Off Key: A Conversation with Eddie and Dallis Piccard

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by EmQ, CRAM Magazine, April-May 2004
Reproduced with permission from Cram Magazine

Eddie Piccard and his wife Dallis are a dynamic couple who’ve been steadily pumping life into the Cedar Rapids music scene for the last fifteen years. For those foreign to his sounds, Eddie is the mainstay for The Eddie Piccard Trio, a local Cedar Rapids jazz band, playing the part of both vocals and piano. Joined by Dave Green on bass and Jon Wilson on drums, the Trio is showcased at Jazz at the Top in the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown.

Outside of the Trio, Eddie’s history in jazz is a rich one. The laundry list of jazz greats Eddie has played alongside includes Ray Blue of New York City Cotton Club fame and Rusty Jones of the George Shearing Jazz Combo, among countless others. Having performed all over the country in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco and Chicago – and well received in each locality – one may wonder why it is that Eddie chose to settle down in his hometown of C.R. As he’s said in the past, Eddie feels that he and his “fellow Iowans speak the same language.” Well, last month I was given the opportunity to sit down with Eddie and Dallis and explore the dialect.

Wanting to feel out his musical background, we started with a few of the basics. He filled me in on piano lessons taken as a child and fooling around with a couple bands in high school. While his parents weren’t jazz enthusiasts, they were still “a great influence” on Eddie’s music – his mother was a talented singer who passed on her art to Eddie, while his dad often joined in on the guitar. Jazz was simply a style of music that had demonstrated it’s appeal to Eddie in his teenage years, leading him join a jazz record club and, eventually, to enroll at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon. A reasonably hardcore alumnus, Eddie maintains a strong bond with both the school and its students to this day.

Em: Do you ever return to Cornell for performances?

Eddie: I just did one there last fall. It was a memorial for Paul Scott, who was a big part of Cornell his whole life. He was a coach and alumni director while I attended there, and his son, Rich Scott, was in my fraternity. They had promised [Paul] a New Orleans funeral when he passed on, and so Rich called me and said, “I want you to do this for me.” So I went down and I did a New Orleans funeral ceremony in King Chapel to honor him.

I’m sure you can imagine the celebration of life that ensued as the rhythm and sway of exalting jazz music accompanied the ceremony. And Eddie can’t say enough about all the wonderful people he’s met and been afforded the opportunity to work with through Cornell. Outside of performances held at the school and ties to his fellow alumni, the Piccard’s found Cornell to be a resource for “smart, honest, and hardworking” wait staff when the need suddenly arose.

It had been six years since Eddie first came home to Cedar Rapids and met his other half, Dallis. After playing at an assortment of locations around C.R., the two chose a spot on the corner of Mt. Vernon Road and Memorial Drive that was known to us all (most of us, anyway) as The Backstairs Lounge or ClubJazz. Decked out in timeless style by Dallis, the Club had it all – great atmosphere, scrumptious food, adept service, and the most incredible tunes. The weekends generally saw the Trio keeping pace on stage, and a strong following for their idiosyncratic jazz styling soon developed. Things weren’t always so silky smooth though – Eddie and Dallis look back on the first couple years at the Club and remember having had a “rough start.”

Dallis: Everyone thought that it was just an “old fogey” place at first and steered clear of it…but, in the long run they overcame it and the younger crowds just starting coming in!

Eddie: And when we first opened we advertised in all the local papers to get servers and bartenders, and we waited…and we got absolutely no response! So Dallis says, “I tell you what – let’s go check out the colleges.” So she went down to Cornell and posted a sign on the job listing board and we got one response. But this girl came, said she didn’t know how to serve but was willing to learn and we hired her on the spot. Week later after she had the hang of things she went back to the note on the board and added her own note, “this is the place to be!” So they started to come in then, and they were great! They were honest, they were smart – and they stayed.

The beauty of this couple? All those years and all the different help they had and they still keep in contact or are able to get in contact with a large majority of them. They remember faces and names, and don’t seem to have a critical thing to say. In fact, the girls often became a large part of the different themes and acts that the Club and the Trio put on.
If you haven’t been lucky enough to witness it firsthand, you have to have at least heard of Eddie’s legendary Ray Charles shows. Decked out in dark sunglasses, Eddie’s Ray Charles medleys are known soothe your soul with his deep-down rendition of Georgia on My Mind, and set you to groovin‘ with Hallelujah, I Love Her So. And if the music isn‘t enough, the sultry strutting of the infamous Raylettes was sure to get you make you move.

