Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Everything But A Lake

Every June for the past five years I’ve made the 325-mile trip from The Morrissey Compound in Madison to my friend Tom Plummer’s house in Lake City, Iowa. It’s a place similar to Hortonville, the small Wisconsin village where I grew up. I chuckle every time I turn off Iowa Highway 4 at Highway 175 and hit the city limits. The sign says “Lake City: Everything But A Lake”. Iowa humor, I guess.

Tom is the music man of Lake City; once again this year, his high school Jazz Band won the Iowa State Jazz Championships. Tom has more state championships than just about anybody, with the possible exception of his mentor, Larry “Boomer” Kisor, who established the kind of dynasty at Sioux City North High School that Tom has at Southern Cal High School in Lake City.

For those who haven’t followed my annual reports on these treks west through tall corn country, Tom is a fellow tuba player who grew up listening to me (and a bunch of guys a lot better than me) play tuba with various bands on LP albums. Remember vinyl LP albums? Big, flat, round black discs that preceded CD’s.

Back around 2009 or so, Tom tracked me down via Facebook, and after establishing via social media that we have a zillion other things in common besides tuba playing, in 2011 our friendship changed from virtual to actual, when I made the first trip to his house for a weekend of watching baseball and having a few beers and playing tuba.

In the seven years that we’ve been friends, we’ve both gone through a number of life changes. Tom met a wonderful woman, Wilma, a couple years ago, and got remarried. Both my kids got married and both have given my long-suffering wife and me grandchildren. Tom's son, Lee, married his girlfriend Rachel last December. Two great "kids" and both fine musicians. Life moves along.

Tom and I are both dog-lovers, and one of the first things that happens when I arrive at Tom and Wilma’s house is the annual tug-of-war with Tom’s dog Hank. That’s little Tiger looking on. We watch Cubs baseball and do some catch-up visiting after I arrive early Friday afternoon.

A lot of people who know me now have no idea that for years, I was a musician, and did hundreds of TV shows, dozens of recording sessions, and toured domestically and internationally with various groups. My mentor, Ernie Broeniman, another tuba player, opened the musical doors for me when he took me under his wing at Hortonville High School in 1962, and for more than 20 years I performed regularly. Then, broadcasting became my sole focus.

I sold my “axe”, as musicians call their instrument, and broadcasting took me all around the country – again. When I met Tom, he inspired me to buy a horn, practice, and Tom has even made it possible for me to do some playing again.

This time, it was once again with Malek’s Fishermen Band, a first-rate territory band that books out of Garner, Iowa. Syl Malek founded the band with his brother Ed in the 1930’s; and two generations of Maleks still play with the band: Bob and his son Eric, and frequently, Eric’s wife Kimberly. The gig was at the famous Hessen Haus in downtown Des Moines.

Tom and I loaded up a tuba, a trumpet, and a bunch of other stuff in my venerable Road Warrior SUV in the middle of the afternoon Saturday and we headed southeast for a two-hour trip from Lake City to Des Moines. Since my regular gig-playing days are long gone – the last regular gig I had was a marathon recording session in 1984 where I laid down about 28 tracks for two LP albums – a lot of what I do now consists mainly of playing along with CD’s in my music room at home.

Tom and I talked on our way to Des Moines about “the gig experience”, and how it’s really impossible to recreate that experience when you’re sitting behind your horn in your music room, playing along with CD’s. There’s a whole gestalt surrounding the gig experience, from the trip to the venue, the load-in, to the setup, the mike checks, to the actual gig itself and the camaraderie and musicianship involved, to the load-out and the trip home.

Above is a nice shot Tom took of me at the gig, sitting behind Tom’s horn. Tuba guys are used to photos like this – try as you might, that big horn usually hides us. But you can see Charlie, the keyboard man, that’s Dale Baker behind the drum kit; Bob Malek is the distinguished gentleman in the center, and at the right, that’s Eric Malek, strapping on a classic concertina which once belonged to Elmer Scheid.

For those not familiar with old-time music, the drummer, keyboard player, and tuba guy often do not have sheet music to guide them. Like the concertina player, they know the tunes from memory. For some of the ensemble tunes, there’s often a “chord sheet” for the bass player, and you improvise a bass line based on the chord structure and progressions of the melody.

I have now had to face the hard fact that my playing these days will never be near as good as it was back in the 60’s through the 80’s. I took way too many years off, not touching a horn from 1988 to 2011, and that 23-year break – along with a life-threatening bout with pneumonia in 1995 – has taken a steep toll. My “road chops” are long gone, and my lungs just don’t move as much air as they used to.

