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Live Reviews

Young Singers Keep Jazz Alive and Well in Iowa

By Published: October 11, 2004
Periodically, many of us with "snow on the roof" get caught up in bemoaning the present and future of jazz: the paucity of jazz recordings on the nation's airwaves; the persistent languishing of jazz sales at approximately four per cent of total CD sales; and the lack of young people at jazz concerts and venues, despite jazz programs that appear to flourish at many colleges and universities throughout the country. As a resident of the Los Angeles area, I was surprised recently to find my fears in this regard at least partially assuaged in what seemed to me to be unlikely environs: Hawarden, Iowa, a town of 3,000 inhabitants in the northwest corner of the state.
My wife Barbara and I had returned over the Labor Day weekend for her fiftieth high school reunion, which was imbedded in an all-school reunion for the community, a fairly common practice in small midwestern towns. The Labor Day parade, under a picture-perfect sky, with a cool breeze, and cotton candy clouds scudding past a late summer sun, was heartwarmingly reminiscent of small-town parades of yore: children with crepe paper bunting, threaded through bicycle and tricycle spokes, and playing card motors, clacking with each rotation of the wheels; soap-box derby racers of all types and descriptions; simple, hand-made floats, with beauty queens and cheerleaders waving to townspeople in lawn chairs and on curbs, and tossing candy to scurrying youngsters at streetside; junior and senior high marching bands of earnest teenagers in approximate formation; sunburned farmers in baseball caps on green John Deere, orange Allis Chalmers, and red Case and Farmall tractors; and bringing up the rear, of course, members of the local riding club on skittish horses.
Following the parade's completion, rubber-coated firemen of departments from nearby principalities engaged in spirited water fights, unimaginable in water-poor California; using only powerful streams of water, opposing teams attempted to push an empty keg along a high wire past the opponents' goal line. This competition ran overtime; musicians waiting to begin a concert in the park were finally encouraged to begin, despite the continuing sounds of battle.
First to perform were three of the four daughters of the Vance Shoemaker family (10-year-old Andrea's time is yet to come), accompanied on electric piano by their father, assisted by their mother Jennie as page-turner. The three extremely attractive, self-assured and capable young women (Jessica—15, Marni—13, and Mallory—12) sang in three-part harmony, with remarkable phrasing and intonation. Their three voices are very similar in quality and timbre, varying primarily in range. Jessica sang the lead. Her tone, control and presence were those of a more mature, polished vocalist; in addition, she announced in a clear and self- confident manner that the group's arrangements were hers! Marni and Mallory were low and middle voice, respectively; I complemented Mallory afterward on the difficulty of the middle voicing and her spot-on pitch.

The Shoemaker family: Vance on electric piano and Jessica—15, Marni—13, and Mallory—12

Don Raye and Hughie Prince's "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" opened the little concert. Jessica had obviously done her homework, familiarizing herself with The Andrews Sisters and their hit of 1941. Marni played trumpet on introductory and concluding fanfares and accompanied the trio on electric bass in between. The threesome continued with "That Old Black Magic" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, and Jessica not only introduced the music with aplomb, she made certain to give credit to each respective composer and lyricist. Swing cannot be accurately annotated in musical shorthand, and its ability cannot be taught; jazz musicians either have it or they don't. The Shoemaker sisters have it.

Following the Adams/Strouse "Once Upon a Time" and a "Back to the Fifties" medley (one of several doffs of the cap to pop music of the era), the playlist included Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson's "Bye Bye Blackbird"; "I'm Beginning to See the Light," by Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James; Pat Ballard's "Mr. Sandman" in an arrangement patterned after that of the Chordettes from 1954; The Broadway show tune "Fame"; and concluded with Bobby Troup's "Route 66." The considerable crowd, gathered on lawn chairs in the late afternoon sunshine, was appreciative but, to my mind, inappropriately "ho hum" about the remarkable talent in their midst.

Following a brief intermission to reset the small stage, the West Sioux (High School) Jazz Choir, accompanied by rhythm section, resumed the entertainment. Two sopranos, four altos, three tenors and two basses (whose names are listed below) comprise the choir. In its first ever competition, by the way, the choir placed second at the University of South Dakota Jazz Festival in Vermillion, receiving superior ratings. (Jessica Shoemaker and one of the tenors, Derek Nolan, each received outstanding soloist awards.) Subsequently, at the Kingsley-Pierson Jazz Choir Festival, Jessica received an Outstanding Soloist Award and was awarded an All-star Jazz Choir Medal; she was one of only 12 people participating in the festival to receive this award.

The jazz choir opened with a bright, up-beat arrangement of Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon." The tricky 5/4 rhythm of Paul Desmond's "Take Five," made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, posed no problem for the youthful singers or rhythm section; it swung admirably. Choir Director Jim Gullikson next spotlighted Jessica and Derek on "Moon River," by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Justification for the above awards was immediately obvious; the two not only have superlative voices, but they blend beautifully with the rest of the choir. Next, Ben King's pop standard "Stand By Me" highlighted the other soprano, Jenna Van Oort, as soloist. The concert concluded with "Under The Boardwalk," written by Artie Resnick and Kenny Young and popularized by The Drifters. Featured soloists were the two altos, Sarah Schreur and Jenna Noble.

What a delight it was, not just to find jazz being sung by young people in a small town in the Midwest, but being sung so well. My hat is off to Messrs. Shoemaker and Gullikson, and to the teachers of the jazz instrumentalists in the rhythm section. We returned to Los Angeles, buoyed by the experience, and heartened by the knowledge that, at least in some corners of the country, jazz education, and performance by enthusiastic and talented young people, are alive and well!

West Sioux Jazz Choir: Sopranos: Jessica Shoemaker and Jenna Van Oort; Altos: Kelsey Postma, Caitlin Jans, Sarah Schreur, and Jenna Noble; Tenors: Derek Nolan, Luke Weyer, and Nic Engleman; Basses: Noah Gullikson and Preston Nilson

Rhythm Section: Jennifer Nilson (piano), Blaine Eilts (bass), and Patrick White (drums)

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