Dallis: We always had at least three Raylettes. I would dress them and choreograph’em and show them how to strut…they were all a little timid! Oh, and I had to help them with their attitude, because it takes a certain attitude to do that.

Eddie: She’d do all of that and really just put the rest of the show together – I played the music. One night we did the Ray Charles show at the Club on the same night as the Cornell Homecoming, and we had all kinds of people coming back for that. So I said to everyone that they needed to come up to the Club, because I was going to do a special show for it. Well, I hired another piano player for the night and I just didn’t show up for a while. A little later I came in a limousine and they pulled up on the sidewalk and let me out. I had come in character as Ray Charles – all in dark glasses and with someone to help me walk in – and I did an hour show, turned around, and went back out. Got into the limo and drove off! …We used to really go all out for those special occasions…

In fact, some of you may remember (but probably don’t) that ClubJazz was one of the first bars in the area to start running nights like Cinco de Mayo (back before anyone knew what it was), Mardi Gras in Iowa, and Roaring Twenties theme nights.

Dallis: I remember the first Cinco de Mayo I planned. One of the guys who were playing with Eddie at the time – a previous club owner – said ‘I don’t know what you’re doing – why you’re doing this? Nobody’s going to come because it’s Cinco de Mayo – they don’t even know what that is around here.’ Well, it was one of our very first theme nights and we couldn’t even handle everyone in there! Eddie had ordered cases of Mexican beers, but we even ran out of those. By the end of the night people were asking for a bottle of Bud with a lime in it – they didn’t care.

Eddie: Dallis had everything decorated and the girls were all in senorita dresses. And she made up these posters with the musicians on it, and all of a sudden all their names changed: we had Mariachi Melsha and Tijuana Witz and Hombre Coleman. It was a riot!

Aside from the ambiance and good vibes they provided, the Club saw a diversity of performers over the years, including twelve-time Grammy Award winning pianist Chick Corea, renowned jazz guitarist (and personal favorite of Dallis’) Russell Malone, and Pure Ecstasy out of San Francisco, to name only a few. But the Piccard’s didn’t restrict their guest performances to accomplished artists only.

Always involved in the community and encouraging the aspiring artists around them, ClubJazz became a testing ground for those willing. Working with individuals and students, Eddie and Dallis helped introduce many a performer to the professional stage.

Eddie: Well, Don Chamberlain had taken over the jazz department down at Cornell by then, so we made contact and I started to work with him. He would bring the student band up and play at our place, which we loved and was great for the kids because they were getting to play at jazz club. We did it with other schools, too. Some of the high schools would come during the week – we’d start them early on the weeknights so their friends and families could come. And it was surprising how differently everyone reacted. Many of them were just eager, and it was an inspiration to them. Looking back on it now, a lot of time has gone by. They’ve went on to college and graduated. Some of them have even come back and said ‘Look how we’ve done.’ And we were one of the first clubs they had played at.

A lot of wonderful people came and went through the doors of ClubJazz. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and when Mt. Vernon Road was slated to be widened in 2000, the Club tragically fell to construction.

Em: Of course I have to ask: do the two of you ever consider opening another club here in Cedar Rapids?

Eddie: (Glazed in sarcasm…) Gee, you’re the first person to ever ask us that.

Dallis: I think about it off and on. We did look right after the club closed, when we found out we were definitely going to have to move – that none of my complaints would hold water – we looked. It was just too difficult – we just couldn’t find a place that we thought could duplicate the ambiance.

Eddie: You name a place, and we looked at it. There were two or three up for consideration. One in particular that we really liked, but it had too many obstacles…and on top of the little things that I like to call the ‘nuisance taxes’…well, how many drinks can you serve, really? In answer to the question of whether or not we’ll open a club, these are the things we consider.

Dallis: We’ll never say never.

Em: And how do you feel about playing Jazz at the Top? Has it affected your music or the group?

Eddie: Oh, we’re happy to be here, believe me. It really is a wonderful location.