As I’ve said to Tom many times, it’s a blast to be able to play again, but the frustrating part is not being able to do it anywhere near as well as I used to be able to. Tom was kind enough to make some videos, and here’s one on which I’m playing almost passably. There’s another video Tom made – which I will NOT link to – of me attempting to play “Echoes In The Hills” with Eric Malek, and resorting to the dreaded “search bass” mode, where the tuba player just can’t figure out the chord changes and clumsily plays various notes looking for the dominant chord (or even the tonic or sub-dominant chord) with no success.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, my friend Tom plays every tune flawlessly, with tremendous tone and range and really interesting improvised bass lines. And Bob and Eric Malek, whether they’re playing trumpet or trombone, blend perfectly. They have mastered many styles of performance, and it’s a real treat to hear those two perform perfectly together on song after song.

A big part of the gig experience is the crowd. At the Hessen Haus on this particular Saturday night, there are a small core of dancers who are there to start the night, but then an hour or so into the gig, a bunch of college kids – from Drake University, or Iowa State, or the U of Iowa, I’m not sure which – come in to drink boots of German beer and they really liven the place up. They hoot and holler and dance, and that really fuels the band.

Eric, who fronts the band, has fun with the crowd by making outrageously false statements after some of the tunes. For example, the band will play a Dixieland standard like “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” and Eric will say “another great tune from the fabulous Broadway musical ‘Guys and Dolls’”. Once he followed a classic old-time waltz with the announcement that it was from “South Pacific”. He turns to me afterward and says “they have no idea!” and we share a laugh. That’s another part of the gig experience that just can’t be duplicated!

It makes no difference what kind or style of music you’re playing at a live gig – rock, country, old-time, whatever – a good crowd absolutely makes the band sound better. You feel the energy and your playing goes up a notch. After the college kids move on to their next adventure for the night, a bridal party comes in, and merriment ensues. They get right into the spirit and sing and dance along with the band.

Another part of the gig experience is the repartee among the musicians during the engagement. Stories are told during the short breaks between sets, observations are made, jokes are told, pranks are played. During one of the breaks, Eric and Tom are talking about how musicians speak of each other. Eric says “you know you can’t play for squat when people say ‘oh, he’s a really great guy’ or something like that.” Tom agrees heartily, saying unless the first words to describe a musician are about his or her skill, they’re not that good a player.

The four-hour gig comes to a close, and the drudgery of packing up and loading out begins. Eric takes some pictures for the band’s Facebook page, and he took the picture above of “the tuba guys”, Tim and Tom. The van is loaded, good-bye’s are said, and another gig is in the books.

Since my night vision is so crappy the last few years, Tom gets behind the wheel of my venerable Road Warrior SUV and we start the two-hour journey back to Lake City. It’s a long, desolate drive through miles and miles of flat land with only a few towns to break the vistas of corn and soybeans, but Tom and I talk non-stop through the Iowa night. A clear sky and a nearly full moon are our companions.

We talk about life, our kids, our wonderful spouses, and, of course, about music. About how in the world of old-time, like many other idioms, artful performance depends on the “feel” of the musicians playing the tune, and how it’s really impossible to notate that feel. We talk about how Bob and Eric Malek play the old Blossom Waltz with an “eastern Wisconsin” interpretation, like the old Bernie Roberts band or the Don Schleis Band played it. You simply cannot put notes on manuscript paper that reflect the way they interpret the melody.

Whether it’s jazz, Dixieland, big-band, or old-time, so much of the performance depends on the stylistic nuances – the rhythmic feel – which simply cannot be put into musical notes on paper. Sometimes it’s just ahead of, or just slightly behind the beat, that gives the feel; sometimes it’s bending a note a certain way, as in blues; but that’s the kind of thing that separates “he’s a great player” from “he’s a great guy”.

Finally we arrive in Lake City and pull into the parking lot behind Tom’s new band room at Southern Cal High School and put the tuba and trumpet and the other stuff away. Then it’s back to Tom and Wilma’s house, where I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and start the six hour trip back to Madison as soon as the sun comes up. This year, I’ll have to miss the Sunday noon tradition of beef roast and veggies in the crock pot.

Next year, perhaps. 

But one thing’s certain: it’ll be fun, and we’ll make more great memories.  


  1. Colonel,

    My wife, Janet, is a crackerjack pianist. I'm sitting with her in our basement office while she mixes down some music for our church (she's the newly-minted music director there).

    I read her this and she laughed out loud:

    "...resorting to the dreaded “search bass” mode, where the tuba player just can’t figure out the chord changes and clumsily plays various notes looking for the dominant chord (or even the tonic or sub-dominant chord) with no success."

    She told me to tell you that it's the mark of a true professional to just keep on fakin' it!

    Thanks for a terrifically fun read.

    The Dr.

  2. Tim - this is a beautifully written piece. And the way you put into words something that defies description - the gig experience as a whole, the different 'feel' that different musicians bring to a song - really got me thinking. That 'feel' is part of the magic of playing, part of the personality each musician imparts to a piece each time he plays it. What a cool thing to be more conscious of and to deliberately 'tune in' to! Write some more music blogs ok??

    Janet Erbach