The entrance to FilmScene on the pedestrian mall is shown on Friday, September, 27, 2013 at 118 E. College Street, Iowa City, Iowa. The theatre is holding a soft opening on Oct. 3 with a grand opening slated for November. (Adam Wesley/Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Andy Brodie and Andrew Sherburne have already seen one Scene 1 dream come true. Thursday (10/3), they’ll see another, when Scene 1 opens its doors to a month of sneak peeks inside the 70-seat art house/independent cinema at 118 E. College St.
Two years after conversations began in earnest, their FilmScene project is bringing movies back to downtown Iowa City, with a grand opening in the works for November.
“We both said, ‘Enough’s enough. If nobody else is going to do this, we have to,’ ” said Sherburne, 34, of Iowa City, a documentary filmmaker. He is moving into a part-time marketing and promotions role with Scene 1, while Brodie, 33, of Iowa City, is serving as the full-time executive director.
Their long-range vision includes a two-screen cinema in a proposed downtown mixed-use high-rise, but they didn’t want to wait several years to see that dream realized.
“(Scene 1) is an intimate space,” Sherburne said. “It’s a comfortable environment to watch a film and the right environment. A lot of these (indie) films are intimate. … You’ll feel like you’re part of something exciting.”
Nearly half of the $200,000 start-up funds came via the Founders Circle, in which 79 people pledged $1,000 or more to the cause. An all-or-nothing IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to raise $75,000 in 35 days actually brought in $91,000 this summer, allowing the nonprofit organization to begin its run with a little money in the bank for operating expenses.
The cinema is actually nestled in part of an 1860s building that’s been everything from a packing and provisions company to a casket manufacturer and most recently, Vito’s, a bar popular with the college crowd. When Brodie saw the 30-foot ceilings in the back of the building, he knew it would be an ideal spot for a one-screen theater.
Iowa City developer Marc Moen bought the building in 2011 and has turned it into a mixed-use space, housing a clothing store, art gallery and mechanical engineering firm, as well as Scene 1.
In addition to showing first-run American independent films, documentaries, foreign films and classics, the theater also features a cafe and concessions area, as well as access to a rooftop patio.
With state-of -the art audio/visual equipment to buy and all the theater spaces to carve out, “it’s surprising how fast” the money goes, Brodie said.
“You can always use more, like any arts nonprofit,” he said. “We should have a little bit of a reserve when we start, and we’ve been able to build a pretty big following through all the programming we’ve done up to date and the fundraising efforts, which is nice to have before we open our doors.”
Legendary bluesman Buddy Guy launched the first Iowa Soul Festival with electrifying style. Friday night's concert (9/13/13) in downtown Iowa City featured a phenomenal Hancher doubleheader with 14-year-old guitar whiz Quinn Sullivan. (Christian Lantry photo)
By Diana Nollen/SourceMedia
IOWA CITY — Nobody’s singing the blues when Buddy Guy’s in the house.
The Louisiana native who helped shape the Chicago blues sound was the perfect choice for launching the Iowa Soul Festival — the newest addition to Iowa City’s Summer of the Arts lineup, which opened Friday (9/13) and continues through Sunday.
Guy’s performance also marked the perfect way for Hancher to launch its 2013-14 season, by offering a free concert that drew thousands to the festival’s outdoor stage on Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street downtown.
The sea of humanity spread shoulder-to-shoulder through several city blocks, but I managed to find a little nook with some breathing room and a decent view of the stage. It was pretty much my only option for setting up a chair, even more than an hour before the headliner’s start time. I wish the audience space could be expanded. A colleague noted that moving Culinary Row and the beer garden out just a bit on the side blocks would open up more viewing space.
But even if you couldn’t see the six-time Grammy winner, 2005 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer and 2012 Kennedy Center Honoree’s smiling face, you could hear his throat-tearing wails piercing the perfect night air.
The growling, salty guitar legend, now 77, strums the audience like another instrument in his band of fearless showmen who get down and dirty with him on every lick.
“I’m gonna play something so funky you can smell it,” he told the masses before launching into his signature “Hoochie-Coochie Man,” then stopped abruptly to chastise us for not singing loud enough.
“I sang the same song in Tokyo two weeks ago and they didn’t f— it up like you guys just did,” he said, before giving us another chance to redeem ourselves. “I came to Iowa just to mess with you,” he said, before wailing on his guitar, then handing the spotlight over to his fierce rhythm guitarist, Ric Hall, who pulled every sound possible out of his axe.
