Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Nine '13

This is the Ninth and final installment in a series of historical retrospectives covering the first ten years of the Southside Aces, in celebration of their tenth anniversary.

It took a while for me to recover from our big tenth anniversary party last month and find my way back to the last chapter of this story. According to the people who make this stuff up, a tenth anniversary is often celebrated with aluminum. I tried to get the Aces an Alcoa sponsorship, but my “Does your local jazz band shield their homes with aluminum?” ad campaign fell on deaf ears. So did my offer to change the band’s name to “South Siding Aces.” Some ideas take time to gain acceptance.

It took a few weeks before we touched down in 2013. We re-entered that hallowed hall of ribs-and-such called Famous Dave’s. We were offered more money and a year’s worth of dates. Our previous negative experience was just enough in our past for us to say yes, so there we were. I decided we would go in there as the “Southside Aces Big Five,” always as a quintet, to make the money slightly better for each man, and to give guys the option of not always playing. Famous Dave’s didn’t exactly come off firing on all cylinders for us this first night back, advertising us as “Jack Knife and the Sharps.” A bemused band, we. At the end of the first set, Erik introduced Zack as “the brass knuckles of the band,” me as, “the Secret Weapon of the band,” Robert as, “Mr. Class,” Dave as being “all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota,” and himself as “Santa Claus on the Santaphone.” The legend continued.

Our appearance at the Eagles was considerably classier than usual. And Robert wasn’t even there! A satellite looking down on that portion of the earth would have detected a huge surge of sophistication beaming from the south ballroom. A Johnny Mercer flare. Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson joined the Aces to feature the music of that Savannah legend, from “Moon River” to “I’m Old Fashioned,” to “That Old Black Magic.” Maud and Rick were incredible, as were the raffle prizes. Mercer’s hometown is also famous for it’s hushpuppies, so one lucky fan walked home with a $1.99 package of hushpuppy mix. Like I said, classy.

Some hot oil away from deliciousness!

The jazz was played on the first Monday of February at Famous Dave’s, with Steve Pikal on bass and Reid Kennedy on drums. We launched with “Under The Bamboo Tree,” and stuck a fork in it with Kermit Ruffins’ “Goodnight.” How’s that for a 95-year span of jazz? In between we comported ourselves well on tunes such as “Blue Again,” “Comes Love,” and a very hot “China Boy.” 

Check out Kid Ory on that 1901 classic, “Under The Bamboo Tree.”

The following Sunday found us the unfortunate recipients of a huge, wet snow storm, which fell right on top of our Mardi Gras Tea at the Sokol (Czech Hall) in St. Paul. Not enough folks emerged from their hibernaculums to ensure the Sokol a profit that day. I believe I still take issue with the people who were scared off by the snow, on account of the example our good friend, Mimi, set by driving TWO HOURS from Wisconsin so she could get her second line on. Let that be a lesson to you people! A good ol’ time was had nonetheless. The Southside Aces with New Orleans caterer Cajun 2 Geaux in a beautiful 1897 hall made sure things were done right. From “If Ever I Cease To Love” to “Mardi Gras In New Orleans.” Jim, one of our fans, gave us one of the best compliments a performer can receive. “You guys! You could have folded up your spirits with this small crowd. Back in my younger days, I played in a crummy scab band and we couldn’t hack a small crowd. But you guys just shined, played all out!” It’s my blog. I can let you know when someone is patting me and my band mates on our respective backs if I want to.

One of six stage backdrops at Sokol Hall painted in 1932

Mardi Gras proper found us doing our “Thirty Minute Brass Band” routine in between Cajun bands at the Eagles again. The Aces with Chuck DeVore on snare, and Wittacee on sousaphone. Six musicians, twenty-seven minutes, three hundred dollars. Wittacee had received the call to sub for Erik less than an hour before we played. I met him at the bar, handed him a PBR Tallboy and $60, ten dollars more than everyone else received. “You get the twenty percent bonus for the rush job,” I told him.

I entitled our Valentine’s dance at the Eagles, “Sweethearts On Parade.” Unprecedented in our history was our online auction of a romantic night for two. Peg and Emily won this unbelievable prize package: two entries, a table for two up on the stage with the band, pizza from bartender Royal’s toaster oven, two vending machine deserts, $2 in quarters for the skill crane (Peg actually won something called a “Love Bear”), ten song requests, with the band committed to honoring two of them, and three opportunities throughout the night to yell “Hit it, boys!” All of that was beside the raffle! A heart-shaped tin of strawberry lollipops with Yoda on the lid, Valentine-colored peanut M&Ms, chocolate-covered dried Bing cherries, an oinking Valentine pig that pooped candy into a tray by it’s butt, and a pair of predominantly red Popeye boxers that said, “Thinking of you” across the butt. Oh yeah, and we played some music.

