Thursday, October 21, 2021

How Decorah Got In The Groove

When the internet was just a baby, before music streaming was even a notion, I reported this story on how NEA funding brought a jazz band to Decorah, Iowa, and how exotic that was, and how it brought people together: a heartwarming tale of Your Tax Dollars At Work.

Reprinted with permission from
Midwest Jazz, Summer 1994 (Vol. 11, #2),
an Arts Midwest publication.

Decorah, Iowa is a small rural community of around 8,000 people tucked away in the northeast corner of the state, about 70 miles south of Rochester, Minnesota. Incorporated by Norwegian settlers in 1857, this quiet town, nestled in an agricultural region best known for dairy products, hogs, and cattle, still prominently displays its heritage: Norwegian is taught at Luther College, which is based there; Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American museum, draws visitors year-round; and every summer the Nordic Fest is a big attraction. The conservative Lutheran values of the town’s Norwegian founders still resonate today. And yet every Tuesday night from 9 till 1, Orsey’s, a local pub, is packed with folks from all walks of life — college students, young professionals, high school kids with their parents, feed-plant workers, creamery employees, college professors — who’ve come to hear something that didn't exist in Decorah just two years ago: live jazz.

In fact, for the past two years peaceful Decorah has been a hotbed of jazz activity. Nearly everyone in this small town has felt the influence of jazz on some aspect of their lives. Jazz concerts take place every week. Kids at all levels, from elementary through high school, as well as students from the college, meet jazz musicians, play with them, and take a stab at improvisation. They attend master classes and receive private lessons. They might even invite a jazz musician over for dinner.

The unlikely tale of the “jazzification” of Decorah began about three summers ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts developed the Chamber Music Rural Residencies Initiative, a visionary program seeking to bring outstanding young chamber ensembles to rural communities for long-term residencies. When Decorah was selected as one of the sites for this pilot program, the community expressed an interest in hosting a jazz group, precisely because that music was so seldom heard there.

After a national search for a first-rate ensemble willing to relocate and stay in Decorah for a year, the Unified Jazz Ensemble got the call, becoming the only jazz group in the country to take part in the initiative. The core of the quintet met while pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of North Texas. The group boasts an international lineup: trombonist/vibist Mike Noonan is from Maryland, saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk from Canada, pianist/flutist Tim Harrison from England, bassist Ray Parker from Toledo, Ohio, and drummer Marty Morrison from Missouri.

Noonan, the group’s leader, describes what they found on arriving in Decorah in September 1992: “When we got here, there was no jazz scene at all. It’s a rural, small, quiet little Midwestern town. We definitely had our work cut out for us, to expose the community to an art form that obviously hadn’t been heard here much. After a certain amount of time we found some jazz lovers — and I think a lot of new people became jazz lovers.”

It takes exposure to jazz to create jazz lovers, and Decorah’s geographic position, on the Upper Iowa River, worked against it. As high school band director Jim Fritz explains, “there are no jazz radio stations in town, and we’re down in a very deep valley. FM radio doesn’t track well into the valley, and consequently we can’t find jazz on the radio. Luther in the past has not had a strong jazz tradition, so the kids didn’t hear it, and didn’t have much of an opportunity to build an appreciation for it.”

Enter the Unified Jazz Ensemble. Fritz describes the group’s efforts in introducing jazz to the schools: “They’ve worked with everybody, from kindergarten through 12th grade. At the elementary schools they started out with ‘this is jazz, this is a bass, this is a drum set,’ and so on. They took them into what is improvisation, and looked at song forms. They even had the kids do simple improvisation — working over blues and pentatonic scales. In the middle school, they’ve worked with students in the jazz band — giving private lessons to our drummers, for instance — and they’ve performed before the entire student body. They’ve probably had the greatest amount of contact time at the high school, giving lessons to individual students, working with our big band and coaching our two combos. They've performed many, many times. They’ve also been teaching classes at Luther College, and because those classes have been open to my students, a number of them have been taking college courses in jazz studies, ethnomusicology, and stuff like that. Some have even been playing in combos at Luther.”