Working the crowd into a frenzy, Guy then shouted: “I know they don’t play this stuff on your radio, but that’s not going to stop me. I was born with the blues and I’d rather fight than switch.”
We pleased the guitar god with our rendition of “Someone Else is Steppin’ In (Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In).” “Y’all make me feel like I’m at home. Y’all keep that up, I’ll play all Friday night.”
That would have been fine with us. The rest of the nearly 90-minute concert slipped in and out of a kicky “Meet Me in Chicago” and some jukebox blues before Guy brought out his protege, opening guitarist Quinn Sullivan, a 14-year-old from New Bedford, Mass., who plays Clapton better than Clapton and Hendrix better than Hendrix.
Sullivan is nothing short of phenomenal, tearing through fantastic electric blues with lightning flying from his fingertips. He brings out the kid in Guy, too, who dueled with him by playing his guitar horizontally, hoisting it above his head and slipping it behind his back.
Guy promised his buddy Muddy Waters that he wouldn’t let the blues die. Sullivan guarantees it won’t.
What: Iowa Soul Festival
Where: 100 to 300 blocks of Iowa Avenue, downtown Iowa City
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
To Dweezil, Frank was just “Frank,” the dad he called by his first name, because that was his name.
To the rest of the pop culture and musical worlds, Frank Zappa was an overall mother of invention — a giant, a genius, a classical composer, a rock guitar god, a record producer and a film director. Prostate cancer stopped his life in 1993, but not his music.
Like father like son, Dweezil rips across the strings with Frank’s blazing speed and complexity, bringing his father’s music to a new generation of listeners through his “Zappa Plays Zappa” tours, which began in 2006.
The latest incarnation comes to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City at 8 p.m. Friday (9/6), with Dweezil and the band playing his father’s 1974 “Roxy & Elsewhere” album, in honor of its 40th anniversary. It’s a fan favorite and a personal favorite.
“That record in particular has the best combination of all of Frank’s songwriting or composing styles put into one record,” son Zappa, who turns 44 today (9/5), says by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
“That one and ‘Apostrophe’ — I always tell people that’s a good place to start if they’ve never heard the music before, because there’s a great combination of rock, blues, jazz and funk, as well as avant-garde classical stuff,” he says. “It’s really from an era in Frank’s music where he had musicians in the band (who) could begin to play some of his most complex compositions.”
It’s no easy feat to pull off those complexities. Zappa calls “Be-Bop Tango” off the “Roxy” album “among the hardest songs we’ve ever had to learn out of his whole repertoire.” It’s a perfect storm of very specific rhythms, tough entrances that fall between the subdivision of beats, and an angular, disjointed melody.
“Frank used to conduct that piece, but we don’t actually have a conductor, so it’s very hard to make it all work, because of the subdivisions,” Zappa says. Learning the melody is “the equivalent of trying to memorize the phone book out of sequence. It was never written to be played on guitar. The intervallic leaps … make it among the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn.
“This record mostly has super-fun and groovy things, then the ‘Be-Bop Tango’ is just a beast.”
Englert audiences also will hear other fan favorites, along with songs the band has never performed on tour.
Zappa — born Dweezil Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa — dumped all those middle names when he was 5. He says “Dweezil” has some folklore origins, but it also was the nickname his father called his mother’s little toe. When the nurses deemed it inappropriate for the birth certificate, Frank added a bunch of his buddies’ names, but the first name struck the right chord and stuck.
Young Dweezil picked up the guitar at age 6, when his dad gave him a Fender.
“I didn’t really know what to do with it,” he says, adding that he “picked on the strings, made some noises with it. But it wasn’t til six years later, when a lot of music that I was hearing would stick in my head, and this just became something that I was thinking, ‘I gotta figure out how to do that.’ I always liked my dad’s music, but it was complicated. I thought, ‘One of these days I’ll learn this stuff.”
Like his dad, he was self-taught, and to this day doesn’t read music. But you’d never know that by hearing the extreme artistry that goes into his music. He sat for hours listening and learning by ear, also intrigued by the sounds he was hearing from Eddie Van Halen.
