash, “Could I write a check?” he inquired. We didn’t see why not. Peter wrote it for $25, and on top of that, the bank took it! An auspicious beginning.
But not so much for the Times Bar and Café. Though we didn’t know it until later, January 17th would be our last appearance there. Within a month the venerable jazz club would be closed for good. That still lay in the future, however, so I’m glad in the meantime we could have a good night. We had a crowd full of dancers and listeners. Our night included a bachelorette beer bottle solo, Karen Vieno Paurus singing “Minnie the Moocher,” and dancers Lisa and Stan showing up with baby Zander. I think it might have been the first time I saw their little potato. Claudia said, “Maybe he wants to be here because he was here while he was in the womb.” “Washboard Wiggles” was requested—Mrs. Butler always has liked that one—featuring Dave. I introduced him with the same sobriquet Walter Winchell used in 1929 to describe Duke Ellington’s drummer Sonny Greer. “Here’s our Ace of the symbol dusters, Dave Michael!” We gave the crowd “The Sheik of Araby” for an encore. Maybe a band should always be careful choosing their last song of the night, just in case it ends up being the last one you ever play in a joint! The band experienced great glee in derailing Andy’s vocal. Instead of the usual “With no pants on!” as a response to every line sung, we began singing, “With a mustache.” We broke him up. Imagine this: Andy—“Into your tent I’ll creep.” Band—“With a mustache!”
Bill and Shannon. I can’t hear the song, but it looks like “Washboard Wiggles.”
Near the end of the month we were the house band for the second annual Best of Midwest Burlesk. Local rapper/singer/songwriter Omaur Bliss appeared with us that weekend in his capacity as a singer. He’s a handsome fella who keeps track of his physique (I’m more of a man who keeps track of the donuts). But Robert could relate to his exercising ways. During rehearsal Robert and Omaur were showing each other different types of pushups. My favorite acts from the weekend included the Ladyslippers—Gina Louise, Ophelia Flame and Fanny Tastic. I just report the names; I don’t make them up. Who hasn’t experienced the dilemma of getting too hot shoveling snow? Their solution was to go from Parkas to Pasties…like you do.
In February, we and a few of the ladies from Lili’s played at the W Hotel at the bottom of the Foshay Tower for VitaMN’s Hotness Party. I’d like to be able to accuse Lili’s of stalking us, but who’s the more likely follower in this scenario? Anyhow, it’s intriguing when we the people take it upon ourselves to determine who is the hottest man and woman in town. Before playing, Erik and I were leaning on a railing overlooking the bar. Lili’s Nadine Dubois and Christian, the man who hired us, approached. Nadine joked, “I guess we just get two musicians tonight.” I said, “Yep. Sousaphone and clarinet duets. Now that’s Hotness!” Christian excitedly said, “That IS hotness!”
February 24th saw a hodgepodge band with a quorum of Aces back in the same house in which we had to try so hard to avoid electrocution the previous year. They had repaired and made beautiful, and wanted to celebrate. Robert, Erik, Steve and I were there. Nik Bortolussi gave us the drumming, and the role of Ben Webster was played by tenor man Paul. Charmine Michelle laid us low when she sang “Solitude,” in honor of Duke Ellington, whom it was announced would adorn the Washington D.C. quarter. It was the first time an African American’s image was on American currency. As we liked to say that night, “Duke’s on the money!”
The PBR Brothers. That was my affectionate nickname for Bob and Carl, twin brothers who helped out around the Nomad. I loved those guys. They would always be willing to lend a hand, and never failed to compliment us. I never saw either of them without a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy within arm’s reach. I had just recently taken pains to learn how to tell them apart. I bumped into Carl after the show that day. “Great music today,” he said. “Thanks, Carl,” I smiled, “It is Carl, right?” He nodded. I said, “It took me two years, but I finally have it right.” Carl forgave me, “That’s all right. It took me thirty.”
Bob and Carl on the patio
March 25th was a sad day on account of it being the memorial of Erik’s grandfather, Jack. In case you didn’t know this, Erik plays his grandfather’s sousaphone. I want to say that horn turned 80 this year. Claudia and I were standing with him beforehand, and he asked, “How many times through do you think I should play ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’?” He was going to do it as a solo, and was worried about how many times people would want to hear the sousaphone render the melody. We thought maybe two times, but that he should feel it out. When he asked Tonya a few minutes later, however, she was definite. “Two times. The sousaphone is just kind of a unique instrument for soloing.” We laughed, and Tonya worried she gave offence. Erik assured her that we had just come to a similar conclusion. Then he teased, “It’s like if you told someone, ‘I really think it’s neat that you color outside the lines.’” As it turned out, two times was all he could make it through. Later in the service, I had the honor of joining him on “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Just the two of us played it twice down. He ended on his low Bb, and I on my lowest D. The held chord reverberated throughout the small, otherwise silent chapel. Tonya said afterwards, “I just wanted you guys to put that last note in a box so I could take it out later.”