Fritz is quick to point out that his students aren’t the only ones learning new skills. “I’m a jazz fan, but as a tuba player I didn’t have many opportunities to learn about it, especially the improvisational aspects. I’m better prepared now to work with my students after watching the Unified Jazz Ensemble in action for the past two years. You know, with my background, I’m used to reading everything off of written parts.To suddenly see kids take stuff off of a CD and realize that that’s possible: well, that’s been a real eye-opener for me.”

The Cedar Arts Forum, a local arts agency based in Waterloo, coordinated the residency. The Forum has run residencies since 1976, typically involving Iowa artists for 2-3 week stays, or an occasional international artist for 8-10 weeks. This was the first time, however, that they handled a residency program on such a massive scale, spanning many months, and involving several ensembles: through this initiative, they not only brought the U.J.E. to Decorah, they also brought two classical ensembles (a piano trio and a string quartet) to nearby Iowa communities.

Renata Sack, executive director of the Arts Forum, notes that while the coordination of such a lengthy residency involving three different groups was very labor-intensive and occasionally nerve-wracking, “the end results are so wonderful that it feeds your energy.” Sack describes the partnership sponsoring the U.J.E. residency as a triumvirate: the Decorah community schools, the city of Decorah, and Luther College each share equal responsibility for hosting the quintet. Two-thirds of the musicians’ stipend comes from the NEA, while Decorah is responsible for the remaining third, in addition to providing housing for the group.

A typical week for the Unified Jazz Ensemble includes 4 to 7 concerts, private teaching, master classes, lectures and demonstrations. (Not to mention that “no-cover” gig at Orsey’s.) The members of the band rehearse together at least every other day, and members also put in time honing their compositional skills. As Noonan points out, the residency project seeks to benefit not only the community, but the participating young artists as well: “The way that the grant is designed, and the way that our contract is drawn up, we are to devote 50% of our time to the community, with the remaining 50% devoted to our own development, whether rehearsing, composing, or whatever. While I know we’ve brought something valuable to Decorah, it’s really been outstanding for the group as well. We’ve each had a chance to season and develop different facets of our playing, and we’ve all evolved quite a bit as composers.” Sack agrees. “Even though they were really a superb group of musicians when they came here, I think they have grown tremendously. During the residency they’ve had the opportunity to be enormously prolific in their composing, which I think has matured by leaps and bounds.” This growth is documented on the two CDs the group has released during its residency.

Noonan says the benefit goes beyond the music. “It’s been a great experience. We’ve met a lot of really wonderful people here, and I’ve learned quite a bit about a part of the country that I’d never visited before. I grew up on the East Coast, and it’s quite different here in the Midwest. Decorah has been an excellent working environment. I think that initially folks were tentative, not knowing what to expect, never having dealt with jazz musicians before. Once they got to know us, and saw that we were here to work hard and do a good job, they really accepted us. That means a lot to me. People have us over for dinner all the time now. It’s great!”

The U.J.E.’s residency in Decorah was originally slated to last 10 months, but was extended for another year by the NEA due to its overwhelming success. The group’s stay draws to a close in June, and they are now seeking residencies in other communities. Keeping a jazz group together long-term is always a challenge, but for the U.J.E. there is an added urgency: the visas of Canadian saxophonist Antoniuk and British pianist Harrison will expire when the Decorah gig is over, and if no other residency opportunities emerge, they will not be renewed.

While the U.J.E. will be missed in Decorah, their influence will be felt for a long time. As band director Fritz puts it: “Even kids in the elementary school had a chance to work with these guys, and be exposed to jazz. They know about it, they’re curious about it now. As these kids come up through the system, I’ll be benefiting from the efforts of the Unified Jazz Ensemble and the Rural Residency Initiative for years to come.”