One big advantage of being Frank Zappa’s son was the day Van Halen came knocking, wanting to talk to Frank. Dweezil got to talk to him, too, picking his brain on technique and style. “On one of the recent tours, I played a couple of Van Halen songs for fun,” he says.
Another advantage came at age 12, when father invited son to join his band onstage in London.
“I had never played in front of an audience at all, then suddenly I’m playing for 5,000 people,” he says.
Young Dweezil had just been playing for nine months, and only knew how to play in the key of B. However, the heavy-metal style “Stevie’s Spanking” was in A, so when it came time for his featured moment, Frank gave the band a hand signal so they would slip into the new key. When he was done, another hand signal sent them back to the original key.
Now it’s Dweezil’s turn to be the considerate dad, to wife Megan’s 10-year-old daughter, Mia, and the couple’s daughters Zola, 7, and Ceylon, 5. His idea of a great time is kicking back with his family, doing “simple things” like going for a walk, swimming or cooking together.
“My life is so busy, I like the relaxing,” he says.
Iowa City’s 7th annual Landlocked Film Festival features two ambassadors from Denmark. One on the Bijou Cinema screen Friday night (8/16) and one who has been a driving force behind bringing international films to the festival the past five years.
“I just think the foreign film has so much to give,” says Birgit Brun Coffman, 78, a retired research scientist who came to the United States in 1957 and to Iowa City 10 years later. She’s made it her mission to bring films like “The Ambassador” to the Landlocked festival, which runs Friday through Sunday (8/16-8/18) at various downtown locales.
Coffman contacts the Danish embassy in Washington each January to get a selection of films from the Danish Film Institute.
“We get first pick on what we can have,” she says. Other foreign films come through the festival’s annual call for entries.
Showing an international array helps build bridges of understanding between cultures.
“Everybody has stereotypes about all kinds of countries, but once you see a film from there, you realize the differences, but you also realize the similarities,” Coffman says. “It is a cheap way to travel. And even if you travel, unless you buy something or you eat something, you have a very hard time being face to face with a native.”
Downtown Iowa City venues: Englert Theater, Bijou Cinema and Iowa City Public Library
Tickets: $25 festival passes, individual tickets at the Bijou and Englert; library screenings free
Parties: Opening night mixer, 8 p.m. Friday at The Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., meet the filmmakers, music by Mutiny in the Parlor; Earlybird party, 9:15 to 11 p.m. Saturday at Croncini, 104 S. Linn St.; Night Owl Party, 11 p.m. Saturday at Clinton Street Social Club, 18 1/2 S. Clinton St., top floor
Among the other 20 or so international films being shown this year are “The Reverse Runner” from Australia, “Oros” (“The Coin Bearer”) from the Philippines, “Tu Seras un Homme” (“You’ll Be a Man”) from France, “El Hombre Equivocado” from Spain and “Morfar Och Jag Och Helikoptern Till Himlen” (“Grandpa & Me & the Helicopter to Heaven”) from Sweden.
All of Landlock’s foreign films are in English or have English subtitles, so audiences won’t miss out on the full cinematic experience. “The Ambassador” was filmed in English, but will have subtitles, because the accents might be hard to understand, says festival director Mary Blackwood of Iowa City.
Landlocked accepts a wide variety of films in many genres and many forms, from shorts and features to documentaries and animation, all deemed to have local audience appeal.
"My Sister's Quinceañera"
“As with anything that comes through the call for entries, we’re looking for high-quality production values so that they’ll be something really enjoyable to watch and not distracting,” says Blackwood, who also dabbles in filmmaking.
Landlocked helps round out Eastern Iowa’s independent film festival niches, with others like the Cedar Rapids festival in April, which focuses on films with Iowa ties, and Tipton’s recent Hardacre festival, which packs a full slate of indie films into a Friday night and all-day Saturday event.
They all offer options moviegoers won’t find at multiscreen cinemas.
"The Story of Luke"
“Certainly in Iowa, one of the things we don’t get in the big megaplexes is the international films,” Blackwood says. “We’ve got something from the Philippines called ‘The Coin Bearer.’ It’s about a funeral. It’s dark, it has a really striking ending and it shows you the Manila slums and what they’re really like. But it’s a feature film, so it has a story. That’s something you’re never going to see – or even know it exists – outside of a film festival.”
Festivals also showcase homegrown indie films that wouldn’t find audiences elsewhere, Blackwood says.
