If Mel Jass was, in fact, no more of a cinephile than most of the kids, farmers, truckers, and homemakers he entertained, Dan Jass, on the other hand, is a walking encyclopedia of the rock-and-roll canon. In addition to possessing a record collection that would make most DJ’s drool, as a performer he can match the guitar stylings of every master from
Eddie Cochran to Eddie Van Halen. After working a day job for twenty years at Schmitt Music’s warehouse, Dan returned to singing and songwriting full-time.
In addition to the Hootenanny, where host Jim Walsh took generous helpings from a bottle of Jameson and proudly noted his cohort’s pedigree, I witnessed a Jass solo set at the 400 Bar. While I and the other attendees, including Dan’s wife Jana and daughters Kaytee and Sarah, froze in the gloomy confines, whose heater ceased operation on that subzero February night. The headliner steamed things up with two Elvis covers and nine original compositions. The originals included: “Cure Me”, about a suicidal bandmate who had to leave Two Tears to enter a mental hospital and who, as the performer learned that very night, had just ended up in the hospital again; and “I’m Going to Denver”, based on a declaration Dan would constantly make to Jana when she was married to her first husband, expressing how torn he was over falling in love with her while not wanting to break up her marriage. You’ll have to hear the song to find out how they got from there to actually becoming betrothed, themselves. That, or take a swig from Walsh’s whiskey bottle.
Whiskey, as well as scotch, bourbon, gin, vermouth, and a whole lot of other booze was an important part of Mel Jass’ diet, as it was for most members of the sales and entertainment clubs in his day. Like Dan says, “They were salesmen, businessmen. That was part of the culture. He loved to drink at Gulligan’s in downtown St. Paul, with all the St. Paul Pioneer Press guys.”
Taking a swig from his coffee, Dan relates an anecdote about his dad that evokes Raymond Carver: “He was separated from my mom for about a year-and-a-half in the mid-sixties, and was living at a hotel on 6th street (in downtown Minneapolis). My brother, Dave, was about ten years older than me and old enough to drink. He was hanging out with Mel in the hotel room, drinking, and there was a boom-boom-boom on the door. They open the door and there’s this huge Native American guy with this little Native American woman. He’s screaming at my dad and pointing at the woman, and then comes in and starts beating up on Mel. He and Dave managed to kick them both out. They never found out why the guy was so mad at him, but I get the feeling there was something perverse behind it all.”
Perverse, Mel might have been when in his cups, but never mean or violent. And even after a six-martini lunch with the Pioneer Press boys or one of his advertising clients, he maintained a professional demeanor on and off the air, with nary a slurred word or stumbled step. He eventually quit drinking in the late seventies, and Dan, himself, never developed his father’s taste in spirits. The younger Jass did, however, acquire a smoking habit, which took many years and twenty times to quit, using the patch, nicotine gum and other, more exotic means. His last try with the gum finally did the trick — though, at fifty bucks a pack, it damn near depleted his bank account.
Mel, on the other hand, retired a wealthy man in 1982, four years after WTCN went from global independent to NBC affiliate. “Heads rolled, and it was all national programming and national commercials,” explains Dan, “There was no place for live commercials, no place for Mel beating on the fenders of used cars. He turned into a frail old guy sitting in a chair the last few years of his life. He’d have on seven different TV sets — a big console TV on the bottom and two 27-inchers on top — and he’d watch all the channels at once. He was like Kirk on Star Trek; he had a big leather chair and end tables on either side of him with all these remotes.”
Mel Jass left this galaxy in 1997, at age 79. While his contributions to broadcasting were amply rewarded with money and fame, they were never officially recognized by the industry until eight years after his death, when he was awarded the Silver Circle by the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television. Two years after that, he was inducted into the Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Though he has yet to be showered with awards or riches, Dan has worked his musical chops almost uninterrupted for three decades now, and continues to do so at venues across the state, crossing paths with both up-and-comers and established names. One near-miss in the latter category was tragic blues master, Doug Maynard, whom Dan was a fan of for years before he found out he once knew him. “(In 1991) my sister reminded me that Doug and I used to jam together in junior high. I figured I gotta get ahold of him and see if we can work again… and two months later he was dead. That proves the old saw, never procrastinate, because Doug could ‘ve made my career.” Taking a final sip of his Java Jack’s brew, Mel Jass’ youngest child shrugs his shoulders and ponders, with a TV smile, “Then again, maybe I should grow breasts, like Venus of All the Pretty Horses!”
March 29th at 6 p.m., Wolves Den Native Coffee, 1201 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis.