From the Boheme (R.I.P.) to the M-Shop and the Practice Space, some of the best music in Ames is contained within divers and sundry living rooms, and I will be bold and state that there is another to add to that esteemed list: the Ames Progressive office. The shows there, which occur every Tuesday at 8 p.m., have been featuring Ames’ artists and artists from the tristate area for three months and have had three months of quality music. In fact, the quality convinces me that the reason Ames’ music scene isn’t broader is not due to a lack of talent. Our space is inspired by all the above venues, and also from a brief meeting with a man named Donald Mumford who started things off.
One night last summer, I came home and found Nate sitting on our old brown chair, which my parents bought shortly after they were married, with a slightly stunned look on his face. Interpreting this as anticipation for the deluge of words describing my night, I opened the flood gates.
After waiting and rocking slightly for 15 minutes he said, “I have to tell you about my night, but maybe I’ll just have to tell you several stories over the next few days.”
I knew that it was rare for Nate’s experiences to fall off the periphery of his vocabulary into ineffability, so I was now anxious for what his excited mind could piece together.
He had met Don, and that turned out to be an event that causes you to go over all the coincidences of your life that were necessary to construct that moment, down to the lowest form of your existence, when you were two half cells among billions twisting together, and beyond. But we can return to the west sidewalk of Campus Avenue on the 100 block.
Don had been holding a conversation with himself in which his long-held conviction that for artists, opportunities are sent from the Creator that enable them to create – was being challenged.
“Alright, prove it to yourself then. Talk to this guy.”
So from atop his red bike he hollered to Nate, “Hey, you an artist?”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m an artist but I like art. I like to study philosophy and art,” Nate responded, assuming Don was commenting on his long hair and beard, and sensing apprehensively that his night would be held up by a crazy conversation with a drunk man.
“Oh, you’re a philosopher then.”
But his phone number was recorded under “Nate (philosopher),” and he was invited over to Don’s apartment to drink a few beers.
Nate watched Don play drums with a film of himself playing drums 20 years ago. Don was a jazz drummer, and had traveled around the world playing with a famous saxophonist, who the film followed, and now was holed-up in an efficiency apartment in Ames, Iowa, attempting to awaken the music scene by riding around town talking to people and inviting them to play with him. Nate and I were to jam with Don and some other people who happened to be standing around at pawn shops and sidewalks, within the radius of his voice. Anyone who blew into or twanged on something was invited.
Now it’s no secret that Nate and my names rhyme, so when our friend Nitin said there were several signs up addressed to “Nate and Kate” we felt a high degree of certainty in guessing that they were for us. We walked down Campus Avenue and found signs on the streetlights that said in red marker:
Nate and Kate
Don had been frantic because he had lost Nate’s number, didn’t know where we lived, and was worried that this Wednesday’s jam was not going to happen. Hearing this put our anxieties about playing with a professional at ease because this man clearly just wanted to play. So, that Wednesday we walked a block away to Don’s place, guitar and saxophone in hand.
He lived in a disheveled white house that we walked in back of and descended a few steps illuminated by a pale red light. The door, which was just a piece of plywood with a few hinges, was locked. Next to the door was written, “Mung’s Bat Cave,” in shaky chalk and I wondered if the mind in the inhabitant of this place hadn’t paled and caved too.
We sat outside the house for a while and a clarinetist showed up. Don returned soon after balancing a six-pack on his handlebars and asking how long we had been waiting. We moved back downstairs. He undid the small lock and entered what could truly be classified as a cave.
We sat and perched where we could as Don passed out beers and told us about the other people that would be arriving, where he had met them, how happy he was that we were there. In total six people showed up whose interest in jazz ranged from mild to intense. There was a singer, a saxophonist, a clarinetist, I was on guitar, and Don was on drums. Nate was just watching tonight and there was another guy there who met Don based on their mutual interest in various types of martial arts. So with seven people, a drum set, and a smattering of Real Books crammed into a small living room we began to play.
Our first song sounded like some crazy wind chime, each of us blowing around without much structure or reference to the only reliable source of the song which was Don’s husky voice trying to sing out the correct melody and syncopation. “Duuuuuuhhhhh daaaa dooo dat,” he sang in harmony with his snare. I heaved a chord up, when I could, that hung on the song like ratty laundry on a clothesline after a tornado. But we all eventually got to the end of our songs, and Don praised us.
“Some people I meet can play but don’t want to play in front of people, so you came and you played. Here, Nate play with your girl.”
“Drums, c’mon play with your girl.”
I started a song and after a while Nate found a rhythm and afterwards Don yelled,
“See, you were telling me that you didn’t play anything, and that you weren’t a musician and you were just a philosopher and then you sit down here and you philosophized the shit out of those drums!”
We stayed late playing with Don passing out beers and talking about music like a little kid asking to play. We planned on practising together and eventually gigging. We went home that night elated and told everyone we talked to about the night.
Don was getting restless in Ames, without a larger group of musicians to work with. He was moving to Minneapolis in a month, but wanted to start something in Ames before he left so that he could travel around a little bit and have places to play. There was a piece of construction paper up on his wall reminding him to: meet musicians, get musicians playing together, and to “get back to the music.”
But on Thursday night, after he had played with a small combo on a patch of concrete on Welch, maybe the only patch without a liquor license, Don fell off his bike head first onto Grand Avenue. He was brain-dead by the time an ambulance came and was taken off life support a few days later.
We got together with the clerinetist and played a sort of memorial jam to him, and then started playing together regularly. We found more people to play with when we started going back to open mic at the Boheme. We met a lot of great musicians and had a few small shows in our apartment, and then started to think about having a larger venue.
My friend Eric Coleman says that Ames is “a college town that hasn’t realized it’s a college town yet.” In other words, we aren’t using our resources as much as we could. Right now we have musicians, venues, great acts coming through town, but we don’t have the excitement generated when musicians play for and listen to each other. I, like many Amesyans, have complained about music in Ames for long enough to get sick of my own bitching. But I’m observing that the more people get together to play and listen, the more the excitement builds. We’ve become better musicians by challenging each other and being inspired by one another, just as Don predicted. So to anyone who plucks or picks or blows or bangs on something, we would love to hear what you got.