Friday, October 23, 2015

The Southside Aces In Vogue

Last Friday, for the first time in our existence, the Southside Aces were in vogue. The Vogue Building at 412 South Wells Street in Chicago houses on it’s seventh floor a karate dojo where the members of the 50Fifty dance group hold their monthly dances. They hired us to play music of a Friday and Saturday, so we drove down. Zack was off in Europe somewhere or another, so we enlisted the aid of trumpeter and Chicago native “Kid” Ben Bell Bern. Otherwise, all the usual suspects were in attendance. 

The elevator pours you directly into the hall. Nice wood floor about fifty by twenty feet. Two rows of necessary, load-bearing pillars in the middle of the floor created an automatic increased degree of difficulty for the dancers. Floorcraft is a dancing term that refers to the etiquette of dancing in public. Basically, you try to dance as if you remember that there are other people on the floor besides you and your partner. Giant pillars are unforgiving teachers in this regard. Add the essence of the karate dojo, and I imagined the movie montage where the sensei keeps making the blindfolded Lindy (grass)hoppers bang into the pillars until they achieved floorcraft ESP. 

The Aces were between a couple of those pillars, but were seated so didn’t risk injury. Amongst some of the standard fare, we played great tunes throughout the weekend like “Back Room Romp,” “Honey Hush,” “Blues In The Air,” New Orleans Bump,” “Bogalusa Strut,” “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing,” “Stardust,” “He’s A Different Type Of Guy,” handfuls of others. But the absolute hit of the weekend had to be the classic “Deep Henderson.”

I guess this meandering story is one about circling back. King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators had recorded it in 1926. It included some musicians that went on to some greatness of their own, including a couple favorites of mine, Barney Bigard and Albert Nicholas. That recording knocked out and inspired the Hall Brothers Jazz Band to play and record it back in the 1970s. Subsequently, both of those recordings inspired us to record it, releasing it on last year’s Second Thursday. It’s favorite status in the Aces happened back in 2012, when we first played it at the Eagles for a feature on the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. 

So there we were Friday night, done with our work and making plans to go to Lawrence’s for late night shrimp. 

"Shrimply The Best"
Incidentally, the banana pudding with 'Nilla Wafers was also a band favorite.

Ben was going on about “Deep Henderson,” saying, “That’s the cut!” Those three words are about the highest praise a musician can give a song. I said to him, “I’m not going to repeat too many songs this weekend, but we should definitely play that one again tomorrow night.” Ben nodded in agreement and declared, “Chicago needs to know about ‘Deep Henderson’!” 

And there’s the circle. A circle that is making all you jazz history nerds, myself included, already begin to chuckle nerdily. King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators were playing at the Plantation CafĂ© in Chicago, 338 E. 35th Street, back in 1926 when they recorded the song. A mere five miles from the Vogue Building. A lot further away in terms of the racial geography of the time, but that’s a different story. Chicago has known about the song for nearly ninety years. I admit, there’s a good chance they’ve forgotten about it for probably 86 of those years, but it started in the Windy City, and we brought it back. It was kind of like one of those paintings that gets lost in a war and is restored to it’s rightful country after confirming it’s lineage. In our case nobody noticed, not even most members of the band, I would warrant, but it gave me a small twinge of satisfaction to think about it that way. 

Here's the Southside Aces version off of Second Thursday

Friday, October 9, 2015

Jelly Roll Morton By The Seat Of Your Pants

Last night the Southside Aces reported for jazz duty at the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34, ready to serve up some Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton off the seat of our pants. I say this because it's been difficult to gather the Gates for rehearsals, so I really have to rely on the strength of our collective trousers. Sometimes the band can be hard on pants. But last night, as one of my mentors likes to say, was "halfway decent." As he also likes to say, "It could have been worse."

It could have been a lot worse. There is a lot of jazz music that can be easily played even though one or more of the musicians doesn't know the song. Musicians will often hear phrases like this: "It's in B flat, goes to the four in the bridge." It's a message about the key and chord movement of a song. You could say a simple sentence such as that on the bandstand ten seconds before downbeat, and a musician would have a fighting chance to make great music on a song he or she has never before played. Jelly Roll's music does not lend itself to such easy description. The difference between, say, "Exactly Like You" and Morton's "The Pearls," would, respectively, be like the difference of having to describe a lone gunman wearing a Green Bay Packers hoodie as opposed to each of a team of four bank robbers with different heights, clothing and noses spread throughout a lobby. By the time you were done describing "The Pearls" to your poor, unsuspecting fellow musician, the audience would forget that a band was playing, and during the song your poor, now aware fellow musician would be giving you the hard stare that says, "Why the bleeping bleep would you call this song?!"

Many Morton songs follow ragtime patterns, with three different strains, interludes and key changes. I mention "The Pearls" because it is one of my favorite jazz compositions of all time. And that's the thing about that rascal Ferdinand. Though he did go down in history as a rascal, he also is arguably the first person to provide us with jazz compositions. The first to codify ways of playing jazz that musicians take for granted today. Morton said, "In all my recording sessions and in all my band work, I always wrote out the arrangements in advance. When it was a New Orleans man, that wasn't so much trouble, because those boys knew a lot of my breaks; but in traveling from place to place I found other musicians had to be taught. So around 1912 I began to write down this peculiar form of mathematics and harmonics that was strange to all the world." 

As you can see, Jelly Roll was not oblivious to his own prodigious talent. About "The Pearls," he is legendarily supposed to have said he gave the song it's name because he felt each movement was just as perfect as the last. It really is a beautiful song, the third strain being my favorite, filled with a sort of wistfulness, but not lacking in swing and strut. 

The Aces fared well on some great ones last night. "Kansas City Stomps," for instance. The writer and jazz critic Albert Murray was talking about his 1927, fifth-grade self when he wrote, "I was already trying to project myself as the storybook heroic me that I wanted to be by doing a syncopated sporty limp-walk to the patent leather avenue beat of Duke Ellington's then very current 'Birmingham Breakdown'. [That], along with old Jelly Roll Morton's 'Kansas City Stomps,' and Fletcher Henderson's 'Stampede' functioned as my personal soundtrack some years before Vitaphone movies came into being." I don't know about you, but I'm going to start practicing my "sporty limp-walk."

The Aces also took to menacing the crowd with the dark and lurking "New Orleans Bump," and bounced them about the place with the steamrolling phrases of "Tanktown Bump." Our "bump" set. I want to know what a "bump" is. Our "Jungle Blues" was majestic, which is an amazing testament to Jelly Roll. How did he make an earthy blues song that pretty much has just one chord sound so majestic?

We did, however, strain the fabric on the seat of our band pants a couple of times. We were slightly frantic on "Black Bottom Stomp," but the said seat of said band pants maintained it's integrity. "Original Jelly Roll Blues,"on the other hand, tore off one of our back pockets and possibly popped a belt loop or two. The song is considered to be one of, if not the first published jazz composition, a century old this year. It combines blues, stops and ragtime effortlessly. We didn't combine them so effortlessly. It was the most confounding 32 bars of music we played the whole night. But you know what? We got to play it. A hundred years later, and the Southside Aces got to play it. 

Our rendering of "The Pearls" wasn't as perfect as Jelly Roll composed it, but it was pretty dang good. We lost hardly any corduroy on that one. Are you tired of my extended seat of the pants analogy yet? My problem is that I consider "pants" to be one of the funniest words of the English language. But I'll give you a break and leave you with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers from 1927: