A History of the
(1973 - 1979)
The Wolverines Classic Jazz
by Dave Sletten
Ted Unseth organized the Wolverines in the summer
of 1973 from a combination of his musical friends and students that he taught through the Minneapolis Public Schools’
Urban Arts music composition programs from 1970 to '73. The band was formed as a repertory group to perform transcriptions
of 1920’s music that Ted and others in the group painstakingly copied off of the old scratchy recordings. None of the
members were chosen for their playing ability alone. In fact, many picked up their instruments for the first time to play
in the group. Rather, they were assembled for their interest in and their commitment to the project.
The first members were Joe Demko on guitar, Chuck
Greve on electric bass, Ed Beatty on guitar, me (Dave Sletten) on sax, Tim Sullivan on trumpet, Johnny Olson on violin, Ted
Unseth on sax and piano and Becky Riemer on vocals. To understand the feel of the Jazz Age each member was asked to read Mezz
Mezzrow's ''Really the Blues'' (a fascinating account of life as a Jazz musician in America in the ‘20’s &
‘30’s) as they joined the band.
Ted was the caretaker and third floor resident of
the Crosby house, a mansion at 2105 First Avenue South that housed the headquarters for the Minneapolis Public Schools’
Urban Arts Program. This is where the rehearsals took place and ultimately where many of the band members would live.
The first engagement for the band was July 21, 1973,
a concert hosted by the West Bank School of Music at the Firehouse which later became the home of Mixed Blood Theater. At
this job Ted opened up for the band by playing and singing, which is a throwback to his earlier musical life as a folk singer/songwriter.
He also played piano on ''One O'clock Leap", a duet with Joe Demko on bass. The poster lists “The Wolverines--Genuine
1920’s Jass” (an old spelling for jazz).
The next engagement for the band was in August,
the fifth anniversary party and opening of the new location for the Electric Fetus, a record store and headshop. The band
knew only four instrumentals: the ''Wang Wang Blues", '”Bozo", “Wabash Blues'” and ''Sweet Leilani" (with
a band vocal) and two vocals featuring Becky: ''Mississippi Mud'' and ''Misery Blues". We would play everything we knew,
take a break while Dave Ray played, then repeat the same songs for our next set. At this job only, Michael Laqua was used
on second violin. We were paid in keg beer, which took its toll on the band. In fact, I remember being so musically
incapacitated that I experienced the age-old tradition of being 'pantsed' (having my pants forcibly removed) by the other
The band was growing during this period with Mark
Bryn added on drums and Jack Laffe on trombone. Jack remembers his first job at the Riverside Cafe where Mark Bryn played
drums and a Ukrainian stringed instrument called the bandura. Shortly thereafter, Steve Benson was added on guitar, Brett
Forberg was added on drums and Mark Bryn switched to piano. Brett remembers his first job as a rowdy campus homecoming gathering
at Valley Pizza in Dinkytown, Minneapolis.
A highlight concert from this early period was at
the Cedar Theater on February 24, 1974. It was sponsored by the Cedar Riverside Arts Council and the West Bank School
of Music and included Butch Thompson playing ragtime piano, The West Bank Trackers and The Wolverines. Electric and
acoustic guitars still played a lot of the horn lines and Chuck still played electric bass, giving the band an almost country
Sometime after this concert the horn section was
expanded with Scott Sueker on clarinet and sax, Mark Bruner on trumpet and Steve Sandberg on trombone. At this time Chuck
switched to tuba from electric bass. This gave the band a more realistic 1920’s sound.
Around this time the first publicity pictures in
tuxedos were taken. Sandberg and Bruner were in the band but late for the photo shoot and most people didn't have their
instruments so we divided what we had between those in attendance giving a false impression of what people played. The tuxedos,
which became somewhat of a trademark, were donated by widows of deceased Apollo Club members after dogged solicitation by
my mother, Olga Sletten. This completed the odd and eccentric visual presentation of the already unusual band playing 1920’ss
music and could very well be one of the reasons why the band would develop such a cult following in the near future.
