Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Four '08

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

Early in January of 2008, we went into the Ritz Theater up near 13th and University for the first annual Best of Midwest Burlesk, or “B.O.M.B.,” as it is affectionately called. Our friends at Lili’s Burlesque Revue produced this show, bringing in performers from all around the region. This would be the first of a five-year run for the festival, all five of which we served as house band. We always had the best seats in the house, set up as we were on stage left. That first year, we strode out and started the whole shebang playing “Back To Black” by Amy Winehouse. It set the tone for a great night. This was a show that was very much vaudevillian in it’s variety. This first year brought to the stage a juggler, a tap dancer, another doing bullwhip stunts, and yet another named Ned The Magnificent who performed acrobatics on a two-wheel dolly. The Meteor Boys were a pair of singers who accompanied themselves on ukuleles. Karen Vieno Paurus was Lili’s official chanteuse, bringing her vocal talents into the fray. All of us brought together by the hostess and M.C. nonpareil, Nadine Dubois. Then, of course, there were the dancers.

Best Seats In The House (the rest of the band is tucked around the curtain)

I love burlesque. Before you start accusing me of being the hound dog that I am, let me explain. It’s not merely disrobing that makes for good burlesque. Anyone can take off his or her clothes. I do nearly every time I take a shower. The best in my view combine deep senses of humor and a real cleverness on the Path to Pasties. They tell a story. And some, I believe, can achieve high art. I actually believe that with a straight face. I don’t have the space here to give the play by play on all the performers from that year, so I will confine myself to the headliner, Chicago’s own “Michelle L’amour.”

After her introduction, an orchestral version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” began. She appeared adorned in a huge pair of white-feathered wings. The Debussy combined with her ballet gracefulness and gorgeous form made for a truly beautiful moment. We were astounded, and our jaws dropped. Afterwards backstage, her manager/assistant/boyfriend smiled at me and commented, “It looked as though the band really enjoyed her performance.” I said, “Yes. If she had come any closer with those wings, we would have all had feathers in our mouths.”

Click on this link to see ninety seconds of the best clips of that year. Remember, this will be slightly naughty, just so you know! 

In January we continued our appearances at the Nomad World Pub, Chateau Lamothe, and Ferdinand’s Jazz Palace. February brought us out to St. Croix Casino to perform at a Mardi Gras party for the slot-zombies. We had a good show at the Times on the 16th on the night after being fired from Chateau Lamothe. No story there, we just couldn’t make a go of it south of the river, so Doris and we said goodbye. We flew out to Denver on Leap Year to play the Rocky Mountain Balboa Blowout. We’re a territory band! That’s the one when Steve threatened to get a tramp stamp tattoo that read “Balboa Blowout ’08.” For some reason, it’s the fact that he would put the year in the tattoo that made me laugh the hardest. On April Fools Day, we played a house party in a kitchen with all the walls torn out for remodeling after a three-story flooding. We were warned to not go too close to the wiring. I missed the April Nomad, being down in New Orleans and all, but got back home in time to make it to the Times on April 18th. Some goings on from that night:

Steve had lost his plunger mute, so he was working with a mixed nuts can instead. Between songs, I butted in on the mic, commenting to the crowd about how good music could be made from roasted nuts. Erik continued, “Speaking of roasted nuts, we’re going to have Robert sing this next one. It’s a sweet, sweet song.” Robert’s rendering of “Sweet Sue” is a fine thing. Erik went on, “His voice is like cream mixed with vanilla mixed with butterscotch. It’s like having your Lucky Charms on top of your Trix!” 

A week later we played with the Edina High School Jazz Ensemble I for a Twin Cities Jazz Society concert. The next day we played a benefit for a Montessori school. The woman who hired us hailed from Dallas, and was very familiar with Louisiana music. It’s nice when the people who hire you understand what you do. Lisa Ann, who introduced herself and said, “Two names, just like everyone from Texas,” was proud of her ability to throw a party. She told us about the meeting she had to decide upon music. “I suggested zydeco, but the rest of them didn’t even know what that meant. So I said, ‘How ‘bout Dixieland?’ and they at least recognized that word.”

In June another appearance at the Times; we sure did like playing there! In July a trio of Aces were hired for a backyard party. Sort of an odd trio. The people wanted clarinet and brass, but only wanted three. Erik couldn’t make it, so Steve moved over to the sousaphone chair, and I hired Scott Moriarity to play trombone. Scott is a fantastic trombonist with a career as a lawyer. During the party that night, I heard one of the most mysterious sentences I’ve ever heard. To this day, I’ve not received an explanation. While on break, Steve set his sousaphone down. We stood around it drinking our beers and a woman walked up to take our pictures. The photographer paused for a few seconds, looking down at the coils of brass contrasting with the green grass, and said, “A lot of lesbians like sousaphones.” 


Later, Scott said to me, “I don’t know why, but I wanted to call it a euphonium for some reason.” Sticking to the non sequitur theme of the evening, I said, “It’s because you’re a lawyer.”

After working on it for a month or so, Andy finally produced what became a pretty glorious handlebar mustache. It was out at the Twin Cities Balboa Fest held at the Mermaid that we finally began tossing around nicknames for him. My two favorites were Claudia’s contribution, “The Roughrider,” after Teddy Roosevelt, and the baseball connection, “Rollie Fingers,” after the famous Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher. Hakala is a Finnish name, so I once introduced him off the stage at the Nomad as, “Rollie Fingers on trumpet, from the Finnish side of the Fingers family.” Fingers Hakala!

Look at this great picture of Andy in the Aces by photographer Ben Hejkal  then one of a Rollie Fingers card. Heh? See what I mean?