“You’re going to see stuff made in America that can’t make it into the megaplex, because who can fight against all those remakes and those superhero things? So you’ll see something that’s got a little more humanity, that has more down-to-earth people, not Iron Man, not Avengers — although sometimes you’ll see a movie that makes fun of that, which is a lot of fun,” she says.
"Fuzz Track City"
Variety is Landlocked’s hallmark.
“Our vision is just to celebrate as many of the film arts as we can,” Blackwood says. “We believe that every film has an audience somewhere — every good, well-made film or intriguing film – so we’re looking to put those out there and try to get them to the audience so they can come and see just how varied the film world can be.”
FilmScene needs to reel in a crowd long before the movies roll in October.
An ambitious “Make a Scene” campaign is underway to raise $75,000 by 11:59 p.m. Sept. 8 via online crowdfunding tool Indiegogo.com The site accepts donations of any size, from $1 to $5,000 or more. The nonprofit FilmScene only receives the money if that deadline is met.
Donations will go toward the immediate goal of opening FilmScene 1 this fall — an 80-seat cinema, cafe and rooftop patio at 118 E. College St., in the Ped Mall downtown. The online campaign is part of a larger $200,000 goal, and will pay for cinema and cafe equipment, including digital and 3D projection systems and Dolby surround sound. Seats were salvaged from Hancher Auditorium.
The fundraising word is spreading via Twitter and Facebook, but to celebrate the endeavor and answer any questions, FilmScene’s board and supporters invite the public to gather at The Mill from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday (8/8) for a launch party featuring free pizza (while it lasts) and drink specials.
IOWA CITY — It’s with a heavy heart that I must report Don McLean’s concert was less than stellar last night (7/27/13) at the Englert Theatre.
He was super flat on every song except the two that mattered most. He was simply flawless on an achingly beautiful “Vincent” and tons of fun on “American Pie,” where he invited the audience to sing along from the first chorus. That’s all the encouragement the nearly full house needed to sing every word on every verse — and a three-chorus reprise following one of the most resounding standing ovations I’ve seen (and heard) in a long, long time.
The thing is, McLean is an American icon, so except for me, his fans didn’t care that his pitches circled the drain instead of hitting their mark. I thought my left ear was going to fall off a couple of times, but in the end, I jumped up immediately to shower with affection this man whose music has brought me so much joy since my junior high days.
And believe me, as much as I’ve adored singing along every time I’ve heard “American Pie” on the radio, nothing compares to singing along with the real McCoy (in this case, the real McLean). Talk about fun.
Plus, McLean is the real McCoy. He’s just so darned nice and down to earth. He was that way when I interviewed him by phone for a preview article, and he was that way all through the concert, weaving tales through the music in true storyteller fashion.
Every lyric he sings is part of a fascinating tale, part biography, part autobiography, as in the haunting homage to the heartbreak of Van Gogh’s life and immeasurable artistry. In our phone interview, McLean told me:
“It’s a tribute – no, don’t do tributes. It was sort of folding the notion of Van Gogh and his art into my soul. It wasn’t like it was really just about Van Gogh, but also about his artistry, his story and my story, too. Everything I do is personal.”
He takes his concerts to a higher level of personal, too, chatting and joking with his audience in a humble, hilarious, unassuming way. Clad in faded jeans and a plaid shirt and playing his acoustic guitar for the full two hours, he’s the quintessential American troubadour. He was also very genuinely appreciative of his reception at the Englert, thanking the fans often and sincerely for their adulation.
He’s surrounded himself with masterful musicians on grand piano, drums, electric guitar and bass — each ready to jump in wherever McLean roams, operating without a set list. He likes to keep it fresh that way, and the band never missed a beat, whether blazing through the honky-tonk infusions of Marty Robbins “Singing the Blues” and McLean’s gentle chart-topping cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” to the sighing romance of “And I Love You So.”
“Each song is different and each show is different,” McLean told the audience, “but the cumulative effect of each show is a journey through American music created by me and sung by me.” And by the rest of us.
He recalls playing a festival in Des Moines early in his career, and figures he probably played in Iowa a couple times in the ‘70s, but it’s been a long, long time since he’s been here.
Die-hard music fans know that his most famous song — “American Pie” — has a strong Iowa connection. “The Day the Music Died” was Feb. 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and their pilot were killed in a plane crash near Mason City after playing the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake.
