Young Singers Keep Jazz Alive and Well in Iowa

J. Robert Bragonier By

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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.


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