This brings up the subject of band nicknames. Early on, Erik began introducing me as “the secret weapon of the band, Tony Balluff.” Eventually it was shortened to, “and the Secret Weapon on clarinet.” The origin of such a dramatic-sounding nickname, and the name of this blog, may disappoint in terms of dramatic content. It just kept happening that someone would suggest we put such and such song in the repertoire, and I would respond, “Oh. I have sheet music for that.” Or, “I have that recording.” Or I would know some jazz history fact when someone had a jazz history question. It so happens I’m a fairly decent jazz nerd, with potential for growth. Anyway, this occurred enough times in a row that Erik said in a rehearsal once, “You’re like our secret weapon!” So there. Mystery revealed. The only drama that happened around the name was during one of our earliest appearances at the Times. This was when the stage was still facing the river instead of Hennepin Avenue. It was last song of the night, and up to that point I may have imbibed one or three whiskeys. Erik had the effrontery to merely introduce me as, “Tony Balluff on clarinet.” I whirled on him and shouted, “I’s Secret Weapon!!” Fermented beverages sure can wreak havoc on a fella’s grammar. 

For reasons we won’t get into, Zack was briefly called “The Reprobate.” I guess because every band has to have at least one. Erik often introduces Steve as, “Psycho Stevie, the Prince Of East Lake Street.” Steve is neither psycho nor a prince, but he does live on East Lake. Dave has always been called “The Moral Compass.” I guess because every band has to have at least one. We like to say Robert is “Mr. Class,” because if you took all the gigs we’ve been on together over the past decade, he probably has all of us beat by twenty or thirty percentage points in how often he wore a suit to the job. Erik has been called “Big Man” on account of his height, and “Big Delicious,” from the previously mentioned Tom Surowicz paragraph on the band. He also once gained the moniker, “The Swedish Mink” due to a mix of his heritage and an incident with a family heirloom. A couple of years ago he impressed a New Orleanian stranger with his dancing at the Maple Leaf, and the guy said something like, “Nice moves, Sweet Shoes.” 

And you wondered why we called him “The Reprobate.”

Erik brought farmers market corn on the cob to the August Nomad. At one point he walked around the patio calling out, “Toothpicks! One dollar! The corn is free, but Southside Aces toothpicks are a dollar!” An African man who spoke with a Zimbabwe accent sat at a table by himself that day repeating the phrase, “Drink like a fish!” Even when I shook his hand and introduced myself, all he would say is, “Drink like a fish!” Whether it was advice, a mantra or commentary, I never was able to find out. 

On September 20th, we went back to Omaha for our first Cowtown Jamborama. I love going to Omaha (see my story about the Naughty Lounge from A Decade Of Aces: Part Three). Nate Woodhams is a swell host. The Jamborama is a weekend that includes a man in a cow costume and a corn-eating contest. Bill Butler got himself involved with both one year. It led to a trip to the E.R., but I'll let him tell you whether it was the costume or the corn. A great time was had, both in the Eagles, Aerie #18 and the after hours joint, Studio 906, where we played until around four in the morning! That’s a lot of numbers in one sentence! This art gallery used to be an auto garage of some sort, and there were a lot of art cars in the driveway. My favorite car out there, however, was the ’49 Packard hearse that had a built-in 78 player in the glove box, complete with a record of “Old Rugged Cross.” One last memory from that night was when, during the last set, I leaned forward in the middle of a song to hand a solo off to Steve, but he was asleep in his chair! I don’t know why he had such low energy after six hours of travel and six hours of playing.

The October Nomad was one of those rare times when it exceeded the ideal of what it was supposed to be. Preservation Hall was in town, and Henry Blackburn managed to convince a couple of them to come over and play with us after their show at Orchestra Hall. Erik introduced our show by saying, “Please help yourself to what Claudia calls ‘The Pasta.’ Now, we’re going to play what we call ‘The Jazz.’” Ben Jaffe played some sousaphone, and Mark Braud some trumpet. I remember Mark killing us with his version of “Bogalusa Strut.” When they were done, our locals stepped up. Among others, a tenor man, Sam Brooks, stepped up on stage with us after saying, “Don’t you guys laugh at me; I only play rock and funk.” But he wailed away on our brass band stuff. Local crooner Randall Throckmorton sweetened the hot on “Stardust.” Mike Mello also played some sousaphone that day, and a drummer named BatumĂ© lent a nice shuffle beat to a few tunes. Good pasta, good jam.

Our November Nomad was significant not for Erik bringing brats without buns (he left during set break to forage for some), but for two pairs of reasons. A couple of newer barkeeps at the Nomad really loved what we were doing. Bill’s father played trombone, and Rashad actually hailed from New Orleans. He said we made him homesick. Now that’s a compliment! Speaking of Bills, Bill Butler and his dad, Dan, both had birthdays to celebrate. We forced beer bottle solos on the two of them. Well, not on Bill. He’ll do anything. But his dad took some convincing. Birthdays and homesickness. The Aces do our best.

Who’s that happy band against the Nomad patio wall?

Church basements are used for a wide spectrum of functions. At least that's the excuse Zack offered! In December we played for a funeral, with Zack subbing back in for Andy. In the program we were listed as “Southside Acres.” That sounds like a band that would play for funerals. The son of the deceased apologized afterwards as we stood downstairs in the middle of the luncheon. We waved it off, of course, and Erik said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Zack watched the son walk away until he was out of earshot, shook his head and said, “I’m such an idiot! I was this close,” gesturing with the traditional thumb and index finger an inch apart, “to saying ‘Congratulations!’”

The Nomad is truly the source of some of the best quotes in our history. Something about the West Bank can bring it out in people. While there in December, two great friends of the band provided us with this little bit of history. After we played “White Christmas,” Mary told me later, “That was the best version I’ve ever heard! It was sweet and melancholy. It had some pain in it. It belonged in a place like this. It was like you were playing it for a cross between Holiday Inn and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Wow. I also was able to collect this nugget. Chuck emerged from the men’s room and exclaimed, “I love this place! You get to pee on bar ice!” At the Nomad, the men’s room is equipped with a porcelain trough about four feet long that’s usually filled with ice. “I want one of those at home!” he finished. I advised, for the sake of his marriage, against any hasty remodeling.

