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 CafĂ©. 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.” 

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