Route 66 road music:  Duke Ellington on the road and Joliet’s Polka Mass-ters

Hello again, fellow roadies!  It’s time for the Route 66 Song Of The Week, but we have an unusual entry for you this weekend, plus a recommendation for you jazz roadies out there. Let’s get to the second part first.

Tuesday, April 29th was the 115th anniversary of Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington’s birthday, and in honor of that celebration, I offer you an appropriately named a double-album set that I think you’ll love: All Star Road Band, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, originally recorded on the road (Volume 1 in Carrolltown, PA in June 1957 and Volume 2 in Chicago at the Holiday Ballroom on May 31, 1964) and released in 1964 on CBS Records.  Included here are particularly swinging versions of “Satin Doll” and “Take The A-Train” plus a spirited performance of “Such Sweet Thunder” that makes you think of Othello (from Duke’s 1957 album of tunes inspired by Shakespeare) and what must be the loveliest recording of the ballad “Isfahan” from Ellington’s The Far East Suite.  I first purchased this set some time during the 1970s or ’80s on vinyl as a Columbia double-album reissue, but it’s been reissued since on CD.  This set is enduring proof that Duke Ellington never forgot that his orchestra was first and foremost a dance band.  These road performances have given yours truly many years of listening pleasure, and I hope they do the same for you.

Here’s a clip with the track of “A Train” from Volume 1, guaranteed to keep you rocking and smiling even in the worst traffic jam.  Duke provides a 1:42 piano lead-in before the band jumps in with the main theme:

 

 
As for our local selection this week …

Now we’ve heard it all.  Polka Masses – who’d have thunk it?  But Joliet being Joliet, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised.  And the one we heard was celebrated right on Route 66, at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Chicago Street.

A little background: back in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II) declared that the Catholic Mass should be celebrated in the vernacular (the local language, wherever that Mass happened to be said).  For most U.S. and Canadian Catholics, that meant the service thereafter would be in English, not Latin, with a bit more participation from the faithful than was previously the case (that was the council’s idea, of course, at the urging of Pope John XXIII).  Along with the shift in language was a greater openness to a broader selection of church music and hymns.  So of course there have been folk Masses, gospel Masses, jazz Masses and so on.  But a polka Mass??  We guess if you’re from Eastern Europe, that makes absolute sense.

But surprise, surprise: it wasn’t the Poles or even the Czechs doing polka Masses, whom the uninitiated might most readily associate with polka music, but the Slovenians – right in the heart of old Slovenian Row.  The truth is, there are many Slavs for whom the polka is folk music, and it’s not just for dancing, as a local Slovenian group, the Polka Mass-ters, demonstrates (Mass-ters – get it? Yeah, yeah, very punny).  The polka Mass that one of us (Joe Kubal) attended last October 20 was at St. Joseph Church as part of the 85th anniversary celebration of Branch 20 of the Slovenian Union of America.  SUA, which has its local headquarters across from the church at the Slovenian Heritage Museum, started out as the Slovenian Women’s Union of America.  Joliet’s Branch 20 was one of SWUA’s original chapters, and most of its membership was also part of St. Joseph Parish.  But we digress.  Back to the music!

The Polka Mass-ters oompah their hearts out at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Joliet, IL . (Photo copyright 2014 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

The Polka Mass-ters oompah their hearts out on SUA’s anniversary at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Joliet, IL.  (Photo copyright 2014 by J.D. Kubal; all rights reserved)

Polka isn’t exactly a growing musical art form in North America.  In fact, it’s declined so much that in 2009, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the parent organization of the Grammy Awards, announced that it was eliminating the polka category because it wanted its Grammy categories to remain “representative of the current musical landscape.”  The decision reflected the declining number of polka records for sale in the U.S.: out of the five polka albums nominated for an award in 2006, for example, only one was widely distributed.  In Chicago, however, we’re very familiar with the polka, given how many people of Eastern European heritage live here; even so, polka Masses aren’t that common.

Joe, being half Czech and half Polish himself, had a fine appreciation for the music at the service.  Very toe-tapping stuff.  Courtesy of the Polka Mass-ters, we can also share with you a sample of their church music from their self-titled 1998 CD album.  Here’s a little taste:


“We Offer Bread And Wine” (offertory hymn) by The Polka Mass-ters (1998)

 
The Polka Mass-ters was founded in 1987 by Dick Tezak; the group’s current leader is Bill Strahanoski.  The members were inspired to form the band when they heard a similar polka mass group form Minnesota perform in Joliet in 1986.  Band members who performed at the service last October were:  Tony Kaluza, vocalist; Ray Koncar, button box; Stanley Malnar, button box; Rob Kovacik, guitar; Jack Lausch, banjo and guitar; Bert Lilek, electronic drums; Bob Magolan, saxophone; John Strle, vocalist; and Jerry Zupancic, vocalist.  Band members who were not in attendance then include the group’s leader, Bill Strahanoski; Jayme Marentic; Tom Magolan; Dawn Magolan; Dick Tezak; and Tony Wolf.

The Polka Mass-ters are all local musicians who perform at a number of churches, nursing homes and other venues in the Joliet area, from New Lenox to Plainfield.  The currently 15-member band has been together with few changes of personnel over the years (usually only when someone has retired or died).  The group performs with a combination of traditional and modern instruments plus a saxophone, just like a regular polka dance band.  In their own way, they’re doing their bit to help preserve Slovenian culture in Joliet.  Here’s a more traditional Slovenian hymn from the old country:


“Cescena si Marija (Blessed Mother)” from The Polka Mass-ters (1998)

 
SUA members began their 85th anniversary festivities earlier that day with an 8:00 am breakfast at Ferdinand Hall behind the church.  The Mass followed at 11:30 am.  Ferdinand Hall was formerly the parish’s first school building, back in the days when the parish had a parochial elementary school (it hasn’t for many years, the result of diocesan budget cuts).  These days, the hall is used for a variety of parish events, like the breakfast, and also serves as home to the parish museum, which opened in July 2012.

If you love your oom-pah music and want to catch the Polka Mass-ters live doing what they do best, the band has several upcoming dates in the Joliet area.  On Sunday, June 22nd – their next scheduled performance date – they’ll be at the 11:30 am service at St. Joseph Cemetery Grotto, which is inside the cemetery on the Raynor Street side, a block or two south of Theodore Street in the north end of Joliet.  Parking is available in the parish’s St. Joseph Park next door.  Still to be announced is another Mass at the church itself.  For further information or to buy a copy of their CD, contact Bill Strahanoski at Bill@wjscpa.net.

We leave you with the war cry of fictional medical examiner and polka aficionado Waldo Butters, of author Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden urban fantasy novels:  “Polka will never die!”  To which we respond:  to each his own.  Polka on, dudes.  And here’s a nifty little traditional polka for the road that Dr. Butters would love:


“Slovenian Home” by The Polka Mass-ters (1998)

 
ps – For those of you who live by that sentiment, you can buy T-shirts emblazoned with that slogan online at CafePress and Zazzle.

 
Until next time,
your own DJ SweetMarie

 

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