MASON CITY | Longevity was never a factor in its founding. But the Jazz Coalition Big Band is in its 10th season, playing its next gig Jan. 12 at Mulligans Bar and Grill in Mason City.

Music is 6 to 9 p.m. and there is no cover charge.

The band played its first gig at Mulligans in March 2005 under then-owner David Despenas. Present owners Phil and Chris Bly worked that evening and took over the following month.

“It’s been our only home for all 10 seasons,” said Russ Kramer, who founded the group with Mike McEniry. Both men are band instructors at Mason City High School.

“We got lucky,” Kramer said. “The big thing is you’re going to get a crowd if you have food. It helps that Mulligans has good food.”

When Kramer moved to Mason City 12 years ago, he looked for opportunities to play but no one needed an extra trumpet player. The Mason City Big Band had essentially disbanded.

Kramer and McEniry talked about forming a big band that would play more challenging music. They had been in dance bands, playing “In the Mood” and “String of Pearls” more times than they cared to.

“We had done that enough,” Kramer said. “That was not the direction we wanted to go. No one was playing the music from the Buddy Rich book.”

“We talked about who we could get,” McEniry said. “We asked a few guys in the area; tested the waters. Almost everyone wanted to do it right out of the blocks.”

The first two were Scott Bell and the late Rich Dean.

“Rich and I were so pumped,” Bell said.

For a drummer like Bell, it's different playing in a big band.

"It's not just a great musical experience," Bell said. "It’s a physical experience. It's just great fun. I'm so grateful that Mike and Russ took the plunge”.

Jason Murray, Iowa Falls, has also been with the band since the beginning.

“When (they) first contacted me about joining the band I was hesitant,” Murray said. “I hadn't played my sax in almost two years.”

He just wasn't enjoying it like he used to.

“So if I was going to pick up my horn again it had to be for the right reasons. And then Russ called about a big band that would get together once a month and play not for money but just for the joy of playing a style of music that we all love, and for keeping this music alive for others to enjoy.”

The friendships are as important as the music.

“Over the last 10 years we've all grown as friends and musicians alike,” Murray said. “The guys in the band are really more like extended family to me."

Bell echoed that sentiment.

“For me, the greatest joy is the people with whom I’m playing,” he said.

And so, there has been very little turnover.

“The guys that joined the band at the inception, over half are still there,” Kramer said. And when there's been an opening, “I have not had anybody turn me down.”

One of the newest permanent members is Mike Giles, who “subbed” on the band's very first gig.

“I've always kind of been brushing up against it,” said Giles, who teaches saxophone and jazz studies at Iowa State University.

“Do I want to drive an hour and a half? Not really. I'm doing it for the love of music and the brotherhood. I like these guys.”

Part of the band's mission is to introduce people, especially young people, to jazz. And that's a natural for so many in the band who are teachers and retired educators.

“I love it when I see my drum students come out,” Bell said. “I'm just thrilled.” 

Kramer makes it educational while keeping it fun.

“He fronts the band from the back, in the trumpet section,” McEniry said, adding that Kramer “has more of the gift of gab and a lot better jokes than I do.”

Giles called the band's performances a learning session.

“(Russ) pontificates on each tune with trivia he has learned,” Giles said. “It’s a living art form, this music is.”

“Russ Kramer knows more about jazz than anyone I know,” Bell added. “He could talk all night about these bands.”

“I am a jazz head through and through,” Kramer acknowledged. “There’s something about it that really gets me fired up.

“The music is a passion of mine,” he said. ”It is one of the only true American art forms that there are. Roughly 4 percent of the American population buys jazz and classical music.”

And so, he wants to provide that opportunity for North Iowans to hear and learn about jazz.

“You don’t know if you enjoy anything if you’re not exposed to it. Experience it live. Feel the performance,” Kramer said.

What's the future for the Jazz Coalition Big Band?

“I don’t know how long this train will keep going,” Kramer said, adding that he wants to continue as long as he can.

“I'm very fortunate that Mike has come on the journey with me. The band couldn’t have lasted as long if it was just me. It takes the two of us to get things going.

"I’m a blessed human being. Who doesn’t want to live the dream of loving what they do?”


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