We just printed some pretty sweet shirts for a pretty sweet event. One of our own, Justin, started to remind us a little of this guy when he started recalling the Iowa Jazz Championships. We managed to score a few minutes with Alan Feirer, Co-Chair of the event, and he even took the time to answer a few questions.
1. The Iowa Jazz Championships. What’s that and why should we care?
The Iowa Jazz Championships showcases 60 of the state’s finest high school jazz ensembles. It is held in Des Moines every April and and features 15 groups from each of the four Iowa High School Music Association classifications. All ensembles perform in the daytime competition held at the Events Center and the Civic Center, and the top two bands from each classification perform in the evening finals competition, held at the Civic Center. The event was founded by Iowa jazz educators over thirty years ago, is the only state jazz championships in the nation, brings 6,000 people to downtown Des Moines, and continues to be organized by just 3 goofy guys, supported by a board of directors.
2. It’s been a tradition for over 30 years, how many title belts do you have?
The classy answer is NONE; I have no title belts. The students I served over the course of 19 years as a band director accumulated some honors, though, including 7 invitations to the State Championships, and several first-place finishes at festivals. The best one ever was when I was gone for a funeral, and the Winterset students performed on stage with no adult director and won the Indianola Jazz Encounter in 2009. That was cool, and proved my uselessness.
3. I haven’t met anyone from Winterset who does not know you. Within 10, how many Winterset residents do you not know?
Really, anonymity is tough in a small town where you are either the mayor, the head football coach or the band director. After 11 years as the “band guy,” I left teaching to start my own training and consulting business, so I got involved with the Chamber of Commerce, and now I’m the co-chair of that outfit after drawing the shortest straw. So, there’s that exposure now. To top that off, for 10 years I’ve been the MC of a talent show – the Lions Show – put on by our local Lions Club for over 50 years. That draws about 1000 people each year, and so, um, that’s how the old people know me.
Anonymity is kind of nice once in a while, though, and the 83 people who live in Winterset but work out of town have no clue who I am. Once I was out for a run and twisted my ankle about a mile from my house. I asked a guy in his yard for a ride home. On the way, I was thrilled to discover that not only did he not recognize me, he had never ever heard of me. That was awesome.
4. Is this your full time gig?
Naw, it’s one of those quasi-volunteer gigs with an honorarium, which works out to about $1.25 an hour. It’s fun, and rewarding, and cool to be a part of such a special event with a great tradition. The 18-hour day of the event is a marathon of putting out fires and is totally exhilarating. I’ve got two other co-chairs who do most of the work.
5. How did you get into this?
About 10 years ago, there was a need for a new co-chair, and I met the most important qualification:
I had a phone number that was local to Des Moines, making it cheap for me to help plan the event.
As time has gone on, that’s become less relevant, but the board keeps allowing me to serve, along with Steve Shanley (formerly a band director from Cedar Rapids; currently a music professor at Coe College) and Jason Pentico (high school band director from Pella).
6. Here’s a chance for either a shout out or a backhanded compliment, your choice: Of which school’s program are you currently jealous?
Well, “jealous” is the wrong word; even when I was a band director, I’m not sure jealousy was part of the gig. BUT – there are programs I admire, and always have. I really dig the programs where everyone excels, and cares about doing very well, but without a lot of uptightness; in short, groups that have lots of fun, and are really good. A great example is Independence; they are way understaffed, and have very old facilities to work with, but they always perform well and ooze a sense of fun and excitement in what they do. When I taught, that was one of the programs I sought to emulate.
7. Jazz kids seem so laid back and they seem to get along with everyone… Do they actually “compete”?
Oh my. Yes. Yes, they do. If you ask some of the “old-timers” for stories of absurd levels of competitiveness, you can hear some. I’m not gonna tell any of them, though.
There will be both cheers and tears on Tuesday. Those groups have put a lot of time into this. Now, it’s also true that groups support each other. But there are rivalries, especially in the smaller classes. Some of the small schools that are perennial competitors don’t have a lot of successful extra-curriculars, and half the town turns out for their jazz bands; they’re a real source of pride.
Another note on jazz kids; one of my favorite parts of the job is visiting with the students on stage at the Civic Center before their finals performance; they’re so keyed up and excited and nervous and confident and anxious, in the best sense of the word. IPTV has their cameras on stage, professional stage crew (the same people who work with, say, Rent or Wicked) are moving the equipment around to the specifications of the students and director — all on the same stage that celebrities have walked. It’s amazing.
8. Why should anyone come to the event if they don’t have a connection to any of the competitors?
Do you like good, live music? Come. Because of the high level of the competition, some of these groups sound like pros. For $10, you can listen all day to the daytime rounds from 8:00 to 4:00. For the same price, come to the Civic Center in the evening for the finals. You’ll be blown away. And, the t-shirts are super cool.
-Sent from my iPhone, because I’m busy making Iowa a better place.