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 CafĂ© 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?

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