Eric Giere and John Sutherland live in the past. You should visit them there.

Eric, 84, played clarinet and tenor saxophone at Minneapolis' Washburn High School. Schoolmate John, 83, played percussion in the school's swing and marching bands. That was about 70 years ago, when Benny Goodman performed at the Orpheum, and smoke got in your eyes and couples knew how to swing it.

"I had my eyes on his sister," John said. "Then I met Eric and we've been pals every since."

Pals linked forever by a shared passion.

"We recognized what an outstanding art form it was," Eric says of the bygone Big Band era. "Creative. Improvisational. [Saxophonist] Dexter Gordon. [Trumpeter] Roy Eldridge. [Saxophonist] Ben Webster. They had real identity."

For 50 cents, Eric and John went to downtown Minneapolis to watch movies, but really to wait for breaks between films when the musicians came out, musicians like Duke Ellington and a teenager named Ella Fitzgerald. Later, John played in jazz clubs and ballrooms around the Midwest. John jammed at jazz clubs on the North Side, where musicians, regardless of their color, "had the freedom to play together."

Then, "that rock thing came in," Eric said wistfully.

A gifted operatic tenor, Eric taught voice at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, then at Augsburg College. John was a social worker for 30 years.

When Twin Cities bassist Ron Fosse and his son, Aane, a pianist, invited the two friends to jam, they jumped at the chance. The Ron Fosse Band plays about twice monthly at the Dunn Bros. coffee shop at 34th St. and Hennepin Av. S. in Minneapolis.

On a recent Thursday, Eric, his snow-white hair slicked back, loses himself in Ellington's "C Jam Blues." John, head down, caresses the drum with his brush. A couple leap up to dance. Others tap their feet or nod to the intoxicating rhythm.

"What's kept John and myself going is we keep expressing ourselves in that past culture," Eric says. "We try to play our music with a certain joy."