Before the end of the year, the Aces managed to squeeze in one more first. On December 22nd, we played at Famous Dave’s in Uptown for the Monday Dance. We play there to this day, although we took a break through most of 2012. This is once again a job we got on referral from Bill and Shannon Butler. I guess we’re going to have to put them on retainer one of these decades. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Three '07

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

January 18th, 2007, marked the first official job with Andy Hakala as a member of the Southside Aces. The Butlers had been teaching swing dance at a joint in a cul-de-sac down in Burnsville called Chateau Lamothe, and put in the good word to have owner/chef Doris hire us. Good thing it was in a cul-de-sac, because it was a French restaurant. 

As it turned out, I threw Andy in the fire immediately. I had arrived early enough to set up the p.a. and eat dinner. I leisurely strode to the bandstand at five minutes to start time to take out my clarinet. I found my clarinet bag, but it was empty! Before you become outraged at the scoundrels of the world, this was not a case of thievery. It was a case of idiocy. I had forgotten to pack it.

This is not like forgetting your swim trunks when you go on vacation. Or your canvas bag on the way to the grocers. Does a bus driver arrive at your corner on time but without a bus? Does a hitter walk to the plate without a bat? My clarinet! The only thing I absolutely need on a job. I could show up with one shoe, no music, a sleeve missing and no checkbook. Well, maybe some guys would argue with the last one. At any rate, all of that wouldn’t matter if I had my horn. This would be the incident that precipitated my about-to-leave-the-house checklist: “Do I have my horn? Check. Am I wearing pants? Check.”

It was forty minutes for me to go home and back, so Andy would be without me to welcome him for essentially the first set. As I was speeding home, I began to imagine an even more surreal scene wherein I had opened my bag and found a hammer instead of my clarinet. A lightbulb went off! I got home, grabbed my clarinet, and went for my toolbox. On the way there, I spotted my toaster.

Back at the chateau, I rushed up on stage in the middle of a song. I looked down to see my toaster gleaming in my hands. My face registered mock horror. What had I done?! As a joke, it went over with the band and about three people in the crowd, but I think it mostly made folks wonder why a manic man with a toaster was harassing the band. Security! I did earn a temporary nickname from Erik, though. That night he introduced me as Tony “Crumbtray” Balluff.

February of that year ended up being one of the better months of employment for the whole year for the Aces. We were teamed with a burlesque troupe one night, at a Presbyterian church another night. A Summit Avenue mansion for a school benefit one night, and Lee’s Liquor Lounge another night. Hotel Sofitel, the swanky 494 establishment, then Stasius’ Nordeast bar, which Erik described as being, “like the inside of an ice-fishing shack.” It was as if we spent the entire month of February with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Some of the facts, if you please.

We started February at a benefit for homeless children. A great cause. The organizers decided that the theme should be “Speakeasy.” Thusly the Aces were hired along with Lili’s Burlesque review. We were friends with Lili’s, and both outfits had wondered aloud if the organizers knew their benefactors well enough to be hiring a burlesque troupe for the affair. Don’t get me wrong. The wonderful women of Lili’s were perfect for a benefit event. And it’s not as if they actually had the kids there that night, but you never know the sensibilities of a benefactor. Sure enough, we got just three acts in, and Gina did a beautiful fan dance. I was about to introduce the next act when the Lili’s stage manager whispered in my ear, “They’ve cancelled the rest of the burlesque. It’s all up to you guys.” 

My guys valiantly played the rest of the time, which ended up being a long extra hour and a half set. Afterwards, I was standing next to Gina as one of the speakers was pouring guilt onto the crowd because we’d be going back to warm houses on this cold February night while the kids didn’t have that luxury. She leaned close to me and intoned, “They stopped us because of my butt.” 

Later in the month we played a Mardi Gras party at North Como Presbyterian Church. Mardi Gras is also known as Pancake Tuesday. The church took this aspect to heart, griddling up tall stacks for dinner. They also had that New Orleans drink staple, the Hurricane, for our libation. Their Hurricane was Tahitian Treat with fruit spears, so I’d say it was only a Category .037, but they had the right spirit! The day before, I was able to collect another pearl from Erik: I had called and left him a message to see if he wanted to carpool to the church. He called me back: “Uh…Tony? I’m actually more in Milwaukee than I am in Minneapolis.” Matt Senjem stepped up at the last minute, so it was he who got to eat the pancakes and Tahitian Treat. North Como loved us when we finished with “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”

The next day, Erik was back in town and we were all at Lee’s Liquor Lounge. 

This is another Bill and Shannon venture, so there we were about to go onstage after the dance lesson. On this night I had my first experience of barkeep George. George is in his seventies, and has served all manner of folk for a lot of decades. If you’re the sensitive type, you might call him surly. I prefer to think of him as laconic. Laconic George. My very first interaction:
George—“What’ll you have?”
Me—“What kind of beer do you have?”
George—“What kind do you want?”
Me—“Well, do you have a list?”
George—“We have forty or more kinds, no list. You name a beer, and I’ll tell you if we have it.”
If I ever make a personal best bartender list, George will definitely be in the top five. But believe it or not, it was Robert who surged to the best line of the night with his offering. We stepped up onstage to begin and I asked the fellas, “So what should we play?” Robert, very serious, said, “Nothing pretty, nothing stupid.”

At the end of March we played a double bill at the Cedar, opening for the Twin Cities Hot Club. We had a good night that night, playing a lot of our Jelly Roll Morton. We knew we were doing well when the crowd erupted merely after our tight four-bar introduction to “Kansas City Stomps.” The other side of such heady stardom was this bathroom conversation. Dave, Andy and I went into the small men’s room there just as a father and his young son were about to leave. I called to Andy, who was in the stall, “Andy, do you know the verse to ‘I Found A New Baby’?” Dave looked at the father/son pair and said, “That’s the way professionals rehearse.”

