Roots

Pelican

Minnesota is the land of giant metal animals. Customarily, fish, fowl and other woodland rodents seem to be deserving of this honor. Perhaps these massive critters are tributes to the strength needed to survive the harsh Minnesota wilderness. The winters can be downright cruel and these creatures not only endure, but thrive in this arctic wonderland. The folks who design these monuments have the utmost respect for nature; either that, or people up here are just nuts.

Although I didn’t become a resident until 1996, I’ve lived in Minneapolis longer than I’ve lived in any one city my entire life. It has brought me much closer to my roots than I’ve ever been. Of course I knew my family’s history, but living in Minnesota really brought it home.

My mother’s father Realf was from Willmar, Minnesota. He was the band director for a short time in Hakinson, North Dakota before World War II. Of course, as all band directors know, you are required to play all of the instruments. It was probably even more important back then because of the lack of resources in rural areas. He had many, many different instruments around the house; I still have a C Melody saxophone of his. A talented and dedicated individual, he later became an optometrist and settled with his family in Albert Lea, Minnesota.

My other grandfather, Benny Rossum, was born in 1904 in the small town of Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. Like all small towns, they also have a metal beast; of course it’s the pelican pictured above. Benny was the town’s blacksmith. The shop was on the main street, just past the park with the pelican. He was the “go to” guy in a region filled with farmers and small business owners.

Music was a big part of my family’s life, and Benny himself played the fiddle, banjo and other instruments. At home, his sister Ethyle would accompany him on piano with the boom-chick left hand (similar to stride, but think polka). Remember, this was before television and other home entertainment technology. He would play everywhere he could in and around Pelican. In the 1920’s he actually wore out a banjo (one of the loudest of all party instruments).

Jazz hadn’t really traveled to the northern plains at that time. The music primarily consisted of schottisches, waltzes and polkas and tunes like “Turkey in the Straw” and other hits from the Americana songbook. Music was, however, used like it was everywhere else in the country. Hard working people partying at the barn dance on Saturday night and then singing hymns with all of the Scandinavian Lutherans in church Sunday morning.

Today the residents of the area still play their instruments whenever possible. I was fortunate enough to be invited to play at this year’s Fourth of July celebration (2009). The big parade always happens in Erhard, just south of Pelican. My dad is a clarinetist in the Pelican Community Band and I was honored to sit in for the parade. I really do mean, “sit in for the parade,” because the band was seated concert style on a semi’s flatbed trailer! We rolled around the parade route twice that afternoon. This was easily the best way to march in a parade. For the most part, we played high school pep band music and waved to the crowd. They even called a feature for me, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” (The Andrews Sisters were also from Minnesota.) What a great time.

Looking out from the flatbed truck, while cruising through the neighborhoods of Erhard, I saw kids with the same roots as myself. What will they grow up to be? As a kid I would travel during summer vacation to this area of Minnesota to play stretch with knives and catch hammerheads with spoons. Waterskiing, S’mores and DDT were a part of life. Didn’t everyone grow up like this?

I am not from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz; I am not from Chicago, the nursery of jazz; I am not from New York City, where jazz came to maturity. I am, however, from the global music community, with my own folk traditions and culture. My hope is that Jazz today remains truly inclusive of all ethnicities and cultures, including the unique culture and musical history specific to the northern heartland of America.

July and August passed in a heartbeat. This was my last summer of teaching at MacPhail, and my last couple of months in Minneapolis. It was kind of a surreal experience; playing multiple “farewell” shows, finishing up a few art projects, plus the business involved in releasing a new CD – all the while in a state of denial. Even through the final week of packing up my apartment, it didn’t seem real. Minneapolis is my home… until Sunday morning, August 30.

That morning it hit me. I’m leaving.

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