They don't learn how to improvise in school. They just rehearse four or five tunes that will win them a competition.
Kurt Bowermaster ”
In a discussion of the sound track for the Ken Burns film Baseball, one commentator on National Public Radio predicted it would leave most viewers humming the 1908 vaudeville classic "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The movie features literally dozens of versions of the much-beloved song, including country & western, delta blues and swing; Burns has called it "an amazingly flexible tune."
In Des Moines, baseball fans arriving at Principal Park are greeted by an exuberant Dixieland version of the tune, courtesy of Party Gras, a musical sextet that performs Fridays, Saturdays and holidays at home games of the Iowa Cubs (triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs). "We play a lot of music that comes from the 1900s through the 1930s," says the driving force behind the music, drummer Kurt Bowermaster, a 1980 graduate of Valley High School in West Des Moines.
Kurt Bowermaster (drums) with Party Gras
Bowermaster, a professional musician who plays with other combos and freelances, is also an impresario, as well. "I produce jazz concerts," Bowermaster explained, "and I also own a custom newsletter business for bars and restaurants."
Asked about his youthful musical experiences at Valley High, Bowermaster (born in 1961), recalled seeing his older siblings Mark (VHS '76) and Karen (VHS '73) play with the various school bands. "I saw they had had fun and went on trips," he said. His family connection to Valley High continues, incidentally. His nephew Colealso a drummergraduated from Valley High in 2004.
Much of the reason music was so prominent for his family was his late father Jim, a musician who played with an internationally known local combo, the West Des Moines Dixieland Band, during the 1960s. "My dad started teaching me drums when I was five or six," Bowermaster noted.
His father, who passed away in July 2005, hosted a long-running Saturday morning radio program, "The Jazz Man Show," on local radio station 1350 KRNT.
The elder Bowermaster's love of jazz showed itself in other ways too, according to his son: "He built a from-scratch scale model of the Glenn Miller Orchestra as they appeared in the '40s at the Val-Air Ballroom" (referring to a storied local venue).
After junior high, Kurt participated in virtually all the music programs offered at Valley High. "I had a real good experience with them," he recounted. He briefly attended Grandview College, then transferred to Drake University, where he earned his degree in advertising and public relations.
Discussing his I-Cubs gig, Bowermaster said, "We've been playing here in some form or other since 1982." These days, starting at 6 p.m. (weather permitting), Party Gras kicks off an hour-long opening set outside Gate A; after a short break, they move into the concourse for a second, half-hour set.
The band features composers like Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke, and its repertoire includes some classic chestnuts: "Five-foot Two, Eyes of Blue," "Ain't She Sweet," "When You're Smiling" andof course"When the Saints Go Marchin' In."
Party Gras draws heavily upon local Academia for its personnel. Two of Bowermaster's band-mates, pianist Bruce Martin and trombone player John Benoit, are professors: Martin teaches English at Drake; Benoit, an Indianola resident, teaches music at Simpson College. Trumpeter Jerry Stenstrom is retired Drake professor, as well. Clarinetist Stan Stevenson, a computer trainer by day, is the president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.
Like Stevenson, two other musicians, bassist Mel Hruzetz and tuba player Bill Henderson, are also from the Des Moines metro area. Banjo/guitarist Rich Beachler is a Boone resident, and another trumpeter who sits in with the band, Norm Eglia, lives in Marshalltown. "Sometimes we have different personnel depending on who is available," explained Bowermaster.
One typical weekend demonstrated what he meant. On Friday, the group featured electronic keyboard and electric bass, and the overall sound was thicker and a bit more modern than on the following evening. On Saturday, they were replaced by two acoustic instruments, banjo and tuba, resulting in an airier, more vintage sound.
However, on both nights, Party Gras displayed the collective improvisation that gives Dixieland music its distinctive sound. One horn played the melody, while the other two improvised countermelodies in a melodically blended way, responding to each other. Individual solos, also ad-libbed, featured witty quotations from familiar melodies.
Bowermaster and his band-mates are concerned that younger musicians aren't developing the skills necessary to play jazz in general and Dixieland in particular. "It's becoming a lost art," said Bowermaster. "They don't learn how to improvise in school. They just rehearse four or five tunes that will win them a competition."
Bowermaster and his wife Kathy live in suburban Beaverdale; they have one child currently in high school.