Omaha Jitterbugs hired us for the “Big Apple” dance contest night of the Balboa weekend. The contest was held at the Naughty Lounge, placed in an ugly strip mall way out on the west side of Omaha, 107th Street. I would describe the joint, but why not use their own website:
“The Naughty Lounge is an elegant bar that reflects the sex appeal in all of us. Established for those of us who need to let their inhibitions go. One of the most stylish hot spots in town, the Naughty Lounge is a vision in red. Just slide in and relax in this hip den of cool luxury. Our staff has been hand-picked to serve you. From looks, charm, sex appeal and style. Are you naughty enough to visit us?”
Andy couldn’t make this one, so we had hired Kid Ben Bell Bern, who would drive down from Chicago to meet us in Des Moines. Our crazy plan was to leave the Twin Cities Sunday, April 1st in the morning and meet Ben at his hotel in Des Moines about 1:30, get to the Naughty Lounge about 3:30, set up, rehearse, go eat dinner, play the show and drive back to the Twin Cities dropping Ben off back in Des Moines along the way. This we hoped to accomplish all in a 24-hour period. The trip started with a masterful April Fool’s joke perpetrated on the band by Robert and Katie. Previous to this day, I had uncomfortably denied passage in the band van for her, citing as my reason the It’s A Guys Trip defence. But there she was loading up with us at Dave’s house. Robert even had her sitting next to him in the front seat as we pulled away, only to drive around the block to her parked car. Kudos to their straight faces!

After a stop for lunch, Erik did the driving. This is a man who likes to look people in the eye when he talks to them. Given that, wind sheer, and the van’s loose steering, Erik used as much road as possible from line to line. This earned him the nickname, “Rumblestrip Jacobson.”

As previously mentioned, the Naughty Lounge was pretty ugly from the outside, but the inside was filled with Deco features that had been salvaged from a downtown bank. This included stained glass, mirrors, a brass angel statue, leather sofas and regular tables and chairs. The paint and lighting throughout truly had a red hue. The stage had a railing with pickets on the front, and the dance floor had a floor-to-ceiling pole in one corner. The green room also had one of those poles on a small stage right next to a pew-like bench—another salvage item from the bank—that actually had the word “Fidelity” carved into it. 

One of the owners was there to greet us. “Hi! I’m BushHog. You could ask for Mark, my real name, but nobody would know who you were talking about, so just ask for BushHog!” Dave, Steve and I go back outside to get another load. Steve looked up at the sign. The G in Naughty was fashioned into a devil with a tail and horns. Steve got reflective for a moment and said, “I’m switching all my insurance to Naughty of Omaha!”

The dance was fantastic. Ben dropped our jaws. He had never played with a trad band before, but he took to it like a veteran. Like a Cornhusker to football. The music was loose, but swung hard, and BushHog kept trays of shots coming to the bandstand. I recall a moment late in the night looking down at my feet during a song to see another tray with six shots on it. I saw my Aunt’s arms reaching through the stage railing, and her fingertips just grabbing the edge of the tray and sliding it toward her. I looked away while we finished the song. When I looked back, there were only three shots left. Aunt Barb is fun. Another late memory has several of the dancers challenging each other to hang by their legs upside down from the dance floor pole. 

The dancers even coughed up more money to keep us there later. We were flopped in the green room after burning up the extra set, but the dancers wouldn’t let us be! They were shouting and stomping and generally causing a great ruckus. We were already past two in the morning and facing a long drive ahead of us, but we all sort of shrugged and decided we had to go back out. This was one of the only times in my life when I truly felt like a rock star, despite the fact that I hold a clarinet in my hands. There was a twenty-foot hallway that went from the green room to the dance floor. The hallway shared the back wall of the stage. The guys walked ahead of me down that hall, and I truly experienced it in slow motion, like a documentary scene. I have a vivid memory of the motion of our suit coats as we turned the corner to the stage. The place erupted, and we mounted the stage and gave them “Four Or Five Times” for an encore. I will never forget the Naughty Lounge. I have even had Omaha natives come up to me in years since and say, “That night was legendary!”

On Mother’s Day, May 13th, we played the first of what would end up being a three-year run at the Nomad World Pub over on the Cedar Avenue in the West Bank. We launched a grand and noble idea to provide a jam session on the second Sunday of every month. The idealistic dream was to cultivate a larger scene of traditional jazz players, helping to inspire those closer to the beginner end of things and even bringing some of the professionals over from other genres. The down to earth desire was to have a party once a month. To that end, we would always provide some sort of food, that department usually headed up by Erik. For this first one, he brought barbecued kielbasa. Over the three years, we always made it a party, whether we packed ‘em in, or it was just us and a handful of close friends. There were also definitely times it felt like it reached it’s ideal, with both pros and amateurs creating an honest to goodness scene, but not consistently enough to make it last. The main factor in its eventual demise, if I’m honest, however, was a total lack of financial support from the bar. But we sure had some good times in there. The first one was, in fact, more than merely barbecue kielbasa. It was a balmy Sunday afternoon out on their patio against the brick wall. It reminded me of the times I’d played in relaxed jam sessions in courtyards down in New Orleans. A bunch of players showed up to enter the donnybrook. In addition to the band, Zack and Milo brought trumpets, Steve Rogness his trombone; Paul Fonfara and Gus Sandberg brought clarinets; Henry Blackburn his reeds. Bill Butler had just begun drum lessons, and is a brave (foolish?) man, so he readily agreed to sit in right away. In the time-honored tradition of abusing apprentices, I said to him, “I better collect tips before you play!”