An early recording session was scheduled at the
Park Square Court studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and the band needed to bring its own piano. So we took an
upright that belonged to the Children's Theater Company (there's some confusion as to whether or not we asked permission),
loaded it into Steve Sandberg's old International pickup and transported it to St. Paul. Unfortunately there was a problem
with centrifugal force in Downtown St. Paul (the alley leading to the loading dock had some bad potholes) and on a turn the
piano took a bad spill out of the truck, landing on its top. This meant a good deal of time was spent with Mark Bryn re-assembling
and tuning the piano when we arrived. To kill time the rest of the band went for liquid refreshments. By the time the sessions
began some of us weren’t in much better shape than the piano.
The next important concert event that spring was
the taping of the first three Prairie Home Companion shows with Garrison Keillor on Sunday, April 7. A newspaper article mentioned
the songs ''Shakin’ Like a Leaf on a Tree", ''Misery Blues", ''The Whiteman Stomp", "Off to Buffalo" and excerpts from
Aaron Copland's ''Piano Concerto". The band was a hit and we got a chance to participate in the genesis of a fabulous
radio institution. Garrison was a bit nervous back stage and was seen frequently building his confidence with a bottle of
MD 20/20 that he kept in his briefcase.
The Children's Theater Company moved into their
new facilities attached to the Minneapolis Art Institute in 1974 and the band played the grand opening and a few parties in
that first year. Brett Forberg remembers having to watch out for a particular drunk in a cowboy hat, that at each and every
engagement would dance to the band until dizzy and invariably stumble and fall into the drum set.
Ted related a story of how an adult actor for the
company, Wendy Lehr, found not only the music interesting but also liked the visual presentation. ''I consider the band as
theater. I walk around the side and somebody's fumbling around with something down here, guys are telling jokes back here.
Your band is wonderful to watch in a theatrical sense. You've got a fascinating, weird bunch of people here, Ted.”
Thom Sandberg, an artist friend of the band, created
the Wolverines logo for a poster promoting a job at the Firehouse on June 1. Thom remembers that he and some friends had the
idea of renting the Firehouse after hearing the band at the Cedar Theater. They asked Ted about hiring the band and Ted said
that he would need $10.00 per musician. They charged $2.25 to get in and there was free keg beer. A good time was had by all
and the promoters made a bit of a profit, but not after a couple of Minneapolis Police officers informed the promoters that
what they were doing was called a Tippling House (selling tickets for a public show and provide free alcohol refreshments
without a liquor license)—they’d let it go, “this time”.
Sometime in the spring or early summer of
‘74, Ed Beatty became the first original member to leave the group.
Right before the first album was recorded there
was another milestone live engagement. On August 18 the band opened for Sarah Vaughan at the Guthrie Theater with guest artist
Bob Rockwell (a veteran of Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band) on clarinet. Bob would
also be included on the upcoming recording sessions for the album. Steve Benson remembers Bob's reluctance to wear a tux since
his last experience with one was at Richard Nixon's Inaugural (not one of his favorite gigs). A compromise was worked out
where Bob would wear a purple crushed velvet coat and we wore tuxes. The two shows went fine and we got a great write-up
in the Mpls. Tribune the next day. (Note: Bob had been on gigs with Sarah Vaughan in the past and while we were
down in the dressing room looking at the monitor of her doing her first show, Bob said, at one point, “See how she’s
getting real emotional about this next tune? She’s crying real tears about it, right? Well, watch her in
the second show—I guarantee you’ll she’ll cry in exactly the same place again.” We all said
“No way” but he was absolutely right—Show Biz.)
Doug Ackerman and Tom Brundidge were the producers
of that first album. Their enthusiasm, hard work, connections and follow-through made the recording experience and outcome
interesting and successful. The original 2,000 sold out. It was re-pressed and received four stars (a very good review) in
Downbeat Magazine. Its airplay on WCCO AM radio did wonders for the band's exposure. The original sessions were recorded at
Sweet Jane Ltd. outside of Little Falls (Cushing MN). The studio was financed by Bonnie Raitt's mother, Sweet Jane, and was
run by Dave "Snaker" Ray and Steve Raitt (Bonnie's brother). [Correction from Brian Westley: "The studio was actually financed by Dave
Ray's wife's (Sylvia's) aunt Jane Westley (my mother)."] The Wolverines virtually moved in for a
week that summer and the consumption of Leinenkugel beer was noteworthy. Becky remembers the count at 12 cases. Doug Ackerman
became famous for his contribution to the beer consumption. The band would not let him forget the time that no one could find
him to OK a take until someone opened the soundproof double doors to the control booth and found him passed out in between
them. He must have tried to inconspicuously enter the booth and succumbed to the Leinenkugel before he could open the inner
There was a problem with the phase on the vocal mikes at these sessions which was discovered when the mastering began
and this led to another set of sessions in late fall in the basement of a church on East Franklin Avenue that the Augsburg
College band used for rehearsals.
