Volunteer band hosts old-fashioned party to benefit music students
Doug and Joann Ouverson, of Maple Lake, look like they stepped out of the ’40s onto the dance floor at Route 55’s first New Year’s Eve party three years ago. The couple won the costume contest. Photo courtesy of Lori Thompson
Something like the lyrics of their signature song, Route 66, members of a central Minnesota band get their kicks by making music together and giving back to the community.
Hailing mostly from towns along State Highway 55, the 17 music-makers call themselves the Route 55 Jazz Band. They’ve adopted the famous anthem to that other highway as their theme and play it to open each performance.
Band members receive nothing but satisfaction for attending weekly practice sessions and performing up to a dozen shows a year, and they contribute their profits to educating young musicians.
Route 55 will be out to raise some money for area high school music students, as well as have a good time, when it stages the fourth annual 1940s New Year’s Eve party at the historic Waverly Village Hall on Tuesday night, Dec. 31.
Anyone who likes to dance or listen to the mellow, melodious Big Band sounds made famous by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and others is invited.
Admission will be $7 per person when the doors open at 7 p.m. A free dance lesson will take place between 7 and 8. The music will start between 8 and 8:30 and greet the new year at midnight.
Party-goers are encouraged to dress up in ’40s fashions, and there’ll be costume and dance contests, drawings, prizes, party hats and noise-makers. The Waverly Lions Club will sell alcoholic and soft drinks and snacks.
Route 55, so named because many of its members live in places like Maple Lake, Buffalo, Annandale and Fair Haven in the Highway 55 corridor, will start the celebration with Route 66. “Get your kicks on Route 66,” Nat King Cole sang in the late-’40s tribute to the road that “winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way.”
Other nostalgic hits on the band’s lengthy playlist include Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, In the Mood and Pennsylvania 6-5000, Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing plus other standards like Fly Me to the Moon and Begin the Beguine.
Singer Becky King, of Maple Lake, will perform How High the Moon, Almost Like Being in Love, Embraceable You and other tunes, while event chairman and baritone saxophone player Kendell Kubasch, of Howard Lake, expects to sing more recent hits like Summer Wind and More.
The old village hall where the party will take place is “very architecturally proper” for an event of that vintage, Kubasch said. Built in 1939 by the federal Works Progress Administration, its reinforced concrete outer walls are typical of Depression-era buildings. Inside, high ceilings and a hardwood floor enclose a huge space and a stage that fills one wall.
The building sits just north of and across the railroad tracks from U.S. Highway 12 at Fourth Street North in the Wright County town that was once home to Minnesota political legend Hubert Humphrey.
“You’ll find 17 better musicians, but I don’t think you’ll find 17 musicians who have as much fun playing together,” Kubasch said at the time of the first party. “We have a ball.”
His opinion hasn’t changed in the three years since then.
“We’re purely volunteers,” he said, and Route 55 members don’t pocket the money they generate. “We’ve kind of dedicated ourselves to give back to the community as much as we can.” That includes doing several free performances each year as well as donating band profits.
Band members practice and perform for love of the music, president and trumpet player Bob Thompson, of Fair Haven, added.
As it has in the past, Route 55 will use the proceeds from this year’s party to bring in an accomplished jazz musician to conduct clinics for band students at area high schools, Kubasch said.
Last year’s party profits plus part of the band’s fee for performing at a River Falls, Wis., music festival last spring sponsored sessions at Annandale, Delano and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted high schools by world-famous trumpet player Bob Baca.
Baca, who has toured with Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich and Tony Bennett and is now a music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, tutored the youngsters about jazz technique. Route 55 has also contributed to Mid-Minnesota Concert Band scholarships for high school students.
“The fine arts have gotten a disproportionate share of the budget cuts at schools,” Thompson said, “and (the clinics are) kind of our way to give back to the community.”
While he didn’t know whether the support makes up for the cuts, “we might spark some kid to go on,” he said.
Route 55’s roots go back about 16 years to the retirement of longtime Maple Lake High School Band Director Joe Thomas, whose marching bands were state award winners.
Some of his students got together to give him a sendoff, Thompson said. “They had so much fun doing it that they decided to keep going.” As a result, the Maple Lake Community Jazz Band was formed in 1997, and it has evolved into Route 55.
“Maybe close to half the band are still original members,” Thompson said.
“It’s designed as a Glenn Miller-style big band,” he said, and plays primarily swing music, which became popular in the 1930s and ’40s.
Joe Campbell of the Waverly Lions Club tends bar at the 2010 party. Photo by Lori Thompson
Band members had to make some sacrifices when they put together the first New Year’s Eve party in 2010, Kubasch said. But now, “that’s what we do on New Year’s Eve. Everybody’s really looking forward to it.”
Wintry conditions the first two years kept audience numbers down, he said. The party actually lost a small amount of money the first year and made a small amount the second. “Last year we finally had decent weather, and we had a wonderful crowd” of about 140 people.
A turnout of 200 or more this year would be “a huge success. We’d be really thrilled with that.”
The band has received accolades from those who’ve attended, Kubasch said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I would never have believed that with a small town amateur production that it would be this cool.’”