McLean’s melancholy song — part autobiography, part social commentary for “a generation lost in space” — continues to resonate deeply.
“I’m not sure why, but I’m very glad that it has,” he says by phone from his home in Camden, Maine. “I look back and I realize I’ve got a lot of songs that people know all over the world. But to have one song that’s become kind of an American institution — very few people can say that they’ve ever had anything like that. I’m going to be 68 years old this year. It’s very nice to know that I’ve given something to the country that they like as much as that.”
A humble guy from modest beginnings in New Rochelle, N.Y., he was a sickly kid with asthma who learned music and the business through sheer determination and perseverance.
“I had to figure it all out,” he says. “I didn’t know anything.”
Armed with a business degree and street sense, the stars quickly aligned in his favor.
His first album, “Tapestry,” was recorded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1969, during the student riots. It garnered some critical and commercial favor. Two years later, his world changed forever with the release of “American Pie.”
“Back when I had hit records, having a hit record made you the focus of THE world,” says McLean, who was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2004. “There were only a few radio stations that played Top 10 radio in every major city. If you dominated those, you really had a No. 1 record. The way things are now, there are so many venues and places to play records, that a record can go to No. 1 and be forgotten five minutes later — you never even knew it happened.
“I was lucky to come up in a time in the music business when the music business really mattered. And if you mattered in the music business, you were a star.”
He never banked on that fame, however.
“I didn’t feel it would last,” he says. “I knew it was something that couldn’t last, but it did. It’s lasted 45 years. I was always prepared for it to end, so I didn’t live beyond my means. I have a small farmhouse, and I was always renovating things or having them renovated, making changes.
“I just kept working and growing and learning — making records. And sometimes I’d have another No. 1, like with “Vincent,” and another No. 1 with “Crying” in the early ‘80s, when no singer/songwriters had anything on the charts,” he says.
“It was a long time ago, but what I managed to do was adjust and raise a family and continue to maintain my celebrity, such as it is, worldwide, and survive without becoming an alcoholic,” he says.
“It’s a struggle to realize you really have to love everything you’re doing. You go from loving what you’re doing and having wonderful success, to then being placed in a position where everything is an obligation and everything is a competition, and I just didn’t accept that,” he says.
“Art is not tennis, it’s not golf. I don’t live my life on statistics, so I kept reminding myself of that and just enjoyed the work. Whatever it was, I kept doing it, and all of a sudden, here I am.”
He’s a husband and father of a daughter and son in their early 20s, raised away from the city on a 175-acre place that has blueberries, fields, some horses and trails through the woods. The rural life “turned out to be a real good decision,” he says.
While both kids are “quite musical and quite talented,” he’s glad neither are following in his well-worn footsteps. “I did that — they don’t need to do that,” he says.
He does hope he can shine a light for young musicians to help keep musical storytelling alive.
“I am a dying breed, because I know what a good melody is. That’s something you really don’t hear much anymore,” he says. “I also know how to write lyrics, which you don’t hear much anymore. You hear a lot of people sing whatever they want to say, just having it blurt out — a musical blog, something like that. It’s not lyric writing. There’s no discipline.
“When you get to be an old guy like I am, you’ve seen so much that you start sounding like your grandfather … “ he says.
“I had my day and if I can be of help to people — if I inspire somebody in the audience to try to write a little deeper lyric or to find a little more beautiful chord change, maybe I will add something to the new kind of music that’s out there.”
Trumpet sensation Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will herald the holidays with a Hancher performance Dec. 7 at West High School in Iowa City.
That concert is part of Hancher’s upcoming superstar season, which also features the legendary blues guitarist and singer Buddy Guy, comedian Lily Tomlin, married fiddle masters Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, and in collaboration with Paramount Presents, a performance by the celebrated Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Tickets are on sale now to Hancher donors via the season brochure, and will go on sale to the general public Aug. 26 at the Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER and Hancher.uiowa.edu
— Buddy Guy: 8 p.m. Sept. 13, downtown Iowa City. Free outdoor performance, part of the inaugural Summer of the Arts Iowa Soul Festival.
— Martha Redbone Roots Project: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 3, Club Hancher at The Mill, Iowa City. Indigenous Americana, featuring a blend of R&B, soul and Redbone’s American Indian heritage.
— Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 7, West High School Auditorium, Iowa City.
— Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, Club Hancher at The Mill. Music from the award-winning show, “No Place to Go.”
— Naturally 7: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7, Englert Theatre. A cappella “vocal play” mixing R&B and beatboxing.
— Spencers, “Theatre of Illusion”: 3 p.m. Feb. 16, Englert Theatre. Fusion of magic and illusion, humor and mastery.
— Jupiter String Quartet: 7:30 p.m. Feb 28, Riverside Recital Hall, Iowa City. Boston chamber ensemble.
— Ragamala Dance, “Sacred Earth”: 7:30 p.m. March 6 and 7, UI North Hall, Space Place Theater. Company uses the South Indian art form of Bharatanatyam to express a contemporary point of view.
— Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: 8 p.m. March 19, Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids. New York-based modern dance company.
— Dublin Guitar Quartet: 7:30 p.m. March 29, Riverside Recital Hall, Iowa City. Irish ensemble performing contemporary and classical music.
— Sones de Mexico: 7:30 p.m. April 11, Englert Theatre. Mexican musicians based in Chicago, keeping traditional sounds alive, yet current and fresh.
— Gallim Dance: 7:30 p.m. April 24 and 25, UI North Hall, Space Place Theater, Iowa City. New York-based contemporary dance troupe.
— Working Group Theatre, “Out of Bounds”: various times May 1 to 4, Riverside Theatre, Iowa City. Hancher commission/world premiere, examining the coaching culture in sports; written and performed by Sean Christopher Lewis of Iowa City.
Rain, rain go away — we want Dr. Lonnie to stay and play. So does he.
“It’s not raining, is it?” That was the first thing out of his mouth after saying hello for a recent Hoopla interview.
Smith, the wizard of the Hammond B-3 organ, was rained out of the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2010, but he’s back on the schedule this year, ready to rock the main stage in front of the University of Iowa Pentacrest at 8 p.m. Saturday (7/6). So far, the weather report looks clear.
Friday night’s fireworks, shot from nearby Hubbard Park, will be the warm-up to the fireworks that blaze from Smith’s agile fingers.
Now 71, he’s been playing the massive instrument for 50 years. It was love at first sound when he heard one played in a music store in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
“It was so beautiful — I can’t explain it to you,” Smith says by phone from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he now lives. “I fell in love, and that was it. It was the perfect match for me.
“The organ has all the elements in the universe — the storm, the wind, the air, the water … the thunder, the sunshine. You can’t beat that sound. That’s what I feel from the organ. That’s what I get from it. What someone else gets from it, I don’t know,” he says.
“When I play it, it’s like a flame — that old black magic goes from a foot all the way up, from the top of my head to my feet. It’s like electricity — it goes through my whole body. It’s a powerful love that you cannot get from any other, but you can get from it. I have such love for this instrument.”
His brand of jazz is infused with the music of his youth — the gospel, blues and jazz sounds introduced by his mother. As a teen, he played trumpet and sang with several groups, forming one he called the Supremes, years before Diana Ross and company stopped in the name of love.
He hooked up with George Benson in the early 1960s and relocated to New York. A few years later, he went solo, carving out an award-winning career spanning more than 30 albums.
He’s hard to categorize. He’s kept eclectic, covering everything from the Beatles and Eurythmics to Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck, as well as writing his own music.
“When I play music, I hear something entirely different than the music itself, because the music comes from everywhere — all over,” he says. “I hear music in everything that’s out there — the wind, I hear music. The sound, I just let it flow from me inside, let it go and it tells me what to do. And that’s the beauty of it. I had no idea when first stated recording that I would come to bring in another style. I had no intentions and no idea that I had one.”
He wanted to forge his own path, not one laid out for him by record producers. Finally, after all these years, he’s stepped away from labels and formed his own Pilgrimage Records, using musicians he wants, making music his way.
Iowa City audiences will hear Smith and his band playing the world music and gospel infusions of his latest CD, “The Healer,” as well as other music from his vast collection, laced with plenty of improv in the live setting.
He doesn’t tour as much as he used to, but has a fairly aggressive summer schedule. He tries to build in breaks, and even though he’d like to cut back and make his life less hectic, he stays on the road for one reason: “The people.”
“My fans — they keep me going,” he says.
