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John Lamb, Published November 07 2010

On the bubble: Lawrence Welk’s musical legacy might be about to burst

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When the Jazz Arts Group Big Band takes the stage this afternoon to play music from Lawrence Welk’s TV show, the tunes will be a blast from the past, not only for the audience but also the players.

Many in the band grew up watching “The Lawrence Welk Show,” with their parents or, even, grandparents.

The Strasburg, N.D., native’s show originally aired on ABC’s primetime lineup from 1955 until 1971 and stayed in production until 1982.

Today’s performance, “Keep a Song in Your Heart,” allows the JAG band and guest musicians to celebrate Welk as not only a bandleader and entertainer but also as North Dakota’s most significant musical icon.

Welk still has a name that resonates with much of our population base, but some in the JAG band think the window may be closing on Welk appreciation.

Although the TV show lives on in syndication, some say the bandleader‘s musical tone hits a sour note with young musicians today.

If that’s the case, Welk’s “champagne music” may lose its pop.

“There will always be a following, but I think that will become less and less as we lose people who watched him on TV,” says Kyle Mack, trombonist and JAG band leader.

Off the radar

At 33, pianist Chris Gould is one of the youngest members in the JAG band. Though he remembers seeing the show as a kid, he’s not sure many developing players will follow Welk’s beat.

“I think it is music that’s off people’s radar,” Gould says. “I’m not sure that polka and that old style dance band stuff is really what people are listening to anymore, as far as younger generations go.”

Though he admits Welk’s style doesn’t speak to him, he says it’s exciting to get out of his comfort zone and try something new.

Still, as a jazz player, he says Welk isn’t one of the building blocks like Count Basie or Duke Ellington were.

“I don’t see that same application with this style of music,” Gould says.

Mack, who teaches music at North Dakota State University, says a common reaction when his students hear Welk’s name is to dismiss it as “old and lame.”

With three of his students sitting in for today’s concert, Mack says their tune changed a little.

“They quickly found out the style is old and dated, but you really have to be a very strong musician and sight reader to do what they did,” the 52-year-old Mack says.

“Some of the language is outdated. But when I listen to the harmonies, I think the young people are happy to hear things with harmony,” says Kathie Brekke, a vocal jazz instructor at Concordia College and a guest singer at today’s gig.

In addition to singing “Teach Me Tonight,” “Orange Colored Sky” and “I’ve got the World on a String,” she and her sisters – Lynette Guida, Melissa Johnson and Sarah Miller – will perform as the Lennon Sisters, staples of the Welk show. They’ll harmonize on “Let the Rest of the World Go By” and “When the Red, Red Robin (Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along).”

Raised on the program, Brekke’s family took a page from Welk’s show and started their own family show at Jaspers Theater in Park Rapids, Minn.

“It will be fun, highlighting someone from our region and the huge musical footprint he left on America,” the 42-year-old Brekke says of today’s tribute.

But defining what exactly Welk’s mark was is a tricky question, JAG members say.

“Modern jazz musicians don’t even necessarily view Lawrence Welk as part of the jazz tradition, per se,” says Nat Dickey, lead trombonist in the JAG band and music teacher at Concordia.

The 41-year-old points out that when Welk brought his big band to a nationwide audience via the small screen in the 1950s, “more progressive” styles like be-bop were getting more attention.

“Any time you say to a jazz musician, ‘Lawrence Welk,’ the first reaction you’re going to get is have them look down their nose,” Mack says. “I’d have to disagree with a lot of the (jazz) purists, because, yes, (Welk’s band) played a softer form of jazz, but the guys in the band could go out and play with anybody. They could go down the street and sit in with a be-bop group or a Dixieland group.”

Of the 26 songs on today’s set list, one is the Dixieland tune “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” a song popularized by Louis Armstrong. While the great trumpeter’s version was heavy on improvisation, Welk’s music was more set and structured. It was also slowed down to allow a solo by his clarinetist Pete Fountain. Harley Sommerfeld will take that lead today.

Welk’s take on the classic Artie Shaw signature, “Begin the Beguine,” gives the tune, “a smoother style … more accessible,” says Mack.

Pulling from diverse artists was Welk’s specialty, says Sommerfeld.

“He played what people wanted to hear,” he says.

Along the way, his show helped popularize, and preserve, musical styles ranging from pop to polka and jazz to gypsy.

Family appeal

As Welk was neither a noted composer nor an arranger, the band leader really made his mark as an entertainer.

Though he died in ’92 at the age of 89, replays of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” at 7 p.m. every Sunday on Prairie Public TV, remain either the top-watched or the second most-watched show on the station, says Bob Dambach, director of television at Prairie Public.

He says the demographics for the show are not all 65-plus, but often 40-plus.

Rochelle Roesler, executive director of JAG, expects an older clientele for today’s show, which helped in the decision to hold the event at the Ramada. The other JAG shows this season are held in the night club atmosphere of The Venue at The Hub.

Still, Welk’s appeal is not strictly for an older crowd.

Dambach hears of families still gathering to watch episodes of Welk’s show, particularly the Christmas specials.

Prairie Public will record part of today’s show, then record the JAG big band in the studio for a TV special in March.

“His legacy as an American entertainer is something folks can take pride in and we can celebrate” Dickey says. “For those who remember the Welk show, this will be a wonderful piece of nostalgia. For those who don’t, it will be an opportunity to go back in time to a lifestyle or way of entertaining that is probably dying out to a certain extent, now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533