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A brief history of jazz in Iowa


Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it has firmly embedded itself into the Midwest.

By Natalie Betz

After its birth in New Orleans, jazz became well-known because of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, and Iowa refuses to let the genre disappear.

Before World War II, jazz was most prominent in big cities such as Chicago, New York, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, wrote David Goldfield, the author of The Encyclopedia of American Urban History.

In the 21st century, “Jazz also found enthusiastic audiences in small towns and cities,” Goldfield said. Smaller towns such as Davenport often featured “pleasure cruises” that included dancing and live music.

Leon Bismark (Bix) Beiderbecke was a famous jazz cornet player and composer in the 1920s from Davenport, but his legacy also extends down the pike to Iowa City. Beiderbecke attended the University of Iowa for a brief time, according to the Bix Society’s website. Some of his notable accomplishments include performing at Carnegie Hall, where he performed his most famous composition, “In a Mist.”

Beiderbecke was also known for his playing on the songs “I’m Comin’ Virginia” and “Singin’ the Blues,” which, according to the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, “remain jazz classics.”

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High-school students are also enthralled with jazz; many music students audition to make it into the Iowa Jazz Championships.

“The Iowa Jazz Championships showcases 60 of the state’s finest high school jazz ensembles,” the Iowa Jazz Championships’ website states. “It is held at Iowa State University in Ames every April and and features 15 groups from each of the four Iowa High School Music Association classifications.”

There is a Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival held annually in Davenport to help keep Beiderbecke’s music alive.

“The mission of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society is to perpetuate the music and memory of Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke through an annual jazz festival, jazz education programs, and the preservation of traditional jazz,” states the Bix Society’s mission statement.

Iowa is also home to several other jazz festivals. This year, the Iowa City Jazz Fest held its 27th festival, and in 2015, the Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival had its 15th festival in northwest Iowa, according to its website. The Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival began in the early 1990s, where RJ Baker gathered the first winter festival, the website said.

“Mr. Baker believed that a jazz festival would be a positive addition to the 40-year traditions of the Cherokee Symphony and the Cherokee Community Theater,” the Cherokee Jazz Blues festival’s website said. “Properly promoted, the festival would be an opportunity to give Cherokee a high profile in northwest Iowa and around the Midwest.”

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