When he once talked about retiring and taking it easy, he says they told him that was selfish.
“I didn’t understand,” he says, until they said it would be selfish to just leave them cold.
“I thought about,” he says, and decided to keep going.
“They give me the energy to play,” he says, and to keep up with the tiring travel. “Once I get where I’m going, the people make me feel good. I’m happy to make them happy.”
And of course, he still reaps the physical and spiritual rewards of making music.
“It’s like food for the soul, for the brain and everything else,” he says. That’s why the title of his latest album is “The Healer.”
“It heals people,” he says, describing an “unbelievable” experience with a friend who was in a diabetic coma, but began moving his fingers when Smith took a radio to his hospital room and turned on the tunes. “It’s a healer.”
He also feeds on the universal dialogue of music on his global travels. Language barriers dissolve when music is shared.
“That’s what keeps me going,” he says. “When that happens — I don’t want to lose that,” he says.
“It’s worth it — all of that travel, it’s worth it. That’s when I’m paid — when people come up to you and love your music, and you never thought they would know who you are. It’s amazing. You can’t beat that. It gives you strength and energy and makes you want to go again.”
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Hancher are indelibly linked, not only because the New Orleans jazz masters were the first touring musicians to help open Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City in 1972, but because the two river city institutions share the same scars — and the same unwavering spirit.
“In New Orleans, we have a way of celebrating life and we have a way of celebrating even at times when you’d think it’s impossible to celebrate, it’s impossible to find anything redeeming about the circumstance. And yet at probably one of the most difficult times of our lives, such as the passing of a loved one, at a funeral we play music,” says Ben Jaffe, 42, of New Orleans, creative director of the venerated Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He’s also a tuba and double-bass player with the band his late father founded 50 years ago.
“Most people can’t understand how you can play joyous music at this very somber, sad time. The truth is, to us it’s a celebration of the person’s life. It’s not a time to mourn. It’s a time to mourn AND celebrate. That’s what makes New Orleans to me, such a vital part of our country,” he says.
“There’s so much to be learned in that — to be able to find something to look forward to, something that helps you get through the day. Something that helps you wake up in the morning, something that allows you to sleep peacefully at night. That’s what New Orleans celebrates. It’s what got us through one of most difficult, challenging, hard times of our lives.” One that etched deep scars on a city and its people still in recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 devastation.
The band will bring its jubilant sound to a seven-city tour of Iowa this month, as the musical centerpiece of Hancher’s “Living With Floods” initiative. Free outdoor concerts will be staged in Des Moines on June 7, Council Bluffs on June 8, Muscatine on June 11, Brucemore in Cedar Rapids on June 13, Davenport on June 14, the UI Pentacrest in Iowa City on June 15 and Dubuque on June 16.
Hancher presents Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Living With Floods” free concert tour
Des Moines: 7:30 p.m. June 7, The Venue, 216 Court St.
Council Bluffs: 7 p.m. June 8, River’s Edge Park; part of Bluffs Bash, starting at noon
Born out of conversations between Hancher and the University of Iowa College of Engineering in February 2011, “Living With Floods” is a UI interdisciplinary effort designed to spark flood education for middle- and high school teachers and students; community forums on flood recovery and mitigation programs; STEM science, technology, engineering and math festivals for young people; and artistic connections with the seven concert cities impacted by the Floods of 2008 in Eastern Iowa and on the state’s western border in 2011.
Partnering with Hancher and the College of Engineering are the UI College of Education and its Interdisciplinary Flood Institute, the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, the Iowa Flood Center, the State Hygienic Laboratory and iExploreSTEM, all housed or initiated at the UI.
“One part of the strategic plan is improving the lives of Iowans. This definitely is right in line” with Hancher’s mission “on so many levels,” Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, says. “There’s so much in terms of the educational part. From a cultural standpoint, I love the idea of mixing the sciences with the arts. That’s a really important part of this project. In this particular case, it works so well. It just seemed so natural. It just fit together extremely well. We didn’t have to explain it to anybody — everybody got it right on.
“We are the University of Iowa, we’re not the University of Iowa City. I love traveling 300 miles from here and talking about the University of Iowa. What’s great about it, is you come to these communities and there are so many alums and there are so many people care deeply about the University of Iowa. When you can connect and then bring wonderful things to their community, it’s quite magical. It’s very important for us to get out there and be connecting throughout the state, and what love more than anything is when can do it together as a team. And also, it builds camaraderie with the different areas of the university,” Swanson says.
