Tag Archives: Iowa

An Iowa Story

postdated: Aug. 1, 2009


Above and header: a classic image at Iowa’s Historic Arnold’s Park.

If I have been too quiet, I hope my few faithful readers will think that the reasons are as good as I do.  I’m back from what I now know was a much-needed trip to my birthplace: Iowa.  Jenn and I had planned to go up for a long weekend.  This was for her family, recently bereft of a beloved grandmother and only very recently able to gather for a proper memorial service.  However, it turned into a much more varied and exciting journey than we had originally expected.

The time everyone was able to come turned out to be the weekend after a ten-year reunion that my high school classmates had planned.  Neither of us had been to Harlan for at least the six years we’ve lived in Florida, so we decided to go up early for this shindig and enjoy some of the pleasures of late summer in Iowa.  Ten days later, I am convinced that the lifelong Iowan we came to mourn would have heartily approved.

The entire trip resonated with overtones of formative musical experiences that, for both Jenn and me, made Iowa a great place to grow up.  The town square is home to a relatively new restaurant, paradoxically called the Sandwich Bowl, where we had lunch and a long, soulful conversation with two of my former music teachers, Steve and Dianne Lawson.  Although they are now both retired from public school jobs, Dianne had to leave for an afternoon wedding gig.  We relaxed with Steve in a multi-purpose facility that provides his daily musical playground: he watches DVDs, plays music, teaches lessons, rehearses high school groups and engineers recording sessions.  I enjoyed the privilege of thanking the Lawsons in person for laying the foundation for many and varied other musical studies and experiences.

Later that evening, we met up with my high school classmates for the reunion.  Standard fare here: beers and steaks at a local country club.  It was a good time, but we cut out a bit early to stop by another reception for a friend and former bandmate who had been living in China.  His wife finally got her visa, and it was time to celebrate that victory and their marriage with his family.  It was surreal to see people I hadn’t seen in ten years and think about how I hadn’t been the only one who was half a world away, only to see them again here in our quiet Iowa hometown.  This called for more beverages.  The reunion had migrated to the downtown square, where we found my classmates and proceeded to close the oldest local bar in town.  They probably haven’t had a night like that since RAGBRAI came through town last year.


Above: cathing up with classmates and friends.  Thanks for taking the pictures, Jenn!

The next day we traveled to Jenn’s parents’ place, where I did what I always do when I show up there: set up the drum set in the basement.  My in-laws played a lot of dance jobs when they were first married.  Jenn grew up playing clarinet and saxophone, accompanied by her father on keys and either her mother or her brother on drums.  It’s a really rare vibe, a place where I always feel privileged to sit in on drums.  Moreover, with two other drummers in the family, there’s always some nice gear sitting around the house.  Knowing that I have been in Uganda and haven’t played any drumset for most of the last year, Steve came home for lunch ready to play a couple of tunes with me.

In the afternoon, we got back in the car to go to Okoboji, where Jenn’s father plays piano during the summer in the Dick Bauman Monday Night Big Band.  Bauman was the founder of a jazz program at a nearby community college and a good friend of the man who first taught me to play drumset, Steve Lawson.  Now this isn’t exactly the Village Vanguard or anything, but the sections are stacked with some of the best band directors in the state, and they are solid players.  There’s a tradition of good jazz in Iowa, and these people have sent some fantastic players on to the best college jazz programs in the country.  It was a privilege to sit in with the band,

The weekend brought other activities.  Jenn’s brother and his wife showed up on Friday, along with their aunt.  We wasted very little time after they arrived before jumping back in the car and heading to the world’s finest steakhouse.  Archie’s Waeside in LeMars, Iowa rivals many of the finest steakhouses in the country according to some, but we in Iowa know that you cannot buy a finer cut of meat, a tastier corn fritter, or a more delicious grasshopper sundae anywhere (a creme de menthe ice cream treat–not to be confused with these).  Wash that down with a selection of regional micro-brews, and you’ve got one tasty Friday night!

Saturday brought more chill time.  Jenn golfed with her folks and her brother.  She amazes me.  She hasn’t golfed but twice in the last eighteen months, and she was still able to par hole six and log several impressive drives.  Meanwhile, I shucked corn and prepared the grill to burn some bratwurst.  Guy Clark sings that there are “only two things money can’t buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.”  Owing to the generosity of neighbors, I add Iowa sweet corn to that list, and we enjoyed all three with lunch on Saturday.