During the winter, Becky Riemer quit the band because
of increasing musical demands and would soon form the Sky Blue Water Boys. This band performed regularly on the Prairie Home
Companion show for many years. She remembers her last gig with the band at an AA convention at the Prom Ballroom. “There
were all these people when we started and by the end of the first set there were only 20 people left. It was a weeknight and
they had to work the next morning. But the waiters and waitresses were dancing with each other, some of the horn players were
dancing and the janitor was dancing with a broom. I figured it was a fitting send off.” Ted remembers that, after
the band played their first set (no one clapped for any of the tunes) a lady in a sleeveless gown came running up to him on
the break (and he distinctly remembers her armpit odor catching up to her and into his nose moments after she stopped) and
said, “Why are you playing what you’re playing?!” Ted said, “Because that’s what we specialize
in; that’s what we were hired for.” All she could say was, “Oh, no, this will never do.”—the
culture shock of all that ‘20’s Jazz left most everybody stunned; they weren’t allowed to drink alcohol,
of course, so they drank gallons of coffee and smoked lots of cigarettes and just got tired.
There was a duo of women that sang with the Wolverines
for a couple of engagements. The band called them Beth and “The Hand”. (The nickname of “The Hand”
arose because of a mannerism that was evident when she sang.) They sang together because they were too shy to sing alone and
Chuck Greve remembers that one sang sharp and the other flat—thus the singing was basically on pitch, sort of.
As a picture in the Minneapolis Tribune in January
'75 demonstrates, we then had a singer named Betty “Boop” Brenner for a few engagements but Ted remembers her
quitting mid-engagement after we started ''Mississippi Mud'' without her because she couldn't be found following a break.
At some point over that winter, the band members
that lived together on the third floor of the Crosby house had to vacate. The band rehearsed for a while in my mother's basement
at 4333 Beard Avenue South, Minneapolis. Ted eventually moved into an apartment over Big John's Barbecue at Seven Corners
on 14th Avenue South and Washington Avenue. The band would later rehearse in the vacant storage room above Big John's.
Ted remembers a friend of the tenant in an adjacent apartment relating to him what it was like to walk up those front stairs
for the first time, ring his friend’s doorbell and then, all of a sudden, there’s a 12-piece ‘20’s
band blaring from behind the storage room door: “I just about fell over backwards down the stairs—it blew
Around this time Scott Sueker left the band and
Kevin Frawley was worked in along with the new vocalist, Joanie Gudmestad. They are both evident in the personnel listings
for the next big concert for the band at O'Shaughnessey Theater in St. Paul.
In July of that year, regular Sunday night engagements
began at the Longhorn Saloon in Minneapolis (above a famous steakhouse downtown). This gave people a regular location
to find the band and did a lot to build the cult that, in those days, followed the band from job to job. We did 34 Sunday
nights in a row. However, the band played for only the door so each player took home no more than $10 or $15 per night.
The Wolverines were playing so many out-of-town
jobs that transportation became a problem. We had been traveling in a hodgepodge caravan of old unreliable personal vehicles
that, on more than one occasion, broke down and caused problems on road trips. This led to the purchase of an old school bus
as transportation for engagements. Joe Demko's dad had a connection and we bought and old green and white GMC with a raceway
engine for $800.00. The interior was fitted with bunks, an assortment of ratty old chairs and a few of the original bench
seats. The mechanical condition of the bus was always precarious and there are many reminiscences of the whole band getting
out to push start it. There was also an experience in Iowa in 1977 where the brakes went out on a hill while Brett Forberg
was driving, and if it were not for some stunt driving and super human emergency brake work by Joe Demko this could have been
the last chapter of the band.