The floods are “a big thing to commemorate,” he says. “Some of us are still living with floods. I know there’s a lot of people in Cedar Rapids that are. Then take a look at Hancher — we’re still living with floods every day,” with the new Hancher facility not expected back before fall 2016.
Bringing Preservation Hall Jazz Band onboard also was most appropriate.
“Their music is so joyous (with) such a sense of celebration, that I really feel like this a perfect way for us to commemorate that five-year anniversary — and in Council Bluffs, the two-year anniversary,” Swanson says, as well as to close out Hancher’s 40th anniversary season.
“It’s so fitting for outdoors, and it’s so fitting for community spirit, and it’s just so fitting to be able to celebrate the collaboration that’s happened with a part of this project — how many people have come together to make a difference in the lives of people in each one of these communities.
“We chose the right artists,” Swanson says. “They’re so geared up. They are really excited because of what this is all about.”
Music has been a lifeline for Jaffe and his hometown. It’s what got them through the hurricane floods that wiped out people’s lives, homes, livelihoods and history.
“It’s still difficult and personal and very close to our hearts,” Jaffe says. “It’s something you’ll never heal from completely, but something that becomes part of your identity, that’s where we’re at with it.”
The floods closed Preservation Hall — home to half a century of the region’s greatest jazz sounds — for a year. It took a full five years to restore this historic building to its pre-Katrina days, Jaffe says.
“In the physical rebuilding of a city, there’s two things that take place simultaneously. One is a physical rebuilding and the other is the rebuilding of the community and the part of yourself that gets lost in the storm — the memories, the personal effects — they get lost in the storm,” Jaffe says.
“In the case of New Orleans, we not only physically lost a lot of our history, but we also lost individuals and families and that part of our community, as well. They estimated that about 80 percent of our city had to be rebuilt, as a result of the hurricane,” he says.
“That’s just something that it’s hard to even wrap your mind around — the extent of that damage. You can’t even prepare yourself for it. You think of the devastation of one house burning down, and how that impacts a neighborhood, and then you think about an entire neighborhood disappearing. It’s something that takes years and years of dedication and hard and diligent commitment. There are still parts of our city that we’re still in process of rebuilding. What I am happy to say is that the hard work does pay off. It not only makes physically, parts of the city stronger and better, but it also, in our case, made our community stronger,” he says.
And yet a certain fear still bubbles up with extreme rains and flood warnings.
“You never get over that,” Jaffe says. “Katrina was in 2005 and you still have moments where you’re pushed to brink of exhaustion. Families are still torn apart as a result of that. It’s something that you never completely heal from. It just becomes like a scar, something that becomes part of your identity as a person.”
Even in their darkest hours, however, New Orleans musicians have shown the world how to find the spirit to move on.
“When thinking about this (Iowa) residency — what we can offer musically and what it was that got us through these times — music was something we looked forward to. It was all we had,” he says. “That’s something that we’ve never forgotten. When we started talking about being a part of this (Hancher) celebration of this anniversary — of this rechristening, this rebirth — where it feels like you have these moments where you start over — that’s what our music does.”
The Iowa tour also gets back to New Orleans jazz roots.
“We’ll be playing outdoors, we’re going to be playing at fairs, we’re going to be playing by the river, we’re going to be playing at all these different places,” Jaffe says. “I thought to myself, that’s exactly what we do in New Orleans. We don’t even need electricity — we just show up and start playing. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.
“The flood actually put us back in touch with something that has existed in New Orleans, but often has been forgotten — that our music, literally, is generated by us, by human beings,” he says. “We’ve become so reliant on electricity just to get us through the day, what happens when it’s gone? It was gone in New Orleans for so long. It was gone for almost six months, and how do you survive on something that really nourishes your soul? That’s what music has done.”
Related event: Arts & Minds: A Celebration of Partnership, 3:30 p.m. June 14, UI East Pentacrest, downtown Iowa City; free public event honoring campus, state and federal partners whose dedicated efforts are bringing world-class arts facilities to Iowa. Featuring Preservation Hall Jazz Band, remarks by university and government leaders, and performances and exhibits from students in UI arts programs. Bring seating.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Photo: Clint Maedgen)