“I’ve got an idea the American audience would rather hear Dixieland than any other kind of music — if it had the chance.”
– Doc Evans
When the sound of jazz first shuffled itself across the United States it came to Minnesota not over the airwaves or on records as you might expect, but by transit not long for the world in the 10s and 20s: the riverboat. Bix Beiderbecke himself visited the Twin Cities at least once before 1922, while working on the Majestic, a 228-foot boat which ran from his hometown, Davenport, to St. Paul. We learned this and a thousand other interesting things about the history of Minnesota jazz when we read Jay Goetting’s book, Joined at the Hip.
We’ve been thinking a lot about the way jazz came to Minnesota in those days before trucks and trains because there has always been such a strong connection between our hometown and the crescent city on the other end of the Mississippi. Here at Hymie’s we’re fortunate to have friends who love traditional jazz and share their enthusiasm with us, sometimes pulling awesome local records out of our jazz section which we didn’t even know were there. This is how we discovered the Mill City Seven and Upper Mississippi Jazz Band LPs we posted a couple years ago as a tribute to clarinetist Dick Ramberg (here). These have since become favorite albums to play on gloomy days; no matter the weather outside they always brighten our day.
Much of Goetting’s rich history of Minnesota jazz is about traditional bands, most famously those of Doc Evans and the Hall Brothers, of course. There are many other jazz traditions in Minnesota, from an early exotica act (the Ron Hamar Trio) to the wave of fusion bands like Natural Life and Solstice in the seventies. Our friend Maurice Turner, a bassist now in his 80s, loves to tell the story of the day he played a set with Coltrane at the Walker (and we love to hear it), a venue which hosted all kinds of national and local modern jazz groups. As much as we love all of these folks, our favorite Minnesota jazz records are the traditional ones, and our favorite local jazz group to hear today is the Southside Aces.
Second Thursday is the fifth album by this local sextet, named for their long-standing residency at the Eagles Club #34, right here in our neighborhood (the best in town, by the way). Lead arranger Tony Balluff uses the monthly gig to highlight the music of a specific jazz artist or composer, like a recent set of songs by Jell Roll Morton. Here at your friendly neighborhood record shop we usually know who it will be ahead of time because he stops in for a few records to give away during the show. Their albums haven’t ever followed the same format, although tribute albums are certainly a jazz tradition, and Second Thursday is a varied cross-section of songs they’ve been performing at the Eagles.
Its been almost exactly ten years since the Aces released their first disc, All Aboard!, and their original lineup is still intact — a pretty remarkable accomplishment for a band these days. What listeners like ourselves enjoy about this is the intuitive interactions which make for great jazz, especially when trying to recreate the style of early jazz. The Aces’ polyphonic ensemble choruses at the end of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” are pure Dixieland, full of joyous energy and improvisation. Other tracks are much more in the various styles established by the great swing orchestras. One of our favorites is an original by trombonist Steve Sandberg, “J For Jump,” which is written in the jungle style of Duke Ellington’s first great orchestra or Jelly Roll Morton’s classic “Jungle Blues,” complete with scat vocals, horns growling through mutes and wild tom-pounding drum breaks by Dave Michael. There’s a lot of later swing in the tune, too, especially the feel of the Benny Goodman’s famous performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall in 1938 (which we featured in a post here this spring). You can hear why this one would tear up the parquetry dance floor at the Eagles Club.
What’s remarkable is how tastefully the band transitions into “Japansy,” an introspective slow dance tune first recorded by Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders in the late 20s, but maybe likely familiar to some folks as a Guy Lombardo number. The Aces’ rendition is closer to the former’s, but we couldn’t find a copy here at Hymie’s. We bet you could find a 78 of the original single on Victor if you visit our pals at Vintage Music Company. Balluff, on clarinet, and guitarist Robert Bell offer sensitive, lightly swinging solos over over the backing of Erik Jacobson’s sousaphone. That’s right, this band has a sousaphonist, and a damn good one too. Remember, these guys play in New Orleans every year, and are well-received while also studying with jazz veterans.