On the Fourth of July, 1975, the band was loaded
on a barge at the U of M Mississippi River landing and spent the day playing at numerous stops as the barge moved down the
river to Harriet Island in St. Paul. The band remembers the excitement of playing Cab Calloway's ''Bugle Call Rag" while
the water level sank in Lock and Dam #1 just south of Minneapolis. The memories of old jazz music on the river including Jellyroll
Morton, Louis Armstrong and Fate Marable's bands playing in this area, led to a magical sense of history that day. Unfortunately
for me, I didn't wear a hat in this pre-sunscreen time and when we played at the Cabooze Bar (on the West Bank of the U of
M) that night the blisters on my face had already appeared.
1975, in some band members’ opinion, was the
heyday of the band. The number of gigs increased throughout the spring and summer and by fall there was a six night a week
stint at the Ramada Inn for the months of September and October. With the Longhorn on Sundays this added up to 21 straight
days of playing. This period really tightened up the band but had its negative effects on poor Chuck Greve in particular.
Because of his 12-hour-a-day job that he worked during this period he could be found sleeping behind the bandstand on most
breaks. This period is under-represented by recordings with the exception of a unique floppy record that included ''Roughhouse
Blues", ''Squeeze Me", "Charleston is the Best Dance After All'' and interview excerpts from Joe Demko and Ted Unseth.
The project was called Minnesota Products, Volume One, Number One, an Audio Magazine, and also included a barbershop quartet,
a comic and experimental music by a group that included Chan Poling. Thom Sandberg, the artist, was involved, as was Carl
Franzen who would later become Ted's landlord. This product was released the following year in May of '76.
To put this artistically productive period in perspective,
I have an accounting of the income from 1975 that shows that we made less than $4,000 each that year. In February '76 Kevin
Frawley had a serious health problem and in the six + months that he was gone, the band would have a number of good clarinet
players (ringers) filling in, including Bill Gervasio, Eddie Berger and Harry Peterson (who later emigrated to Europe and
eventually became director of the West German Broadcasting Company Orchestra).
In the winter of '75-'76 I made contact with a 1920's
trumpet virtuoso, Cladys "Jabbo" Smith, who was living in obscurity in Milwaukee and working for Avis car rental. My wife
Cathy and I went to visit him on the train, taped an interview with him and suggested having him join the Wolverines for an
engagement in Minneapolis. Upon my return to Minneapolis I contacted the Hall Brothers, who played Traditional jazz and owned
a night cub in Mendota. An engagement was arranged and it was agreed that Jabbo would play two nights with the Hall Brother's
band and one with the Wolverines. This took place on May 7 - 9, 1976 and was the last job for Chuck Greve. Pat Schmid replaced
Chuck on bass and tuba and remained with the band until its demise in 1979.
Spring and summer '76 brought more steady engagements
at the Historic Commodore Hotel in St. Paul where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in the 1920's, and later at Scottie's on Seventh,
the renovated art deco Forum Cafeteria in Minneapolis.
Ted remembers the Commodore Hotel (the Speakeasy
Room downstairs) gig as almost magical. “Most nights the place was completely packed. And the dance floor
scene was the best—old couples doing authentic steps from the ‘20’s and ‘30’s (I remember one
couple, a tall businessman with his short wife doing the Castle Walk around the perimeter of the dance floor—very cool),
young urbanites out there doing it ‘cuz everyone else is doing it and free-spirit hippie-types surfing through the thick
of it. I’ll never forget the night after I’d announced our next tune, one by the Clarence Williams Orchestra
(a rather not-well-known entity) I heard a middle-aged woman on the dance floor blurt out, “Oh, I just love Clarence
Williams!”—to me, that was some sort of Triumph. And so was the night we had Jabbo Smith as our guest and
the former President of the University of Minnesota, Malcolm Moos, came down from his apartment at the Commodore with his
wife and 2 daughters. There were chairs enough for the ladies but not for Dr. Moos. I went over to him and said
I’d find a chair for him and he said, “No, no, I’ll sit on the floor. I haven’t had this much
fun in years. You know, I’m really just a frustrated trumpet player and your band makes me want to play the trumpet
A highpoint at Scotties was the night Benny Goodman came to hear the band. I got Benny's autograph
on my part to Bernstein's ''Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" (which we played especially for Benny, Harry Peterson playing the Solo
Clarinet part) which was originally dedicated to Goodman. Ted remembers Benny telling him on a break that he thought
the Wolverines version was better than the one he recorded for Columbia Records! This contact was to have led to a recording
session in Benny’s New York recording studio, but it never happened; however it did lead to a few gigs with Goodman
for Joanie Gudmestad, the band's vocalist in January '77. Scottie's continued through 1976 and with other local engagements
and college tours the band was busier than ever.