May also brought us the honor of playing for good friends, Rick and Randi Rexroth, on the day of their nuptials. They first-danced to the Gershwin’s “Love Is Here To Stay.” We also played at Shamrock’s bar in St. Paul, where they wouldn’t let us play until the Twins game was done, as they had the large projection screen rolled down in front of the stage. You’d think we would’ve been dismayed when the Twins tied Toronto to send the game into extra innings, but Erik was running late, so we felt relief. Erik’s excuse was, “I was ready to go on time, but then these people came over.” I hate to paint Erik as an Irresponsible Ignatius, but he’s so funny when does these things! Erik was running really late that night, but it was ok—the Twins tied it again in the bottom of the eleventh! Our hometown team would go on to lose that night, but not before Erik made it through the door.

July at the Times was Andy’s first time there. 

I remember the crabcake po’boys! But I also remember Erik bringing a music stand light that night. It was actually more like one of those clamp lights you’d have in your basement workshop. I sit in front of Erik, so I could actually feel the heat coming off of it. “Am I going to need sunscreen?” I asked. Before the show, he walked out on the dance floor and noticed it was shooting a glaring light at the crowd. “Well, that’s no good,” he said. In the process of adjusting it he gave Robert spots in his eyes. Dave and Andy at about the same time said, “What, are you incubating eggs over there?” Steve waited until the very end of the night to throw in his two cents. We finished our last song and he turned and said, “Is that chicken almost done?”

In August, we had the honor of opening a jazz club. Alexander Dixon, chef and owner of Zander CafĂ© on Selby Avenue, decided to make his side room an official joint, and gave it the moniker, Ferdinand’s Jazz Palace. It was a small place, but I loved to play there for its intimacy. And Zander really was a genius. Just look at how he used the copper salvaged from the renovation of the St. Paul Cathedral down the street.

In October, we were offered a regular third Friday dance out at Chateau Lamothe. For this one, I managed to show up with a clarinet and no small kitchen appliances. 
The day after the Chateau, we played a wedding that had included this email correspondence:
Customer—“Access to the open bar is intended to provide the Aces needed refreshment—can you verify that this open bar access would be respected?” Did the groom think I could provide references as to our ability to handle the hooch? This was my actual response—“On your question of refreshment, the Aces wholeheartedly respect any bar that’s open.” Then I let him off the hook, “That last was meant to be humorous. If I understood your question correctly (and well-asked by the way), you have my assurances that the band or any subs we use have never adhered to that particular Jazz Musician stereotype regarding overindulgence.” On the evening in question, any time someone in the band was heading for a beer or the like, he would say, “Fellas, I think I’ll go respect the open bar now.” The young matron of honor, the bride’s sister, had done a fair amount of respecting the bar herself, which led to her carrying on all over the dance floor and to join us on the bandstand several times to sing along, play beer bottle solos and engage in other gregarious activities. She was quite fun, to tell the truth, but I had my limits. At the end of the night as we were packing up, she came up to me and blurted, “Can I play yer killernet?” (I have a witness to the fact that she actually pronounced “clarinet” as “killernet”). I disappointed her with the information that it was packed up. “Yer shittin’ me!” she accused. She saw a mic on a stand and reached for it. I gently placed my hands over hers and said quietly, “No, no, no. We don’t want to do that.” She looked around the room and whispered conspiradrunkenly, “Why? I don’ mind if I get’n trouble.” “I don’t mind if you get in trouble either,” I said agreeably, “it’s just time to pack up.” Her husband appeared at that moment to guide her away, so there was no further altercation. 

The November Nomad saw Erik arriving with a good-sized katzenjammer. He said, “I’m beat. My head’s like a buoy floating in a sea of High Life.” I looked at him and commented, “I think it’s listing.” But he was highly creative that afternoon in asking for tips. He tore us up with his extemporaneous, fictitious account of the West Bank bluesman, “Woodtick Johnson,” who needed the crowd’s generous support for “bus passes and haircuts.”

That month we also played at Magers and Quinn booksellers in Uptown for a reading and signing of Sugarcane Academy, an account by author Michael Tisserand, a friend of Erik’s, of how he and other New Orleans parents responded to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by creating temporary schooling for their children. It’s a great story of perseverance, and we were honored to make loud brass band sounds for him in the middle of a bookstore.

With Zack there for the Nomad jam in December it made for a high concentration of Sconnies in the place. Zack, Andy, Robert and Claudia all hail from that state directly to the east. Erik provided brats soaked in beer and sauerkraut that day and said on mic, “You should all feel at home. It smells like Wisconsin in here!” 

The Aces last job of 2007 was out at Chateau Lamothe, where we met superfans David West and his dad, Rip, for the first time. We had Steve Rogness on trombone that night. We finished with a couple of Christmas numbers, an instrumental “White Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” which I sang with my usual baritone. Rogness turned to the band while I was singing and said, “He sounds like Vincent Price in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’!” This begs the question, why didn’t Vincent ever record a Christmas album?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Decade Of Aces: Part Two '05-'06

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

On February 8th, 2005 we went into the Times to celebrate our first release, All Aboard. How’s this for the musician’s compromise? We had decided it was appropriate enough for a band such as ours to hold a CD release on Mardi Gras, so there we were at the Times of a Tuesday night. At that time, Mardi Gras in these parts was a vague notion. People have to go to work on Wednesday; why would you go crazy on a Tuesday night? It’s kind of still that way, although I believe Mardi Gras awareness is improving. On account of this under-the-radar aspect of our nation’s greatest holiday (do I exaggerate?), places didn’t invest in the Tuesday night, preferring to bank on the weekend regardless of whether or not it was actually Fat Tuesday. Mardi means Tuesday, people!!! Ahem, excuse me. So this was what was offered to us: the Times would pay us, or put an ad in the City Pages and feed us. Not both. We chose the ad and food, perhaps because we were young and foolish. Or perhaps because we were hungry. I have a copy of that issue of the City Pages around here somewhere. I think the ad was about two inches wide by six inches high. We like to tell ourselves that at least three people were at the Times that night because of the ad. We did have a lot of friends, though. So we had a great time, with dancers, drinkers, and a second-line parade around the bar. In the end, we were able to maintain our Mardi Gras Certification because of that party, so it was all worth it.

Here's a never seen before picture from the photo session for our All Aboard cover:

2005 gave us a diverse work. Besides appearing at the Times once in awhile, there were these memorable moments:

—Pregame for the St. Paul Saints
—Kelly Doran announced his candidacy for governor at one of his construction sites on a blustery June day. The Aces enlivened things from a small, rickety stage. At some point, the wind grabbed hold of one of Dave’s cymbals, but fortunately this only created startling noise, not tragic decapitation.
—Father’s Day of that year brought us out to the Hopkins Hot Summer Jazz Festival. This marked the first time that our mentors heard the band. The Aces were sandwiched between the Mouldy Figs and the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band. Erik and Robert figured out a way to have their chord book explode, so I have this memory of calling tunes and looking over my shoulder to watch them fish around in a pile of music at their feet!
—Peavey Plaza shows, where I seem to recall a lot of moms and strollers full of kids. A deliberate ambiguity on my part—some of the moms, too, were full of kid(s).
—Mears Park downtown St. Paul, where our audience consisted mostly of the park’s resident vagrants
—Wedding Incidents
—the one where an iron arbor fell on Dave and Robert’s head, producing a  giant goose egg on Robert’s dome, but, if you can believe it, not causing either of them to miss a single beat. They began to brag that Robert’s bump was so big it was “eggs and bacon.” Or maybe it was that his injury looked like a strip of bacon. By the end of the show, Dave kept asking Robert, “How’s your bacon?”
—the one where the wedding ceremony took place center ice at Mariucci Arena for a couple on skates. The band did a slow ice shuffle in our suits and street shoes out to a square of carpet to sit down and play the “Minnesota Rouser.” The ceremony was officiated by a man on skates, in referee stripes.

—our showcase at The Annex, a joint normally associated with punk and hard rock music. The Annex was in the basement at 528 Hennepin, across from Block E. We were the “headliner” of a three-band act. College-age kids in jeans and tees comprised the lineups of the first two bands playing, as well as the crowd. The first band was definitely influenced by the Beatles, and the other fashioned themselves a punk band, “Ramones wannabes,” Dave informed me. Then we walked up in our full suits. There were only about nine kids in the audience, but they were game, as was evidenced by the fact it was the first and probably only time I will ever see a group of the youth moshing to Jelly Roll Morton.

                                                      Did we really belong here?

And, of course, that fall Hurricane Katrina came to ground. On September 18th, just a few weeks later, the Aces were part of a double bill benefit at the Dakota with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band. Special guest Kid Merv played with us. He and his wife just escaped New Orleans with their one-day old infant the day before the levees broke.

We ended 2005 by starting a monthly job at Club Underground. Another venue that was and still is primarily a home for punk rock. Located in the basement—a very prosaic name this club has—up on Spring Street in Nordeast Minneapolis. The owner, Peggy Dunnette, was influenced by parents who loved jazz. So she decided on an experiment to change it up once a week, rotating four traditional bands in on Sunday evenings. In addition to the jazz, they put candles on tables, and Peggy’s grade school-age daughters would conduct a meat raffle between sets. 
The Aces played for $55, beer and food. Oh, and the dancers. This eventually was reduced to $50, beer and half off food. After going in there in June of 2006, we were fired. The jazz experiment had failed, so they went back to purveying just one style of marginalized music, punk rock. The best thing to come out of that job was our lasting friendship with those dance floor wonders, Bill and Shannon Butler. 

Through roughly that same time period, we managed to get hired and fired at a St. Paul supper club called Mitch’s. We played our first show there on February 7th, and our last one in May. I recall a version of “Tiger Rag” along the way that raised the hair on the back of my neck. Or was that a premonition about getting the pink slip? We all felt like we weren’t given enough of a chance to build something. Despite that, Dave still has fond memories of the steak sandwich and the goulash. These days it’s called Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse, and I play there monthly with the Bill Evans band.

That was pretty much our schedule for the first half of 2006. Monthly appearances at Club Underground, Mitch’s and the Nomad, with a show at the Times thrown in for good measure. A much more significant event, however, happened in May. On the nights of the 9th and 10th, we went into Patrick’s Cabaret next to the 3rd Precinct on Minnehaha Avenue to record our second album. Matthew Zimmerman recorded us “live” without an audience. We were set up in our standard two lines in the cabaret. When you look at the picture, imagine us near the window facing you. 

Matthew had to fashion a sound booth out of the outer hallway, not pictured. He couldn’t actually see us at all; we communicated through headphones. The project was funded by Dave Michael Is Foolish Enough To Lend His Bandmates Money Enterprises. Standout memories: We were nervous, having difficulty loosening up. We procured a bottle of Old Heaven Hill from Minnehaha Liquors across the street. Maybe a jazz band shouldn’t record directly across from a liquor store, I’m not sure. Maybe they always should. We have distinct memories of putting the bottle on a stool next to the band along with a lamp to give it a homey feel. We took to calling the stool/lamp/whiskey setup “Grandma’s Nightstand.” Even with some consulting of Grandma’s Nightstand, things weren’t going smoothly. Whiskey may have lit us up, but it didn’t light the way! After an anxious scratched take on some song or another, we sat in our chairs making exasperated, despairing sounds. Then, out of nowhere, Erik called an audible! He shouted, “Alright, guys! ‘St. Phillip Street Breakdown!’ One, two three…” You can hear him on the recording counting it off. Matthew told us later he had to lunge for the record button, almost missing the beginning of the tune. But he got it! It’s one of my favorite Aces recordings, despite a couple of rough edges, because of the spontaneous, shake-off-the-nerves nature of the moment. We didn’t completely get over ourselves after that, but the evening definitely improved.

Dave brought eight different snare drums to change between songs. You’ll have to ask him about that. Dave also split his pants one of those nights. Probably all that bending over to change snares. Speaking of pants, Henry Blackburn came in there with his alto on the second night and kicked the Aces in the collective seat of ours. I am not exaggerating too much to say he saved the recording. He is fantastic on our cuts of “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and “Four Or Five Times.” He brought sweet melodies, fire, and swing. Through his playing he reminded us that we weren’t doing surgery, so we should just relax, have a good time and swing hard. 