On March 1st, we traveled to Des Moines to play the Heartland Swing Festival. I recommend Velma’s homemade rhubarb pie that she sells out of the second story of the red barn that is the rest stop part of Diamond Jo’s Casino and rest stop off of 35. I had that with some Dr. Pepper and Cheetos. I bought the Cheetos so I could get some protein in my lunch. 

We featured the music of Fats Waller at the Eagles, with pianist Steven Hobert subbing for Robert. Before the show, Dave tells me a clove of garlic fell out of his suit when he took it out of his closet. This from the late night pizza we had after the last job. There’s where a fella can be happy he didn’t have his suit pressed between shows. We began the feature set with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Erik wanted to announce it as Waller’s “most popular hit.” I told him it wasn’t necessarily true, and Zack made sure I remembered how much of a nerd I am. Erik announced it as, “arguably his most popular hit.” I washed my hands of him, saying, “I ain’t protecting you from the Charlies out there!” referring to how Charlie DeVore was sitting fifteen feet away, and would probably know exactly which tune topped the Fats Waller hit parade. He and Zack laughed at me. Erik displayed mock fear, “When we’re done, I’m just going to run out of the building, talk to no one!” The very next song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” he also announced as, “arguably his most popular hit,” thus diluting his original declaration, and perhaps saving him from the wrath of historians.

In April, Henry Blackburn gave us what for on our show, “The Alto in Jazz.” Captain John Handy, Joe Poston, Harold Dejan, and “Singin’ The Blues,” Frankie Trumbauer’s famous recording. I know Frank was technically on a C-Melody saxophone, but who—except for you three people who sent me emails— is going to argue? Among many greats, the crowd heard “You Can’t Escape From Me,” “Ice Cream,” and “Curzon Hall Boogie,” a tune I got off of an album Henry did with Kid Dutch. Henry told the story of how I had asked where Curzon Hall was in New Orleans. The piano player on the date with Henry was named Andrew Curzon Hall. Not a place but a man! Erik said, “I hope someday someone names a song ‘Owen Jacobson Boogie.’”

We played Famous Dave’s in May with Keith Boyles on bass. Zack wanted to dig deeper into our book, so I took him at his word and called several that don’t usually come across our desk. A couple of Irving Berlin numbers, including “The Song Is Ended.” When I sang my high E flats on that one, it sounded like someone was cinching me too tightly. “Jazz Me Blues,” Bix style. A King Oliver “Riverside Blues.” In the second set, I called three from the A.J. Piron repertoire, “Red Man Blues,” “Bouncin’ Around,” and “Mama’s Gone Goodbye.” Keith admitted that he’d been liking the repertoire, but he begged, “Tony! Can we play something I know?” Zack chimed in, seconding the motion. I looked at them, perhaps a bit too triumphantly, and said, “I broke you guys! I broke you!”

The Guitar in Jazz was our feature at the Eagles. We added guitarist Dean Harrington in order to hot club it up. We played “Montmartre (Django’s Jump),” and a great version of “Nuages” with the stormtrooper introduction. Our instrumentation on “Minor Swing” was Zack on rhythm guitar, Dave playing brushes on HIS guitar, Dean, Robert and Erik. Four guitars and a sousaphone. That can’t have happened before. Robert did the famous Santo and Johnny solo, “Sleep Walk.” 

For the raffle, I had done my research. One of Django’s favorite foods was roasted hedgehog, or as he knew it, “niglos.” I even found a recipe for it’s traditional preparation. Needless to say, however, I didn’t have time to find, kill, herb up, roll in clay, throw in a fire, de-quill and package one of the little darlings, so I settled for a large bag of in-the-shell peanuts and a best of Django recording. The peanut bag was at least in the shape of a hedgehog. Erik told the crowd I had made a mistake not calling him first. He said, “I have hedgehog.” Then he added, “I’m not saying it’s fresh…”

Uncooked hedgehog

The Aces played at the Dakota on Mother’s Day. Craig Eichhorn told me “It’s not a performance, but it’s not a background job either.” Somewhere between the spotlight and the potted palm, I guess. I remember the incredible grits they made that day. We had Matt Peterson on bass both for that one and the June Famous Dave’s. Matt and Robert spent every non-music moment talking feverishly about their other shared passion, bikes. 

On the sixth we played at the Harriet Tap Room over on Minnehaha Avenue. We were able to partake of their beer, and Chef Tim from Cajun 2 Geaux brought his food truck out and was very generous to the band. It was a bit cool and damp for June, but not unlike most of the nights by this halfway point of 2013. Steve said with a straight face, “This winter isn’t going too bad.” We had a regular sound check. “Kick,” said the soundman, and Dave played his bass drum. “Set for the overhead,” said the soundman, and Dave flailed around on the rest of the drums. “Oboe,” said the soundman for me, and the band cracked up. Zack called me “Kid Oboe” that night. Outside of the comedy highlight, we knocked out a sweet version of “Smoke Rings,” like you do when you play in a brewery.