Jenn’s grandfather joined us for the occasion, and as is their custom, the Smith Family Variety Show followed.  Grandpa Jimmy worked as a saxophonist and singer during World War II and with his own dance band after that.  His repertoire has remained largely unchanged since: Peg o’ My Heart, Left My Heart in San Francisco, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Bill Baily…basically standards.  Seeing his son and grandson accompany him at family events has always been an indescribable joy.



What a privilege it is when they ask me to sit in on drums or sing a tune! That’s the story of our family gatherings in Iowa.  I think it’s an important story to tell, because it’s also the story of music education working in really interesting ways.  The democratic character of jazz filters organically into every musical event in Jenn’s family.

I’d experienced this atmosphere many times before, but somehow this time “When the Saints Go Marching In” seemed particularly poignant.  The next day, as we all drove to Des Moines to hold a memorial service for Jenn’s maternal grandmother, I looked through the Methodist hymn they had asked me to sing and my sister-in-law looked through the Debussy piece she was to play on flute.  It seemed somehow significant that this family of musicians had chosen to focus on mourning and ask the in-laws to provide appropriate music.  In death, as in life, this family welcomes such a beautiful range of expression, incorporating each unique voice into an ongoing performance that, if our generation and our children have anything to do with it, will never end.


Chris picks up an old Rhodes from his pop to outfit his new digs in CO.


1 Comment

Filed under travel

Meet Me at the Fair

Well, it’s that time of year again: all over the country, prize pies and blue ribbon bulls from county fairs are going to compete at State Fairs.  But unless you’re a long-time member or advisor of your local chapter of FFA, that’s probably not why you attend.  I never chased a prize pig around the pen so judges could compare it to next year’s other pork chops on a stick, but some of my friends did.  I did, however, love fairs of all kinds as a kid, and I still do.  Today I got a chance to tell Neal Conan and the rest of the country a little bit about why.

My answer was predictable: it’s about the soundscape.  Conan’s guest today was Garrison Keillor, who also commented on hawkers and barkers as essential elements of the Fair experience.  But my memories of fairs both local and state would not be complete without music wafting through the midway from the carousel or, later in the day, popular tunes shouted from loudspeakers at the teenagers getting cheap thrills while trying to keep their corn dogs down.

I only went to the Iowa State Fair a few times, and there are two musical experiences that stick out in my mind.  The first is the one that I mentioned on Talk of the Nation today: the Iowa State Fair Singers and Jazz Band.  I first saw this group in a high school gym in Pocahontas, Iowa.  An ambitious young musician with interests in jazz and singing, I was floored by the quality of the musical product.  I saw them the next year at the Fair, and it was even more polished.  A couple years later, I saw their show and then went to a larger stage with some of the cast members to see the Count Basie Orchestra.  Among a cacophony of ambient sounds that generally characterize the Fair, these eclipsed the noisy atmosphere during their brief performances.

The State Fair Singers and Jazz Band don’t perform at the Iowa State Fair anymore.  Now they’re called Celebration Iowa.  They still take their show on the road each summer to many communities throughout the Tall Corn State, and they still produce a fantastic show.  So today on my first and so far only successful NPR call-in, I had to come up with another artistic favorite from memories of the Iowa State Fair: the butter sculpture.  It was supposed to be Michael Jackson, but apparently the idea has been “vetoed,” as Conan put it.  The butter sculpture of a cow will be there as always.

I missed the Fair again this year, though I have just spent a week in Iowa.  One of these years I’ll get my timing right and behold the great butter cow before consuming roughly half that much animal fat in the form of corn dogs and funnel cakes.  For now I’ll have to be content with an old Oscar winner and some other good Iowa memories.  More to come on the latter tomorrow…

Leave a comment

Filed under reviews

Let’s start here

Why not start with some musicians for whom I have a great amount of respect. It’s not just because Chris is my brother-in-law. In fact, I knew him before I knew my wife. We were attending jazz camps together in Iowa as teenagers. Now he’s doing his thing in NYC, not only with CPhin but many others. Here’s what I really dig about Chris: he’s not just out there trying to make a living whoring himself out to whatever band will give him the better contract or whatever company will give him the best endorsement deal. He’s got integrity. He is a thinking musician who’s thinking about the future of jazz, of improvisatory music in general, and of American music as a portion of his identity. Every note I’ve ever heard him play, no matter what style, has been one thing that to me lies at the base of all great art: honest.

Leave a comment

Filed under featured artists