The April Nomad landed on Easter. We provided ham sandwiches, Jelly Beans and Peeps. Eric Johnson subbed for Erik on sousaphone. I began introducing him as Eric “With A C” Johnson. Eric and Erik. Get it? Erik was away that weekend in France lending a brass bass hand to the Youngblood Brass Band. He returned by the 20th to join us in a foggy, jet-lagged way at Famous Dave’s. About the only thing he could say, and say often, was, “Oui, oui! I’m Erik Jacobson on the sousa-moi-phone!”
Le Jazz Hot
In May we played Mother’s Day at the Nomad. Erik and I decided casseroles would be the appropriate food for the occasion. Claudia made a cheesy potato thing that was actually called “Mormon Funeral Potatoes.” Erik called his mom, listed the ingredients he had in his larder, and was able to fashion a beef noodle dish of some sort. He decided to call his “Lutheran Funeral Noodles.” That day, David West blew us away for the first of many times with how he could make with the Al Jolson on “5’2” Eyes Of Blue.”
In June we played over on Raspberry Island in St. Paul. Erik changed into his suit at the job, but forgot to bring socks. We called him “The Huck Finn of Jazz.” Over at the Nomad, Eric Johnson subbed for Erik again. It was on that day that Andy refined my “With-A-C” to “Wittacee.” Doesn’t it sort of sound like a nickname you’d pick up down south?
Out at Friendship Village Senior Living, I warned Steve before we started that if anybody came up to him to bring him to his room, he should say, “No. I don’t live here.” During break, I traded my steak for Wittacee’s potatoes. The crowd kept requesting “It Had To Be You,” which we didn’t have in the book at the time. “We have another request for ‘It Had To Be You.’ So we're very happy to play ‘Bill Bailey.’” I asked Wittacee afterwards if he could wait to receive one check for two jobs; he’d be on another one with us in a couple days. “Are you going to starve,” I asked compassionately. He answered, “Nah. This was a two-steak job. If it was only one steak, I’d need my check.”
June was busy. Folks in Mears Park got to hear us on the Bix version of “Old Man River” and Armstrong's “Skokiaan” for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. My mom was there, so I told the crowd they’d have to answer to her if they didn’t buy a CD. This being our third year trying, we finally got great weather for a Harriet Bandshell appearance. Charlie DeVore was subbing for Andy. Parking was at a premium. Charlie walked up and said, “I had to buy a parked car over there, just so I could be close enough to make it.”
July brought four of us to a Summitt Avenue mansion to play for friends Chef Zander and Emmy. Zander’s brother roast/toasted him by saying he couldn’t believe Zander could land someone like Emmy. So I called “I Can’t Believe She’s In Love With Me,” and “She’s Funny That Way” before I became paranoid that an alert member of the wedding party might think we were making comments with our song selections. During break, Erik and I discovered that that wonderful chef had made sure there were blueberry, peach and strawberry rhubarb pies weighing down a table in the dining room. He and I literally had seven pieces between us before the night was through! Jazz in a Fitzgeraldian setting, good friends in love and lots of pie. What more could you ask for?
In August, Robert, Andy and I drove out to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for some shenanigans. It was 11:00 in the morning. We’re standing there when Robert asked, “Have you guys been drinking?” We hadn’t been, and aren’t known to be morning imbibers, so the question struck us strange. We shot quizzical looks at him. “Maybe it’s mouthwash,” he tried to explain. I maintained my puzzlement and asked, “Does Makers Mark count as mouthwash?”
At the Nomad we celebrated the band’s sixth anniversary. Inside, the Fringe Festival staged a mini-rock opera, the actors in cat and dog costumes belting it out. That wasn't for us, though. Outside, three trumpets, two clarinets, two tenors, an alto, flute, rhythm section and four trombones chewed up “St. Louis Blues.” I conducted a music and meat raffle, while Erik borrowed a razor from Andy so he could shave a missed spot on his chin. Raffles and shaving on the bandstand!
Two of my favorite Aces stories happened in August. On the 14th, Robert, Dave, Zack, Matt Peterson, Patrick Harrison and I flew out to Denver for Lindy On The Rocks. Dancers can be frugal. I’m not going to go too far into that, but it will give you some answers if you were wondering about the above lineup. Friday night the Robert Bell Hot Swing Combo would drive the dancers into a frenzy. On Saturday, the EXACT SAME BAND would perform as the Southside Aces. We kept joking on mic how much the two bands hated one another, how we had huge humbugs going on for years. I know for a fact some of the dancers were worried.
I remember the first night at the hotel when Zack asked Patrick and me, “Do you smell cake?” We did, and at first we couldn’t figure it out. Was there a bakery in the next room? I think it was Patrick who figured out. He had just been ironing out the travel creases from his recently heavily starched white shirt. Mmm…shirt cake! I think we did a great job that weekend. Late night Saturday at the after hours dance spot, Bauer’s, all six men of the band stood outside in our black suits with ties loosened, holding fine bourbons and scotches, four of us smoking cigars. It cut quite the scene. A job well done. At the Denver airport on the way home, Patrick told me he noticed me in the mornings doing yoga out on the balcony of our hotel. He described briefly wondering what was going on, “I thought you were praying to Mecca.” I replied, “I was facing south, not east.” After a pause, “Praying to New Orleans, I guess.” Patrick suggested that if that was the case, I should pour out a little Abita beer before each prayer. “And whiskey on the major holidays!” I added. We decided the major holidays would be Mardi Gras, Louis Armstrong’s birthday, and Halloween.
On the 21st, we had a high-pressure set to perform for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors. It was high-pressure, because all of the people at this convention knew all the recordings ever made by anybody. We were scouted two years previously by Chuck Sweningsen. He’s a small man, but has more jazz inside of him than any three other people. It wasn’t a “Bourbon Street” and “Bill Bailey” day, for sure. I worked up a bunch of history on the tunes I selected. Not too much, for fear of running into a pack of sixteen sharp-fanged historians out in the hall of the conference room. But enough that at first Erik called me “History Hank,” and later, “Freddy Fact.” We were introduced by the wonderful Leigh Kamman. He has the type of poetic, extemporaneous introductions that even if you think they might be too long, you never want them to stop! Then we launched my list:
Back Room Romp
Kansas City Stomps
I’m Walkin’ This Town
Blues In The Air
Ol’ Man River
Perdido Street Blues
Red Man Blues
Have A Little Dream On Me
E. St. Louis Toodle-oo
The band actually witnessed folks in this crowd lip-syncing to my history! Leigh and Chuck praised us. I was pretty proud, but then I got my head back out of the clouds. Andy and I met a married couple who belonged to the Toronto Ellington Society. I bravely asked her how we did. She said, “We love it whenever we hear Ellington, no matter how it’s played.” Andy and I began to grin. The husband added, “Not whenever! Some bands murder him!” I smiled more broadly. “Hopefully,” I said, “we just put him in the hospital.”
Here’s Chuck scouting the band at the Nomad, dressed as always in his Jazz Scout uniform.
September brought us out to Omaha for another Cowtown Jamborama, this time with Wittacee in tow. This is the one when Robert broke his toe rushing to retrieve the band van after our Po’boy dinners at a restaurant called Jazz. He played the first set while his body settled into shock. He wasn’t going to make it if we didn’t do something. Fortunately, one of the dancers was a Dr. Joan “I Trained In A Bronx E.R." Bonesetter. Backstage, I threw Robert’s leg over my shoulder and pinned his foot down. Joan walked up without hesitating and reset his toe, snap! just like that. He stated he was at least 72% better immediately. He did great after that, even if he only could wear one shoe.
We played the after hours dance at the 6th and Cuming art gallery from the previous year. The MC there asked us if we wanted to be called something else for the night. Not a bad idea if you want to avoid litigation. The band huddled and came up with “Count Hakula and His Mustache Troubadours.” We left at 4 a.m., some of us thinking food, some of us thinking bed. Before we had to step out of the van and settle the argument like men, Dave spotted an open sign under the freeway. I put the van on two wheels making the turn into Pettit’s Donuts and Rolls. It was 4:10, and they had been open all of ten minutes. Six jazzmen in six suits and eleven shoes ate the freshest donuts ever!
On a gorgeous October evening, good friends Julie and Claire got themselves all hitched up in a ceremony on the Andiamo riverboat out of Stillwater. The girls had a bubble machine and the Southside Aces out on deck to greet passengers as they boarded. We played for the dance as well. Julie had asked us to surprise Claire with Taj Mahal’s “Queen Bee.” Outside of the New Orleans book, right? Well, since New Orleans is famous for folding in as much of the world as possible, we held up that part of the tradition. Steve sang marvelously. He said later, “I looked out on the floor, and Julie and Claire were so happy I really got into singing it for them.” Those two lovebirds inspired us on our other surprise, a cover of Harry Connick’s “Come By Me.” Erik said, “I noticed it took them about twelve bars before they recognized it. But when they did they were so happy, jumping for joy—I almost starting crying!” Indeed, a joyful boat ride.
We were at the Dakota in November with Lili’s. playing all the music, not just the interludes. It was exhausting, but great fun. Our December was quiet but for a couple. Famous Dave’s and the Nomad. The only other one was when the Southside Aces Big Four went into Honey Lounge on December 12th. This was the new incarnation of Jitters, below Ginger Hop, the new incarnation of the Times. There was no longer music upstairs, but Honey was trying this and that. Robert, Dave, Liz Draper and I...and life goes on.