The Minnesotan legend, cornetist Doc Evans, is whom we featured that month. We recreated the record that was made of his 1953 appearance at the Walker Art Center. We began with one of Doc’s quotes regarding how he was happy to play anywhere: “Jazz doesn’t know where it is, and it doesn’t care.” Then we launched with “Under The Double Eagle.” Doc tended to play with West Coast Dixieland tempos, meaning that they really stepped on it. Be careful not to fall off the back of the truck! But the Aces are the Aces, so we marked the difference between Doc and us right off the bat. Our “Double Eagle” had a groove, despite it being an 1893 march. Charlie DeVore came right up to the stage upon the last note to shake my hand. “That was the perfect tempo!” he extolled. “None of that racehorse business with you guys!” In response, Erik said on mic, “You have to feel pretty good about the way you played a song when Charlie DeVore comes up and shakes the band’s hand!” As an introduction to “Muskrat Ramble,” Zack had Erik tell this story to the crowd:

“We’re all adults here right? So, the other day Zack was standing on a bank doing some fishing when he noticed a couple of Muskrats, well, in a romantic situation.” I said in an aside to Zack, “A ramble, so to speak.” Zack got up to finish the story. “When they saw me, the male muskrat ran back into its cave, and the female was so mad at me for the interruption!”

Muskrat, perhaps angry, I'm not sure

We had a rehearsal at my house for an upcoming big show at the Old Log Theater in July. With twenty tunes to get through, I set the bar low for what passed for moving on to the next song. “That’s my goal,” I told Rick Carlson, “a minimum of familiarity. That way, when the band has entirely forgotten about the music by next month’s show, they can open the books and experience déja vu.” 

July Famous Dave’s featured the Southside Aces Big Four Brass Band on account of Robert being in Wisconsin at the start of the night. I, too, once received that phone call that gives you that terrible sinking feeling, when someone tells you that you aren’t where you signed up to be. But we rolled with it just fine. At the Eagles the next week, we featured the music of Benny Goodman, with Keith Boyles on bass and Rick Carlson on piano. My personal pantheon of clarinetists tends toward the New Orleans men, but the King of Swing has been impressing my listening ears as of late, especially his small group recordings. We performed tunes like “Shivers,” “Pick-a-Rib Part 1,” the trio version of “Oh, Lady Be Good,” with the four key changes, and “Slipped Disc.” I had a ball! 

The Southside Aces Big Four—this time Zack, me, Robert and Steve Pikal on bass—made our way down to New Ulm to please the denizens of that famous German town at the Grand Café. Steve is the nephew of a legend in those parts, Wally Pikal. Wally was famous for being able to play three trumpets at the same time while on a pogo stick. When I told Zack this, he sort of frowned and said, “Why would you do that?” I also remember how we couldn’t fulfill five requests in a row. FIVE. The crowd still liked us that night, but I’m not sure if they trusted us.

On July 15th, we went into the Old Log Theater with Maud Hixson and Rick Carlson to do it up in large fashion on the music of Johnny Mercer. This was one of the last shows in which owner Don Stolz involved himself. He had sold the theater after 73 years of running things! Maud and I began collecting what we called Don Stolz Hangups. Don is great to work with, but we had to accustom ourselves to his way of using a phone. The second he obtained whatever information he needed from us he would hang up. No wasting time on the usual niceties. For instance:

Me: “So do you write up a contract, or would you like me to put one together?” 
Don: “Could you do that?”
Me: “Sure. Where…” 
Click, dial tone

Or the time Don called Maud to ask her to change the date:
Maud: “I’m looking at our calendar, and that looks fine with us.” 
Don: “You’re a good girl! And I love you for it!”
Maud: “Thanks, Don, I lo…”
Click, dial tone

We would always find ourselves finishing sentences to a dial tone. We sort of became perversely proud of these. “I got another one!” we’d say when reporting in to each other. At any rate, we were very grateful to Don for having us out there. I really felt like it was a magical night, and a perfect place to present that music. Maud sang beautifully, Rick made you go “Dang!” and the band proved we belonged in a concert hall just as much as we do a joint. Charlie DeVore made an appearance as well, laying us all low with his rendering of “Strip Polka.” This was one of my favorite nights as a musician.

At the end of July we played for Abbot Northwestern Hospital in what’s become an annual occasion. The beginning of August had us at the Social Dance Studio on 23rd Avenue and 38th Street and, of course, Famous Dave’s. Steve Pikal subbed for the rib joint hit. I think Erik is going to drop in on that job maybe only once every four months or so, like a retired uncle who comes back into town from his travels once in a while to tell stories and hand out souvenirs. 

Speaking of stories, this wraps up ten years and brings me up to the actual anniversary show. I’ll have to tell that one another time. For now, I want to thank all the fans who’ve made it out to a decade’s worth of the Southside Aces. I am always grateful that I get to play this music I love so much, and that there are people who want to hear it. And I want to thank my fellow musicians for being such good Aces. To another ten years! Cheers!

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