Of course the Bicentennial was July 4, 1976 and
the band loaded up the bus and went to Chicago to play at Ratzo's, a jazz club in Old Town, from June 28 through July 4. Opening
for us was a duo named Blegan & Sayer whose later album ''Classical Cartoon Music'' (Aardvark Records '76) would include
three Wolves: Brett, Pat Schmid and me. They were very funny and added to the carnival atmosphere of the trip.
had sent a camera crew along with us. They wanted to catch the whole experience for a documentary segment. At times they were
on the bus, or filming the bus go by. Then they added performance footage and interviews and ran it later that summer. The
story was a good representation of how off-the-wall the band was and how much fun we had on that trip. I remember an image
of Harry Peterson on the bus talking into the bell of his clarinet like an old telephone receiver. Sadly, that tape
has been lost forever (WCCO taped something else over it later on).
There were two highlight performances in the fall
of 1976. The first was Orchestra Hall on September 24 for a broadcast benefit. Dave Jensen was added on trumpet and Harry
Peterson on reeds. (A selection from this live broadcast tape, ''Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" by Bernstein, was included on the
second album ''Play That Thing"). And the band fondly remembers opening for Manhattan Transfer at O'Shaughnessey Auditorium
on October 24.They really liked the band and David Rogers tried to arrange for a tour with them, but it never materialized.
In November of '76 I left the band to join the Freddie
Powers Show playing Dixieland in the casinos of Nevada. I was replaced by Steve Benson who moved from banjo and guitar to
sax and clarinet.
1977 started with a bang when the band was invited
to play on January 20 at Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Ball in Washington DC. While on that trip they also played at the base of
the Empire State Building (the Showboat Lounge) in New York and at Mickey Rooney's club in Pennsylvania. When the band returned
to Minneapolis they found that they had lost all but one night a week at Scottie's on Seventh and other work was hard to come
by. Under these financial and morale pressures there was a group of players that decided to leave: Mark Bryn, Joe Demko, Steve
Sandberg and Joanie Gudmestad. They were replaced by John Boblett on trombone, Jim Tordoff on banjo, Gary Gimmestad on piano,
(Johnny Olson the violinist was an interim piano player during this period) and Shelley Peterson (Harry's wife) on vocals.
The Band landed another steady engagement at the
Commodore Hotel in the spring of '77. For the Commodore job Jabbo Smith was again brought in and was in residence for two
weeks living in the hotel and playing with the band. He played great but had a few bouts with alcohol. The problem surfaced
the night a New Orleans priest, Father Coco, sat in on clarinet. Jabbo tried to sing the Lord's Prayer but instead gave an
extended incoherent speech on his life.
Ted remembers one night when Jabbo finally seemed to trust all of us white kids
and invited some of us to his room after the gig: “He couldn’t stop talking, he seemed really happy
to share his inner thoughts with us. And there were moments when, I swear, it was as if God Himself was speaking through
Jabbo. A good non-musician friend who was able to tag along said it’s one of the most amazing experiences he’s
ever had in his life. The session lasted until the sun came up the next morning. Don’t forget, Milt Hinton,
the great Jazz bassist called Jabbo Smith ‘the most unusual person I’ve ever met’.”
Luckily, later on, Jabbo was taken under the wing of Lorraine Gordon,
wife of the Village Gate (famous NYC Jazz club) owner, Max Gordon. She got him into the Broadway show ''One Mo' Time". And
he played with the Preservation Hall group before he died in the 1980's.
