"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, October 9, 2015

A reprise of spirited men's chorus sounds

The portrait photo shows Ralph E. Williams, founder of UMM music and director of the men's chorus. He was the only music faculty in UMM's first year. He wrote the "UMM Hymn."
 
I'm told the men's chorus concept is having a revival at UMM. I have wondered for a long time if it might re-emerge.
You might think it's a dicey subject for UMM: a gender-specific musical ensemble. Its advocates would say men's voices have a distinct quality. Still, the idea of exclusivity could easily get shot down on our jewel in the crown campus.
My take? I'm not offended by it. A recent news item had a barber getting fined for refusing to cut a woman's hair. The barber would say his skills are in cutting men's hair, and that men's hair has a distinct quality. Memo to Dave Evenson: if a woman comes to your establishment and requests a haircut, you'd better say yes. Does a barber have the skill to do a competent job on women's hair? I would suggest they learn. Dave told me once that there was a time when it was actually against the law for a female hair stylist to cut a man's hair. Incredible!
So, today the men's chorus sounds are being heard again at UMM. Will this be a tenable project within the political parameters as set up by UMM? I assume that the choir guy, Brad Miller, has floated this idea before the powers that be, at least the head of his department.
The new men's ensemble does not appear to be a truly stand-alone group. You might call it an offshoot from the concert choir. It's like a group within a group, comparable to the chamber winds from the symphonic winds. A source tells me "Brad was digging around in a storage room above the recital hall and found one of the red and black plaid 'world's fair' sport coats from the first generation men's chorus."
This individual further told me "the men's chorus sang the national anthem at the Homecoming game, and (director Miller) had some of the guys wear the plaid coats, the ones that fit, anyway. How 'bout that?"
The ones that fit. . . The average human body was smaller in the early 1960s. "Fat" people stood out and were stigmatized. Today, fat people are all over the place - they don't turn heads anymore. Remember the wooden seats in the old public school auditorium? Many years ago they began seeming too small for many people. I remember choosing the same chair every year for covering the Memorial Day program. The old school grounds were such a peaceful place for Memorial Day. As I write this I can hear Eleanor Killoran playing the piano in my mind. I can hear her playing "It's a Grand Old Flag."
The University of Minnesota-Morris men's chorus of the early 1960s was very high-profile and important for the institution. In its day it was just as spectacular as what the UMM Jazz Festival became under Jim Carlson. Carlson sang in the men's chorus back in those seminal days for UMM. (Jim would laugh at my use of "seminal.")
Today I don't think there's any equivalent. Jazz teacher Jason Squinobal left after the last school year. I criticized him for playing too much with his students. Does my criticism carry any weight?
Once again UMM jazz has an interim while the powers that be search for a full-time. The interim person is Jonathan Campbell.
A friend shared with me: "(Campbell) was told by higher-ups that Jazz Fest is losing money badly, and that the trend can't continue. He was thinking of cutting back the Fest to one night (thereby probably eliminating the 'All Stars'), but the last I talked to him, they had found funding to keep it as a two-day deal, for this year anyway. However, he only has enough kids for one jazz ensemble, quite a change from the Carlson era when there were four big bands."
 
Fest was a calendar highlight
The Jazz Fest in its heyday was so popular, it almost seemed like a cult phenomenon. There was a cult of personality around Jim Carlson. (He'd laugh at me writing that too.) But hey, I'm serious. I wonder if he really had to retire when he did. I wonder if his popularity led to some jealousy among his peers. Academia is notorious for such feelings. He's probably playing a lot of golf now. His wife Kay did not like me. Well, be that as it may. . .
I'm due to check any day with that annual giving office at UMM - I'm not sure if Carla Riley is still there, or if she's gone via retirement. If I make a gift, my intent is to give the funds to social sciences. I need to see if I can make a Ralph Williams memorial gift to a department other than music. I have stated publicly that I do not wish to give to music unless the music department can perform the UMM Hymn for graduation. Maybe UMM music doesn't want my money. That's their prerogative. I think social sciences will take it.
The social sciences crowd is my crowd, where I can easily break bread etc. Music has never been my crowd, even though my father Ralph began the UMM music department and wrote the UMM Hymn.
I don't want the Hymn to be assimilated into any other musical work. I think Jim Carlson would agree with me on this. If not, he can contact me and straighten me out. I defer to his judgment. Jim has a loose sense of humor that is becoming more rare in our society. We all need to stop and smell the roses.
 
When music germinated at UMM
A 1960 headline in the Morris newspaper said: "UMM band to make debut Saturday night." The musicians in those seminal days - there I go again - were adorned in their navy blue uniforms trimmed with maroon and gold. I'm sure it was a superb spectacle. I may have been there but I don't remember. The concert was in the Morris Armory and was for the Stevens County 4-H young people and their parents. Many years later yours truly would receive the "Friend of 4-H Award."
An audience of about 1000 was present in the old Armory edifice, razed by fire in 1966. The UMM band under my father's baton numbered about 50 pieces. This included six selected instrumentalists from the Morris High School band. The article told us: "A band of this size was not anticipated the first year." Ah, the wheels got turning.
In 1962 my father took his pride and joy, the men's chorus, to the Seattle World's Fair. Ralph was commissioned a "goodwill ambassador" on behalf of the state, by our governor at the time, Elmer Anderson. The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day ceremonies at the World's Fair in Seattle. They sang four numbers, lasting about ten minutes. One of them was "Born to be Free" which was written by my father. The chorus did its traveling by train.
The fabric of our society was affected sharply by the Cold War and nuclear fears. The Russians placed ballistic missiles on Cuban land, just 90 miles from Florida. While the UMM men's chorus was projecting joy with its singing, we were all really on the brink of nuclear war. I was seven years old. We had a fallout shelter built into our house. After my father's death, we donated our owner's manual for the fallout shelter to the Stevens County Museum. Oh, eggs per dozen cost 32 cents in 1962. Gas per gallon: 28 cents.
The Seattle World's Fair was also known as "Century 21 Exposition," so be aware if you're Googling. The Beatles were turned down by Decca Records in 1962. Didn't someone famously say there was no future for guitar bands?
Apparently the future of the UMM men's chorus was limited. I would like to hear today's UMM singers, whether male or mixed, perform the UMM Hymn under Bradley Miller, just so we can all know he can do it if needed. Tom McRoberts had the Hymn performed for his funeral at Assumption Church.
John Stanley Ross wrote an arrangement for the Hymn that was for both band and choir. A friend of mine joked that you could tell a non-brass player wrote the arrangement, because the third trumpet notes got a little low!
Look, if anyone wants to write a new arrangement of the Hymn, with my father specified as composer, that'd be great, and would probably get me to open up my wallet. "Money's honey, my dear sonny, and a rich man's joke is always funny."
JFK was supposed to be at the closing ceremony of the Seattle World's Fair on October 21, 1962. He cancelled and announced it was due to illness, a "cold," but no, that isn't what happened. He was dealing with the Cuban missile crisis.
UMM opened at a time when the culture of the 1950s still prevailed, the proverbial "Father Knows Best" culture. (Such shows have been described as "benevolent Aryan melodramas.")
Like all world's fairs, Seattle had futuristic visions. I wasn't along for the 1962 World's Fair trip. I did make the trip with the men's chorus in '64 when the destination was New York City.
The original music building at UMM was the one now designated for multi-ethnic. I remember going to an upstairs floor to watch the UMM football team play at the old P.E. Miller Field. I was at the first-ever UMM graduation in 1964. In spite of all that closeness, I never felt destined to attend UMM myself, never. I knew I wouldn't have the aptitude, certainly not in math and science. I perhaps made some mistakes in plotting my life. I probably never should have gone to college at all. I was one of those kids who felt he just had to. I could have just stayed in Morris, perhaps gotten some common type of job - emptying bedpans at the nursing home - and just found my own way to support UMM from the community.
That has been a very dicey subject through the years: the relationship between UMM and the community. In theory it has always been easy to say that the two should be intimate and mutually promoting. In practice it has rarely been that way. Even at present there is discord, as I'm told that this push for a gay-oriented organization at our high school comes primarily from "UMM people" or "people at the college." And so it goes.
Anyway, it's neat to see the men's chorus get a limited revival. Now we need to fill the void caused by the jazz program's near demise. Could a new men's chorus do that? Hmmm. At least we weren't all wiped out by nuclear war in 1962. We could have "kissed our ass goodbye" - remember the old joke? No, that could not have happened, because we all had to enjoy Vic Power playing first base for the Minnesota Twins.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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