The rest of 2006 brought some great times. There was the famous “June Blizzard Job.” June 10th found us down in southern Minnesota for the Windom Riverfest. It had all the shenanigans a town festival could muster. Scott Anderson played sousaphone for us on that one. Our duties were to be twofold: first, play on an outdoor stage in the middle of town square, secondly on a flatbed truck in the parade that would wind around said square. As soon as we started to play on the outdoor stage, however, the snow came down! Big, wet, June snowflakes. Fortunately, the stage had an eave that protected us, so we were able to play on, but there was no way we could fulfill our agreement to play uncovered for the parade. 

                                                  Windom on a normal summer day

During break, Dave went to a local video store in the town square that was having a close-out sale and bought a batch of horror movies. Like a guy does on his break. We finished our last set and packed up quick to get out of there before the parade started, which would pin us in the middle of the town square. Dave’s drums take longer, so he and Scott, who was riding with him, actually did get caught. Dave was desperate. He had already bought as many horror movies as he needed, and he wanted to get out of there. So he just eased his truck right into the parade! He and Scott were waving and smiling to the crowd as his truck slowly made it’s way around a portion of the square. Then it was time to make his escape. He jumped a few curbs, and soon they were on Highway 71 out of town. The rumors about him accidentally dragging the Miss Riverfest float for six blocks are entirely unfounded.

July saw us in Albert Lea for the Doc Evans jazz fest, and at the Plymouth Music Series in front of thousands of people. The end of the month was one of my favorite jobs ever. The guys came out to the Loring Playhouse and not only played, but were groomsmen at my wedding. 

Robert and Zack help me figure out my bowtie. 
Note Zack's left hand holding the instructions.

Before the ceremony, the guys and I were staring at this huge pipe sticking out of the wall. In my memory it was as large as one of those ship vents you see in movies with stowaways. We were wondering what it did for the building. Steve laid us low with this one: “It’s not too late, Tony. If you slide down that pipe, I have a horse waiting for you at the bottom which will take you to the river where you’ll find a change of clothes and you’ll be able to get away on a barge.” The Aces switched sets with the Bill Evans Band throughout the night. One of my favorite all-time memories of my life happened just after I’d seen my mom to her ride. I walked back into the building, and stood alone for a few minutes at the bottom of the long stairway that led up to the theater. The party was still going on, and the Bill Evans band was in full swing. The jazz floated down those stairs blending with echoes of itself. I don’t recall the song, but it was a sweet, medium-tempo melody. I stood there in my loosened tux leaning on the bottom newel post marveling at my life. The cover photo for A Big Fine Thing came out of that night, but here’s one of all the men in loosened tuxes:

In September, we released our second album, Bucktown Bounce. A wonderful night back at Patrick’s Cabaret, where we recorded it, and two shows the next day at the Times. We actually sold enough CDs to pay Dave back, so maybe there is money to be made in the traditional jazz recording business! Tony, wake up! Tony?! Wake up!!

We played at the Varsity for Midwest Lindyfest where the setup allowed for some of the audience to actually sit on a red velour sofa behind the band; a wedding at the Walker where Zack inserted a bit of the melody to the “Chicken Dance” into his “Stardust” solo, after I told him I refuse to have the band do the “Chicken Dance” at weddings; and hosted a huge, three-band Thanksgiving Extravaganza back at Patrick’s Cabaret, with the Twin Cities Hot Club and the Brass Messengers.

It was a good year. But it ended on a melancholy note. Zack wanted to be in a band that could actually give him enough work to be a working musician. And so far, even through to today, nobody should quit a day job solely on the promise of Southside Aces income! So Zack put most of his eggs in Davina and the Vagabonds’ basket, giving his notice to us. We had a last throw-down at the Times in December. This was the time when Tom Surowicz extolled the “big, delicious sound of the sousaphone” in the paper. That garnered Erik one of his many nicknames, Big Delicious.

But back to the melancholy. There we were before the show, standing on the stage kind of uncomfortable, not saying anything. A bunch of men. Zack, Dave, Steve and I were waiting for Erik and Robert. Robert had just arrived when Zack folded up his phone and said, “That was…you know, the Big Man, the one who sits here.” He pointed at the chair where Erik would sit. I cracked up a little and said, “He’s not even done with his last show, and he’s already forgetting our names.” We all laughed. We didn’t bust a gut or anything, but at least the ice was broken, and we could settle into a good time.

Do you remember my reference to the drink called The Haymaker from A Decade Of Aces, Part One? Well this was the night. The melancholy turned a little wild and farcical, with some hot jazz thrown in. The bar actually set records for sales of The Haymaker. One patron, herself very drunk on the concoction, showed up to the stage with a tray of them for the band. “So!” she barked, “See that table over there?” She swung her arm in a dangerous, karate chop arc, her body following a second later. “Thaz the Hudzon Map Company! Every one of ‘em! They bought the drinks!” She stared at her table for a few seconds before turning her body back to face us. “Wethinki’s fair…thatchoo…PLAY a song!” she slur/bellowed. She requested “Limehouse Blues.” I had to give her the bad news that we didn’t have that one in the repertoire. “Fuck off!!” she yelled, but in a nice way, I want to hasten to add. She and her friends were having a great time, she was really friendly and garrulous, and under more sober circumstances she might have only said, “Really?” At any rate, she was not to be deterred. “Wait a minute,” she says, holding up her finger. She swerved to her table, and in a couple minutes right back to us, clambering up on the stage, somehow stepping into the middle of the sousaphone without breaking anything. Our alcoholically ataxic newfound friend encircled by the big brass bass. “Alright. You HAVE to know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown!’” I tell her we’d do it. Robert, standing there, mischievously asked, “So we dedicate this song to the Rand McNally Map Company?” She pointed at us with a fiery look in her eyes, “Watch it!” she warned. But she belied her intimidation with a big, happy grin. She very gingerly stepped back out of the sousaphone and back to her table. I was impressed, given her condition, by the adroitness with which she completed this maneuver. So the Southside Aces ended 2006, and Zack’s first run with us, by playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” for the Hudson Map Company.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Decade of Aces: Part One '03-'04