Around this time Jack Laffe left the band and was
replaced by Pete Masters. The new group is pictured in an article about the Commodore Hotel engagement. Another venue
for the band surfaced that summer with a perfect connection to the Jazz age. The Castle Royale (215 South Wabasha; St. Paul)
was carved out of the mushroom caves across the Wabasha Street Bridge from St. Paul. It was a home to the underworld nightlife
in the '20s and '30s and was said to be haunted by the ghosts of slain mobsters.
In the summer of 1977 the band played at the Meadowbrook
Music Festival near Detroit along with Lionel Hampton and Marion McPartland. Lionel Hampton had sent along an up-tempo arrangement
of ''Lover'' for the band to play with him. The band had very little time to prepare; they were less than perfect sight-readers
to begin with, were uncomfortable soloing on standard jazz tunes and had a total misconception of the tempo. Besides that
it went well. The band had a chance to meet some real jazz legends on this trip including George Duvivier and Grady Tate,
who after a good swig from his flask offered this advice. ''Don't go to New York. New York eats young souls like you."
Ted remembers asking Mr. Hampton at the rehearsal to take it “not too fast, OK?". Fine, but in the performance
he counted it off about twice as fast as in rehearsal. “I’ll readily admit that I, myself, got lost.
Others did, too. Thankfully the brass players kept the pace throughout and it came off OK. After the gig I was
playing some sort of video game with a couple of the guys in the lobby of the hotel and Lionel Hampton walks by and I said,
“Hey, I’m really sorry if we didn’t cut the mustard—geez, you counted that thing fast!”
just smiled and said, “Don’t you think about it, you boys did just fine.”
In the fall of '77 the band toured to Chicago, St.
Louis, Georgia and South Carolina. In April of '78 they performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, performing
concerts on the way down and back. Around this time Joyce Marie replaced Shelley Peterson as vocalist. Fall '78 brought a
West Coast tour that included a job at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas and on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. At one
point, Mark Bruner and Jim Tordoff returned to their room in Las Vegas and they found a burglar going through the drawers.
As a born-again Christian, Mark forgave him, asked him to repent and let him go.
[4/26/06 = Insert from Mark Bruner who now resides
"Another thing that got my attention was that story about me
and Tordoff in the hotel at 'Vegas. Dave obviously thought I was a typical Christian fruitcake- catching a thief,
and then letting him go. Well, that is not the whole story. What actually happened, I awoke at 4:30 am and
heard an extra set of "breathing" noises ---I held my breath, thinking, what is THAT?, is it Tordoff's rumblings "echoing"
or what? Then I realized, there's someone else in this room. I said HEY! and the guy was so shocked he jumped
up with a scream, and he dropped my WALLET! and ran out of the room. So I (in my underwear!) ran after
him and put the old football clothes-hanger tackle on him by the pool! Tordoff heard the shouting and was close behind,
and gave the punk a few good kicks, and said "Come on, Hash, let's KILL HIM!" I hit him once, then he started crying
like a baby and begging for mercy, "You can beat me up, just don't call the cops!"
It was a slimy suburban punk, who knew the doors in that hotel
don't always close all the way, and he was checking rooms for open doors to steal what he could get -- probably for drug money.
We did call the cops, but the police told us if we were going
to file a complaint, we would have to go downtown to the police station. We were scheduled to leave that morning, and couldn't
hold up the band. So I spent an hour and a half preaching to that slobbering soul. For his part, it was probably
a worse punishment than what the police would have done! Well, who knows what the outcome was? But that kid
defintely knew he had been shown GRACE that day. Whether or not it actually changed him, will only be known in eternity.]
The Wolverines second album was released in the
fall of '78. It was produced by the band and was called ''Play That Thing". It included Minneapolis trumpet legend 'Rook'
Ganz. Rook started hanging around the band when Jabbo Smith was in town at the Commodore Hotel because he knew Jabbo from
years past. Rook could have been a nationally-recognized Jazz trumpet player, but he didn’t like going on the
road, so he just did local gigs. Back in the late ‘30’s he had his own little band gigging around the TC
area and for a while had the great Lester ‘Porkpie Hat’ Young on tenor sax. Whenever top-name Jazz artists
came to the Midwest they’d look ‘Rook’ up and have him sit in on their gigs—he was highly respected
for being able to ‘tell a story’ with his trumpet. It was a real honor to have him on that second album.
While away on tour the band got word of a terrible
car accident involving David Rodgers who was the band's manager. He took a short break from his work on an upcoming college
tour to get some lunch and was very nearly killed only blocks from his home on 29th and Bloomington by a drunk driver with
no insurance. He was in a coma for several days, but luckily pulled through. David’s dad, on his behalf,
sued the bar that got the drunk driver loaded and won the case under Minnesota’s Dram Shop Law—any establishment
that gets a patron too drunk can be held liable for all damages. The bar had to pay all of David’s medical bills.
David recovered well enough, but was prone to seizures and couldn’t continue with the band business. He was sorely
missed, because Ted could never find an equal replacement.
Brett Forberg and Steve Benson left the band in
the winter of '79 although they would return periodically for certain engagements.
The band continued to play engagements including
some weekends at the St. Paul Hotel but on October 17, 1979, a Farewell Concert was given at the Prom Center Ballroom with
Rio Nido. The adventurous and experimental group went out as it came in with a version of Morton Gould's ''Derivations for
Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble'' with the solo clarinet part played on synthesizer by guest Mark Bryn, reportedly because
woodwind sub, Bob Crea (one of the finest tenor sax players the Twin Cities ever produced; a veteran of the Buddy Rich Big
Band) never got the clarinet part in time to study it. Mark Bryn actually memorized the clarinet part in a day and a
half and conducted the piece, to boot. Crea and Eddie Berger (who was also subbing on the band; a great Bop alto sax
player) did, however, get a chance to shine in a sax battle that brought the house down.
Ted explained that there actually was one more engagement
for the band at the St. Paul Hotel and in the audience was jazz historian Gunther Schuller who already had his own early jazz
repertory group the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. Schuller told Ted that the idea of Classic Jazz (playing
note-for-note recreations) was ‘new’ and some in Jazz circles didn’t think it was appropriate (Jazz = improvisation;
not exact copying); but others certainly did and Gunther was all for it. He said, “If only I had the time, I’d
really like to try my hand at it, myself.” Well, eleven years later he hooks himself up with the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, DC and gets an $11 million dollar grant for the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation to establish
the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (which still continues today). Ted mused, “I’ve heard those guys.
They’re all very professional musicians but they don’t have the right Feel for the material. Just think
what we could have accomplished with a grant like that…”
The Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra was really
a grand experiment. Looking back, one would have to credit Ted Unseth as an idealistic leader and motivator for the project
who accomplished the most when he had young unorthodox players that were willing to listen, learn and copy the old musical
styles without giving thought to financial concerns.
Education of the players to the early jazz style
and the study of their instruments was the basis of the project in the beginning, and it supplied all the artistic fulfillment
needed at that early stage. Ultimately, some of us found the note-for-note playing of such a narrow period restricting, and
the increasing financial pressures as we got older and other opportunities led to a one by one exodus over the 7-year first
Also a single event, the tragic car accident of
the band's manager David Louis Rodgers at a critical time in the band's momentum, seemed to signal the end of the heyday.
Ted was the inspiration and artistic icon for the band, but
not much of a businessman and he wisely turned over the business end to David Rodgers. Much of the band's commercial success
is due to Rodgers' efforts and the band never found a suitable replacement.
We all agree that it was a great
learning experience to copy the early jazz greats. And you can't beat the excitement during the early days with the ratty
tuxedos and tennis shoes and the band playing eccentric music to the utter adulation of hippie and young upscale crowds. The
band also created more of a media buzz than most other jazz bands in the history of the Twin Cities scene. But was it Jazz?
Is improvisation critical to the definition of the word Jazz? Even as a repertory group it was a bit ragged around the edges
-like the old tuxedos worn by the band. You could even argue that the mismatched and inappropriate shoes in the early pictures
were an analogy for the way the group fit into the jazz world. And when the performances are critically analyzed, many musical
flaws are apparent. But I think that this critical analysis misses the point of the band. Ted took a group of highly interested
yet novice musicians on a truly bizarre quest to reproduce 1920's jazz recordings (with a few eclectic additions) and created
a unique social phenomenon known as the original Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra.