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Out and About: The Super Fans

Meet Abe Goldstien

Meet Abe Goldstien

Courtesy Abe Goldstien

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When I was dating my wife, I hesitantly asked her to go to Kansas City to see the Sun Ra Arkestra . I wasn’t sure she was ready for that kind of musical adventure. 'Sun Ra,' she said. 'My father dragged me to a Sun Ra concert when I was ten.' It was true love.
You can have your "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines"—we're putting our money on our latest jazz Super Fan from Des Moines. Former adman Abe Goldstien lists his passions as his wife, his two children, and jazz. Retired though he may be, Abe doesn't show any signs of slowing down, keeping up a busy schedule volunteering for various organizations, freelancing as a writer and consultant, and doing everything in his power to make sure jazz thrives in Des Moines. As if all that's not enough, he leads and plays accordion in Iowa's only klezmer band, proving Einstein's theory that time is relative.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Although I was born and raised in Rochester, New York, I call Iowa my home. I moved here in 1969 to attend Drake University. After completing my four-year degree in nine years, I began to pursue the career I had been interested in since my teens: advertising copywriter/creative director. After several years in the broadcast industry, I made the switch to ad agency life, even owning an agency for several years. I also taught advertising, marketing, and creative problem-solving at several colleges and universities.

I retired after 43 years in the business and then decided to pursue another passion: working with kids. I currently volunteer six hours a day at a local grade school where I bring my sense of creativity, humor, and common sense to the staff and students (kindergarteners to fifth graders). I also manage to keep my hand in the advertising business, doing freelance writing/consulting projects for a variety of clients. I also work for an organization called CultureAll, going into schools, businesses, and retirement communities to educate people about the Jewish religion and Yiddish culture.

Throughout all those years, my real passion (other than my wife, Jackie, and our two children, who live in Minneapolis, Minnesota) has been jazz.

  • I serve as executive director of the Community Jazz Center of Greater Des Moines, a 25-year-old organization that celebrates the past, present and future of jazz in Des Moines with monthly student jam sessions, a volunteer big band, an annual Des Moines Jazz Hall of Fame event, a weekly e-newsletter, a Jazz Appreciation Month festival featuring local artists, student scholarships, and various other educational programs for students.
  • I host a three-hour jazz radio show on a local FM radio station (KFMG-FM).
  • I write jazz reviews for local magazines and edit jazz reviews for Papatamus.
  • I teach jazz appreciation courses for various programs in the community.
  • While in college, I owned a record store specializing in jazz.
  • In 1973, I brought Joe Farrell to Des Moines. His band at the time included Steve Kuhn, Stanley Clarke, and fellow Rochester native Steve Gadd. In 1984, I brought Barry Harris and Al Cohn to town. To celebrate my 50th birthday in 2001, my wife and I invited pianist Jessica Williams to town.
  • Since 2008, my wife and I have brought the music we love to the community we love with the Jazz at Caspe Terrace Series. We have been honored to bring musicians such as Lee Konitz, the ICP Orchestra, Dave Burrell, Eric Vloeimans, Dave Douglas, Lee Shaw, Dave Liebman, Andrea Domenici, Chris Byars, Trio-X, Anat Fort, Amina Figarova, Roberto Magris, and many others to Central Iowa. With 130 seats and perfect acoustics, it is a perfect setting for jazz. All concerts are followed by a meet-the-artist dessert reception.
Oh, and did I mention the accordion? I have played accordion since age 13, working in dance bands throughout high school and college. Today, I lead the Java Jews, Iowa's only klezmer band, play solo for various retirement communities, and of course play for the students at the school where the kids love to call me "Mister Squeezebox!"

As my daughter says, "Call me when you retire from retirement."

What's your earliest memory of music?

My earliest memory of music is the cacophony of voices chanting prayers in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue that I attended as a child. I think that is why I enjoy listening to avant-garde jazz. I also remember the wordless Yiddish lullabies (niguns) my mother and grandmother would sing to me. Hence, my appreciation for improvisation. Then there was the Jewish Hour every Sunday morning on WHAM-Radio. That introduced me to instrumental music and swing. My appreciation for jazz came by way of my three older siblings who played instruments (one brother a drummer, one a trumpeter, and one a pianist and bassist) who had a nice collection of jazz records. I still have some of their records in my collection (but don't tell them).

How old were you when you got your first record?

As my siblings had some great records, I really did not have to buy my own until they left for college. I remember going to a local discount at age 14 with a friend (on bike) to buy records. I think he bought a Kingston Trio album. Not me; I bought Ellington 65. My father had taken me to see the Ellington band in a shopping plaza parking lot a few months before.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

There was that Duke Ellington concert my father took me to. Also, growing up in Rochester with older siblings, there were opportunities to attend student concerts at the Eastman School of Music, where one brother took drum lessons, as well as seeing Chuck Mangione, who was a school friend of my older sister. Not to mention that drummer Roy McCurdy would come to the house to give my brother drum lessons. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in a Jewish neighborhood, those early jazz experiences opened my eyes and ears to another, more exciting, lifestyle.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

For me, it was my brother's records. I remember specifically listening to Les Spann Gemini (marveling at the French horn-playing of Julius Watkins), Johnny Griffin's Kerry Dancers (thinking how cool Griffin looked on the cover), and of course Chuck Mangione's early Riverside releases (after all, he was the local jazz hero and a grade school/high school friend of my sister).

How long have you been going out to hear live jazz?

I have always been fascinated by jazz and did not have to go far to experience jazz performances. My drummer brother had a combo that would practice at home. As I got older there were opportunities to hear jazz at Eastman School of Music and Rochester Institute of Technology. I was too young for the clubs at that time. As a child of the '60s, I take pride in saying I never owned a rock and roll record or attended a rock concert. Okay, someone once convinced me to see Jethro Tull. He played "Serenade to A Cuckoo." "Heck, I can listen to Roland Kirk play that tune and a lot better," I told my friends. During my college careers, I would visit friends in Kansas City or Chicago to catch performances from people like Sun Ra, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and others.

How often do you go out to hear jazz?

Every time my wife and I bring musicians to the community for a Jazz at Caspe Terrace event. Those events have spoiled us. The venue is a nice intimate setting. The acoustics are perfect (no PA system ever). The audience is there to listen—not talk, not drink, and not hoot and holler. Other than that, we do catch some of our favorite local jazz musicians when they are playing in town. We also try to catch music when we are travelling in the US or Europe. Honestly, most of my listening is done at home, working through the stacks and stacks of CDs and LPs I have accumulated over the years.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

I am always waiting for what Whitney Balliet called "the sound of surprise." When I hear it, there is a big smile on my face. Beyond the music, I enjoy watching the interaction between musicians, and the musicians and the audience. As a creative director of an advertising agency, I always strove to manage my teams the same way in which bands manage their creative output. So I leave concerts not only with great music to remember, but also with insights about management techniques. In many cases, it is simply the thrill of seeing people I have listened to for many, many years.

What are the elements of an amazing jazz concert?

For me, no "parlor tricks." I am not interested in how fast someone can play or how loud. Too many concerts I have seen have been presented by entertainers who happen to be musicians. I want musicians who happen to be entertaining. That is what my wife and I look for when booking Jazz at Caspe Terrace shows. Regardless of the style of music—avant-garde, solo piano, mainstream—the performers have to be honest, personable and, yes, they have to play "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" (a special song for my wife and me).

What is the most trouble you've gone to, or the farthest you've traveled, to get to a jazz performance?

Seriously, the most trouble is promoting concerts on our own. There are a lot of logistics to take care of. There are musicians to take great care of (which, thanks to my wife, we do). There are 130 seats to fill in a market that may not be familiar with many of the artists we invite.

Plus the fact that we will never make any money on these concerts, nor do we intend to. All income goes right to the musicians, and we happily absorb the cost of travel and accommodations. Hey, it's a lot cheaper losing money and sharing these incredible musicians with our community than spending a weekend in New York City! Yes, it's a lot of trouble, but the payoff is having great music and musicians where we live.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

Seeing Russian pianist Yakov Okun perform at the Kitano in New York City with Lew Tabackin. I have always wanted to bring Yakov to Des Moines, but he rarely leaves Russia/Eastern Europe. This was one time he did, but it was a one-night stand and we just could not make the trip from Iowa to New York for a night. One of these days I will get him to Iowa!

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be and why?

That's easy. Thelonious Monk! His music continues to bring a smile to my face, and his compositions are priceless. But Charlie Rouse would have to be with him—what a wonderful player he was.

What makes a great jazz club?

Again, not to brag, but Jazz at Caspe Terrace is my favorite venue for the reasons listed above. Plus, I have gotten to know many of the audience members. The intimacy, the sole focus on the music, the interaction between musicians and the audience, and best of all, it's less than 15 minutes from our home.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?

When I was dating my wife, I hesitantly asked her to go to Kansas City to see the Sun Ra Arkestra. I wasn't sure she was ready for that kind of musical adventure. "Sun Ra," she said. "My father dragged me to a Sun Ra concert when I was ten." It was true love. She grew up in Philadelphia, and Ra and his band were living in a house not far from her childhood home. And my wife loves to tell the story of us bumping into Joe Lovano on our way to see Jackie McLean at the Village Vanguard. I am a big fan of Lovano's and had never met him. I approached him and introduced myself. As my wife explains, it was the first time she saw me lost for words.

How do you discover new artists?

I listen to a lot of CDs and read a lot of magazines, but I have come to trust my ears more so than the critics.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

I had a massive LP collection (been collecting since that first Ellington record) which I started to sell during COVID. However, my basement is still a maze of racks and racks of CDs, the remaining LPs, and books. I enjoy, and prefer, the sequencing of LPs and CDs. Call me old fashioned.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why?

I play accordion and that is instrument enough. Although I do not play jazz on that instrument I would certainly like to learn.

What's your desert island disc?

Can I take three? Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, and Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds. No matter how many times I listen to these records they continue to surprise me—the essence of good jazz.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

I hope it is people like me that advocate for the "real thing" and get joy from introducing others to it.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Impossible! Listening to jazz and studying its history has provided me with so many insights about life. Like a Bobby Bradford quote that I have shared with co-workers, students, and my children: "To succeed, learn to tap dance on a slippery floor."

Is there anything else we should know about you?

It is 5 AM as I write these answers. What am I doing up so early? I'm prerecording my weekend jazz show.

I am grateful to my wife, Jackie, who puts up with my passion/obsession for jazz, and because she typically prepares a wonderful meal for visiting musicians, only asking whether I have invited any vegans or vegetarians to the table!

Whether as a record store owner, a DJ, a speaker, a concert promoter, or just a friend, I have found great joy in introducing the world of jazz to others.

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