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

Nobody can really believe it. When the Aces slouch into the Eagles on August 8th, it will have been ten years nearly to the day from when Erik and I first met to discuss the possibility of getting a band going. How often do you hear about a band getting to celebrate a ten-year existence? Some people have shorter relationships with their spouses. Or even their cars! Well, we intend to do it up proper. Over the next few weeks, I will put on record the salient features of our decade as a band. Secrets revealed! Dark, sinister dealings brought to the light of day! Ok, sinister is a tad strong. If there had been a deal with the devil along the way, we’d be playing our anniversary show at the Fitzgerald or some other high tone spot. Not that I don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about the Eagles…oh, you know what I mean. Anyhow, the most sinister dealing we ever had was the night at the Times when we kept handing cash to the bartender for a drink called “The Haymaker.” Erik also cajoled the crowd into buying them. I think he told the crowd “Buy ‘The Haymaker’,” more often than he told them to buy our CDs. The Times didn’t sell enough of that lime and whiskey and something-or-another drink to stay open, obviously, but it wasn’t through lack of trying on our parts! But I do get ahead of myself.

Somewhere near the beginning of 2003, Erik found himself at a party talking to a man named Adam Fesenmaier. Both being musicians, they talked about their respective musical experiences and wishes. Something Erik said reminded Adam about a guy from his distant past with whom he used to work in a furniture warehouse. It had been a handful of years or more, but what the heck, he tracked down his number and called:

“Tony?” he asked. After inquiries about health and happiness, Adam said, “Say, the reason I called you is I ran into this guy at a party who plays sousaphone. He told me, and I quote, ‘I’d really like to play in a New Orleans dance hall band’ whatever that means. But it made me think of you, so I got his number. He told me you should call him.” It was that tenuous thread that sewed Erik’s and my fate together. Thank you for following up, Adam! 

The Name
It took a few months of living our lives before we managed to get together, but on August 10th, 2003, Erik and I met. A week later, on August 17th, was the first rehearsal of what would become the Southside Aces. It took a couple weeks to name the band. “Southside” was going to be part of the name right from the get-go. Both Erik and I make our homes in South Minneapolis, and Erik always wanted to name a band “Southside” something. “How about ‘Southside Six’,” he suggested. “I’m uncomfortable naming bands with numbers,” I said. Friends will tell you I can be a worrier. “’Cause then you sometimes have to play with four or five guys, and some smartass comes up to you and says, “I see you are a quartet; how come you call yourselves the Southside Six?” I had been listening to Jabbo Smith that week. He was a trumpet man of the thirties who once ran a band he called The Rhythm Aces. “What about the ‘Southside Aces’?” I asked. We liked it. It stuck.

First Days
On September 20th of that year, we had our first job. We played out in an Apple Valley parking lot on a stationary flatbed truck for the Ring Around The Arts festival. This was not the type of propitious beginning that would cause you Nostradamus types to predict tenth anniversary shows. But at least the truck was stationary. The lineup was me, clarinet; Zack Lozier, trumpet; Erik, sousaphone; Robert Bell, guitar; and Joe Steinger, drums. See?! There were only five of us! Southside Six, indeed! Steve Sandberg would be our trombonist, but he couldn’t make it out to Apple Valley that day.

The band went through their first handful of months without officially hiring a drummer. Different guys cycled on and off the drummer’s chair, through jobs with Le Cirque Rouge at First Avenue, where we wowed ‘em with “The Mooche,” and our first job at the Times on December 20th. Finally, in February of 2004, Dave Michael and the Aces tried each other out. He first played with us at Jitters, the basement below the Times. Each guy received $20, food and beer. If any of you remember Jitters, you’ll recall it had a tile floor and corrugated aluminum flashing for a stage backdrop. Dave recalled, “It was like playing in a Chipotle.”

The Ted
We played the Times a couple of weeks later, on February 21st. This was the first time we had a sub. I hired Ted Schryer to play tuba in Erik’s stead. When we all gathered for rehearsal after that show, we gave Erik hell—“Oh, Erik! You should have heard Ted! I just loved how he played “Hindustan!” Ted really knows what he’s doing! It was just great to play with Ted!” We went on and on. Finally, Erik had had enough. “You wait ‘til you guys get your Ted!” he warned. For a few years, whenever we needed a sub we’d say, “Did you get a Ted for that job?” 

KGC Records
In May, we played for Longfellow Elementary over in St. Paul. This job is famous for being the source of the name of our production company. When I say “production company,” I mean to say that we’re still waiting to move into our first office. But if you notice on all our CDs, it says KGC Records. Around about the middle of this gig, we played “The Mooche.” All those elementary school age rugrats running around the place. Erik announces on mic, “Kids go crazy for ‘The Mooche’!” Kids Go Crazy. KGC Records.

The First Release
We’d recorded a demo in Robert’s attic in the fall of 2003, but our first real effort wouldn’t happen until a year later. In the autumn of 2004 we brought engineers out to two live shows. All Aboard!, our first record, was made from the best songs of those batches. On October 2nd we recorded at the Times, and on the 23rd at Lili’s Burlesque Review. Well, it was Lili’s space. That night there weren’t any dancers, just microphones and a crowd. If you were at those shows, you are an indelible, audible part of our history. Our traditional jazz CVs were kind of meager at that point. But even when I listen to that recording today, I’m comfortable with the amount of wincing I experience. This brings me to the end of 2004. There'll be more in the days to come, but for now I'll leave you with this image. Weren’t we just cute?