The Great Unconformity

The personal blog of Benji Nichols

Unifying Jazz April 6, 2011

(From Inspire(d) Magazine, Spring 2011, by: Benji Nichols) ***See the UJE Play LIVE on Friday evening, April 15 at the Elk’s Lodge in Decorah from 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm, or Monday evening, April 18 at The Hub in Cedar Falls!

In the early 1990s something invaded the Oneota River Valley. No, it wasn’t locusts, RAGBRAI riders, or deer; it was jazz. Literally – through the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Rural Residency Arts Initiative,” jazz invaded Northeast Iowa… with a passion. From August of 1992 to the summer of 1994 the Unified Jazz Ensemble took up residency in the middle of a “jazz desert.” This April, they are coming back to Eastern Iowa for a “mini-residency.”

“When I first moved to Decorah in 1986 I was stunned by the lack of jazz,” says Decorah High School band director Jim Fritz. “You couldn’t find it on the radio, there was no jazz band at the high school, and the Luther Jazz band was primarily student-run. It was pretty bleak.”

But as jazz-barren as the valley may have been, it was also this precise detail that lead to the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) placement of a professional residency. Renata Sack, former executive director of the Cedar Arts Forum recalls: “In 1991, the National Endowment for the Arts solicited input from Cedar Arts Forum in regard to a Chamber Music Rural Residency program. We enthusiastically embraced the idea and formulated a partnership with the Jesup Community Schools, Upper Iowa University in Fayette, and Luther College.”

Educator Jim Fritz, along with former Luther College Dean Tom Kraabel, teamed up to link the program between the city, public schools, Luther College, and community. Fritz and Kraabel specifically requested a jazz ensemble and the idea piqued the NEA. A search came up with the Unified Jazz Ensemble – a quintet of young, professional, modern jazz musicians willing to relocate to the rural Midwest for a minimum of 10 months.

The five-piece ensemble consisted of vibraphone and trombone player Mike Noonan, saxophonist Jeff Antoniuk, pianist Tim Harrison, Marty Morrison on drums, and Ray Parker (originally) on bass, with John Pineda eventually stepping in on the bass. Each member – with wide roots from Canada to Texas, and England to Missouri – all took on new territory by moving to Iowa. They found themselves gigging in grocery store aisles and teaching elementary students how to improvise on plastic recorders, but by the end of their first few months, the band felt at home.

“Living in rural Iowa was at first a little challenging for the ensemble members,” Noonan recalls,  “but the community of Decorah embraced the opportunity to be exposed to America’s true art-form.”

A weekly gig at Orsey’s (RIP!) in Decorah presented not only a unique improvised concert each week, but a chance for local students and residents to sit-in with the band. In addition, countless school clinics and concerts across the region exposed an entire generation to a music style they may have never known.

“Students of all ages learned about jazz, jazz musicians, and performing jazz.  Everyone from kindergarten to high school, and college to adults picked up on jazz from the UJE,” says Fritz. “UJE shook things up. They are outstanding, great guys, and fine educators.”

In those early years, the UJE honed their craft, both individually as well as through their ensemble playing. With influences from classic jazz to West African rhythms, the group created heavy modern jazz grooves.

“It was an incredibly invaluable springboard that helped launch and sustain us,” says Noonan, who – a decade and a half later – still leads the group on weekly Tuesday night escapades… only in Maryland, not Iowa.

For the past 14 years the group has resided in Annapolis, Maryland and play almost every Tuesday night at 49 West. They have a loyal following of fans and musicians – both professional and students, who continue to learn and collaborate with the band. And the ensemble itself has continued to evolve. The UJE is now a quartet featuring Noonan on vibes and trombone, with John Pineda on bass, Grammy award winning trumpet and flugelhorn player Tim Stanley, and drummer Dominic Smith.

2010 proved to be an exciting year for the ensemble, with the release of their eighth record, “Cradle Song”. Eight appears to be the magic number, as the ensemble was also one of eight groups chosen from across the country to participate in the Chamber Music America’s Residency Partnership Program. Through the program the UJE will be performing and in residence in schools and communities across Maryland and the Washington D.C. area through the 2011 school year, in addition to keeping up a regular gigging schedule and travel to Iowa.

Two decades after seeing their start in Decorah the experience gained from life in small town Iowa hasn’t faded for the ensemble.

“The UJE maintains friendships with families and individuals created through the residency to this day and looks forward to returning,” says Noonan.

When prompted about what sets the UJE apart from the masses, Jim Fritz quickly responds, “Longevity – while there have been personnel changes, the basic mission of UJE is still vibrant, as is their commitment to jazz education. It’s a passion they have as musicians and as a band.”

The Unified Jazz Ensemble brings their diverse brand of jazz back to Northeast Iowa in a mid-April mini-residency. They will be presenting workshops and concerts in Des Moines, Ames, Decorah, Cedar Falls, and Calmar. See the pull-out on this page for full details, and see them play live on Friday evening, April 15 at the Elk’s Lodge in Decorah from 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm, or Monday evening, April 18 at The Hub in Cedar Falls.

For more information and to listen to the UJE visit

4/12 – IA Jazz Championships, Des Moines

4/13 – Iowa State University – student clinics, Ames

4/14 – Luther College – student clinics, Decorah

4/15 – Public Concert, Decorah Elk’s Lodge, 7:30 pm

4/18 –Public Concert, The Hub, Cedar Falls, IA, 8 pm

4/19 – Luncheon gig, Northeast Iowa Community College


One Response to “Unifying Jazz”

  1. Ann T. Greene Says:

    Just came across your blog when I was Googling CAF. I’m an old friend of Renata’s. (I spent a few years in Cedar Falls in the late 70’s early 80’s and jazz bassist Hill Greene is my brother.)early As far as I’m concerned she is a Goddess for what she did for the arts in Iowa. Nice to see that her role is appreciated.

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