That it is. One of the few places left in C.R. where jeans and a ball-cap aren’t considered acceptable date-night attire, Jazz at the Top provides the ideal atmosphere for the incomparable Trio. And it’s a location that has a little history for Eddie and Dallis, too. Back in the eighties when the Top was still a club, but differently organized, Eddie and Dallis met while Eddie was performing there. Having now come full circle, they seem to be rather enjoying their posh surroundings. Faced with the same problem the Club had when it first opened, Eddie and Dallis remind people of all ages “not to be intimidated” by the location or the dress code. It’s a very relaxing place to unwind and whet your appetite for a good melody – much as the Club once was.

While the Club has long ago closed, Eddie and Dallis remain vigorous in their efforts to expose new artists to professional playing time. Inviting locals to join him for Jazz at the Top or when he’s performing at Bistro on First, Eddie always seems to have a feeler or two out for those jazz hopefuls looking to keep the genre alive.

Em: It’s wonderful to see a local artist giving so much back to community. A lot of artists around here are struggling with following their own dreams – is there anything you’d like to share with them, any words of wisdom or stories of struggle?

Eddie: Well, I think I could say that I’ve been following my dreams for a long time. But it wasn’t always fun. I had jobs I didn’t like – played at some awful clubs – and had to work hard. If I’d tell anyone anything about how to follow their dreams it would be: be persistent, learn your stuff, and don’t give up because you don’t get there right away. I remember when Jon Wilson came up to me looking to play. I gave him my music and said learn this – and he did. Now he’s my drummer.

Em: During your seminal years you spent quite a bit of time in Chicago – at some impressive clubs and with some very impressive performers. Care to share anything about that?

Eddie: Sure – and I still play in Chicago quite a lot. I’ll play at Green Dolphin Street and The Big House, or at Philanders Oak Park. And whenever I go there people are anxious to have me come. In fact, in the Big House there hangs a mural of all the famous Chicago jazz musicians, and I’m in it. There’s another in Luciano’s, and I’m in that one too. So, you know, I’ve taken my place among those people. This last one, at the Big House, they had this unveiling and I was invited to come. We had this huge jam session together – it was quite a night.

Em: And how about the present Eddie? Especially in these days, jazz is far less mainstream than it has been in the past. How do you feel about jazz’s future? Do you think we have a chance for making it mainstream again?

Eddie: Yeah, I do. And I think that the main thing that is contributing to that is young performers like Diana Krall [phenomenal vocalist and acoustic pianist] and Karen Allison – not so much like Norah Jones – I like her just fine but she’s more of a stylist than anything. And Alicia Keyes – she’s a really good musician. She knows how to play the piano, sing – she’s got it all and it comes across beautifully. But Diana Krall…I can’t say enough good about her. She’s got so much going for her – and she’s like me. She does the standards. She plays my tunes.

And by “my tunes” Eddie is, of course, referring to the myriad of songs he covers. Playing the likes of Count Basie, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, as well as personal favorites Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, Eddie and the Trio have built up one hell of a following.

Em: Have there ever been any Eddie originals?

Eddie: Maybe a scribble here and there, but nothing I’d ever even mention. I’m not a composer. I like the music I play, and I think it’s why I’ve been able to keep going even in a small community like this. All that stuff is so solid. Nobody is ever going to deny Frank Sinatra…and that’s what I do.

Yes he does – and he does it well. Since coming home to Iowa in 1988 Eddie has played nearly every venue in the area, most of them more than once. Most recently he and the Trio were spotted at their first ever concert at Ballantyne Auditorium on the Kirkwood campus. Eddie, Dallis, and the Trio can also be found Friday nights at Bistro on First in downtown C.R., and down at the Top of the Five on both Saturday nights and during Sunday brunch. For all you “cigar lovin’ men and cigar friendly ladies” Eddie’s Cigar Club meets the first Monday of every month at the Top starting at 5:30pm. And with summer at hand you’re sure to glimpse the happy couple – and the thrilling Trio – at a number of outdoor festivities, adding their definitive style and hearty ration of class to what may otherwise be an average event…and if you’re lucky, you may even catch Ray Charles and his girls out on stage.

On behalf of myself, the entire CRAM staff, and the aspiring artists in and around Cedar Rapids, I’d like to thank Eddie and Dallis. The time the two of them have taken, both for this interview and for their contributions to the local artists and aficionados, is hugely appreciated and unlikely to be forgotten…

– Em