Second Thursday is really evenly paced like this throughout, balancing big numbers like “J For Jump” with beautiful tunes like “Japansy” and the lesser-known holiday tune, “Winter Weather” — which is well-chosen considering today’s sub-zero temperature, although we’d prefer a tune like “Freezing my Ass Off,” if anyone has ever written such a song. Anyway, this has always been the case for the Aces’ residency at the Eagles, giving swing dancers a chance to cool their heels, but always keeping the mood and energy up. Like the Cactus Blossoms’ Live at the Turf Club album recorded last year, Second Thursday captures the feel of a popular residency. Another thing we love about this disc is that the tunes we’ve chosen for today’s post are both original numbers which fit firmly with the band’s usual classic jazz repertoire. We haven’t asked why Balluff titled his opening tune “Little Duke,” because it reminds us of Count Basie, especially those “Kansas City 5,”and “6” and “7” (and so on) records he made for Pablo in his later years which awesome cats like Harry “Sweets” Edison, Louis Bellson and Joe Pass. We should probably mention you can check out the entire disc on their Bandcamp page here.
In Goetting’s book, clarinetist Harry Blons describes how the Doc Evans band began to make a name for itself after the war, when Dixieland wasn’t what most bands were playing. “People wanted to hear pop tunes, but a band like this could make a Dixieland tune out of a pop tune,” Harry Blons. The Aces have done the same thing, adapting everything from Al Green to Amy Winehouse on earlier albums, but on Second Thursday the closest to a pop tune cover is Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me” in the Dixieland style, which offers an opportunity for a lovely solo by Sandberg after trumpeter Zack Lozier has smoothly stated the familiar melody. We stopped listening to “Bluegrass Saturday Morning” some years ago when it seemed like every other song was an ironic cover of an 80s pop hit, and we’re glad jazz bands haven’t painted themselves into the same corner. The song selection on Second Thursday is a lot of fun without falling into this trap, which turns traditional music into a novelty. We especially enjoyed the Aces’ arrangement of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” a song we never thought we’d enjoy so much.
A couple years ago we were given the honor of writing the liner notes to Jack Klatt‘s solo disc, Love Me Lonely, and we concluded our thoughts by borrowing from novelist W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer.” Jazz, like so many other American traditions, is sometimes treated like a museum piece, a relic of a past era we appreciate the same way old men like to look at old cars. We walk a tenuous line on this subject here at Hymie’s, with one foot firmly in the past and another feeling its way forward — we’ve always avoided becoming purists of any kind, whether its the sort who feel an album simply must be on vinyl to be appreciated, or that the “rules” of traditional jazz must be followed without fail. When we think about jazz purists like Wynton Marsalis we remember how The Simpsons‘ Superintendent Chalmers described Principal Skinner: “The rod up that man’s butt must have a rod up its butt!” Some people take all the fun out it.
Just this week, we were listening to Second Thursday when a regular who had known Hymie walked in the door and said, “Now that sounds like Hymie’s.” The band was playing Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump.” True, we love the old tunes as much as our departed founder, who left us fifteen years ago and whose obituary in the Star Tribune opened with a description of the very same Edith Piaf song the Aces Perform on this disc (its true) — but we hardly think of ourselves as archivists in the serious sense. We’re not comfortable with the idea of jazz as a dead art form, especially this style so deeply rooted in Minnesota’s history. We’re very thankful there’s folks like the Southside Aces carrying the jazz tradition into its second century. Their residency at the Eagles Club has been a helluva lotta fun.
The Southside Aces’ record release show for Second Thursday is, naturally, this Thursday, at the Eagles Club #34. Music starts at 8pm. The $5 cover also gets you a raffle ticket, where you can win some prizes, including albums from your friendly neighborhood record store.