"This has been our hang-loose place for so long," said Maggie Smith.
"A sad but fun occasion," commented Dave Gaillard.
"God, this brings back memories," mused Anna Wahler.
Such was the mix of fond recollection and ambivalent emotion that characterized the demise of an institution. Friday nights at the Rockville Shakey's with Southern Comfort, nine years of them, came to an end last week. But don't despair, fans of this 12-year-old traditional style jazz band, for this Friday Southern Comfort opens at the Fairfax Shakey's. Who knows -- maybe they'll make it into the 21st century at their new venue.
"It started pretty much as usual," said the band's leader, trombonist Al Brogdon, who grew up in Cookeville, Tenn., and now lives in Damascus, "but by 9 o'clock we had a capacity audience of standing room only." Because the remodeling plans calling for elimination of live entertainment were revealed to the band only 10 days before their final date, the unhappy news was circulated throughout the area's traditional jazz circles largely by word of mouth.
Among the nearly 300 faithful of all ages who packed the pizza parlor were two dozen musicians who took turns sitting in with Southern Comfort, an extended family of two couples with their half-dozen young children in tow, an elderly couple who, upon hearing on WMAL radio that the group was closing out that evening, got up from bed, dressed and rushed over, and a coworker of technical editor Brogdon who arrived at midnight in ape costume.
"He was working the room as he came in," chuckles Brogdon, "stopping and patting people on the head and shaking hands. He mounted the bandstand and sang 'Gorilla of My Dreams' with us accompanying him, and then, playing a wild-looking bass kazoo, strolled out the door."
The beer flowed, dancers grabbed partners and fox-trotted or jitterbugged in the aisles, cheers erupted for a drum break, horn solo or bassist Mike Pengra's signature vocal number "Jada" ("Sharon, Sharon, she had a stick-shift Chevrolet . . ."). The assembled musicians rendered "High Society," "Sugar Blues" and "Bugle Call Rag." A petition praising the restaurant's management "for providing pleasure and enjoyment for so many years" gathered more than 200 signatures.
Looking back, Brogdon, one of Southern Comfort's two original members (the other is Pengra), put the nearly decade-long run of the band in perspective. "There are more and more of the younger crowd who come to hear the music," he said. "One kid was sitting in with us by the time he was 14 or 15, and he's 19 now and playing trumpet well." Brogdon recalled others, a 16-year-old tenor saxophonist and a clarinetist of the same age on a visit from his native Germany, both of whom acquitted themselves well.
Then there were the visiting firemen types who dropped by with their axes, like the clarinet-playing police lieutenant from Los Angeles taking a three-week course at the FBI academy, and the Tarnished Six, a traditional style group from Pennsylvania in town for a Potomac River Jazz Club special, playing alternating sets with Southern Comfort one entire evening. One could always count on something to make a Friday night different from the others, like the time three members of the Redskins band turned up -- on alto saxophone, piccolo and hand-held cymbals.
At 1:45 a.m., Brogdon called for all musicians in the room to join the fray on "Royal Garden Blues." For that 70-year-old classic and the final number -- the group's eponymic theme, "Southern Comfort," a Firehouse Five Plus Two vehicle -- there were a dozen musicians on the stand as the assembled fans stood in acknowledgment of the band's last minutes in that room. Balloons were released to float ceilingward, glasses were raised in toasts, musicians marched between the tables. Suddenly there was no more music, only the din of a hundred or so voices talking at once.
"It's been a family atmosphere," Brogdon said of the extended engagement, "and it's very heartening that a lot of people have brought their children, some of whom have grown into their teens in the chorus of our nine years here. We have to start buiding a new generation of traditional jazz lovers by exposing them to the smaller amount of this music available today. Let's face it, unless we get a lot of these youngsters interested in traditional jazz, it won't be around any longer than the folks who grew up with it, because they're going to be passing on."