A note from Jack and Kitty…
Today on our travel blog we launch a new “Flashback Fridays” series called “Cornstars”. This is about travel…time travel! We’ll be going back in time to the cornfields of Iowa and Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s, to explore the lives of two men who created a new form of jazz music. “Cornball Jazz” is what they called it…and, for a few short years, it was the best-selling music in America. They made and lost millions and left behind some amazing films and records. We’ll explore the places and people that created this nearly forgotten genre of music. Visit us every Friday for a new chapter in the saga that is “Cornstars”. 

The Birth of Jazz…in Garnavillo, Iowa?

The “Gem of the Prairie”. That’s what they call the tiny Clayton County town of Garnavillo, Iowa. Located in the northeast corner of the state, Garnavillo sits on State Highway 52, just six miles east of the Mississippi River.

Today, Garnavillo’s website promotes its fertile farmland, scenic valleys and rolling hills. The marketing campaign – that of branding the city as “Gem of the Prairie” – must be working: the population in 2000 was 754. It’s since increased to 763.

But we’re not here to talk about the wonders of Garnavillo, Iowa as you can experience it today.

Sure, it’s a great town. If you find yourself passing through the area Garnavillo’s cute Main Street certainly makes it worth a stop. Locals know that Thoma’s Dairy Bar Cafe bakes the best pies in all of Iowa. The Garnavillo Auction Company on Main Street is fun too. Twice a month, hundreds of folks travel to Garnavillo to try to outbid their neighbors on everything from antique pottery to rare farm equipment.

Main Street is quaint and charming in Garnavillo, Iowa. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

No, we’re not here to travel to Garnavillo today. We’re here to travel back in time to the Garnavillo of decades ago. The Garnavillo of 1910. When the population was around 300 souls. 99% of these souls were white (it’s 98.3% caucasian today). And certainly nearly 100% of them were farmers (that hasn’t changed much either). 

A rural community. The heartland of America. Corn as far as the eye could see.

The Garnavillo of 1910 is pretty much the same as the Garnavillo of today. So if that’s the case, why are we traveling back in time to the Garnavillo of 1910?

To explore it’s unsung native son: Freddie Fisher. 

Freddie Fisher. His name doesn’t even appear in the “Notable People” section of Garnavillo’s Wikipedia entry. Marion Murdoch‘s does, however. An American minister, Murdoch is best remembered as the first woman in American to recieve a Bachelor of Divinity degree. And while that’s certainly a notable accomplishment, it’s a world away from Hollywood in the 1930s. A world away from Broadway in the 1940s. A world away from record deals, movie stars, glitz and glam. Money. Chorus girls. Fame.

And certainly, a world away from jazz.

In fact, when one hears the words “Garnavillo, Iowa” and “jazz”, the connection is rarely – if ever – made. Until now.

You see, Garnavillo’s unsung native son, Freddie Fisher…invented jazz.

Not the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Not the cool jazz of Dave Brubeck or Stan Getz. Not the jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane. And certainly not the jazz of Kenny G or George Benson.

This is Garnavillo, Iowa, after all. So it was only natural for its unsung native son to invent something based on his experience growing up. Freddie Fisher invented something called “cornball jazz”, or simply “corn” for short.

This was a Midwest jazz. An Iowa jazz. A corn jazz.

This jazz was as important and as influential in the 1920s and 1930s as anything Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden could ever dream up. To be certain, Fisher’s jazz was their jazz too…with some corn added. For a long time in American pop culture, Fisher’s jazz was more popular than anything that ever was born in New Orleans.

Was it as good? Who cares! It made money. Lots and lots of money.

The Buddy Bolden Band in 1905. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Freddie Fisher’s Idea of Jazz

To explain how this jazz was created, we must remember the story – the earliest I have been able to unearth – about young Freddie Fisher. Back home on the farmstead just outside of Garnavillo, Iowa.

Little Freddie Fisher was lovingly called “Schnickelfritz” by the folks in Garnavillo. That word – “schnickelfritz” – would play a huge role in Fisher’s life. If you’re not familiar with the term, “schnickelfritz” is basically a German term of endearment. An affectionate slang for “mischievous little boy”.

So did Freddie Fisher live up to his “Schnickelfritz” nickname?

Every good superhero needs an origin story. A juicy backstory to explain the madness which explains everything that will follow. And, since Freddie Fisher is the superhero of this cornball jazz story, he indeed does have a good origin story. 

When Schnickelfritz was just a kid of about six or seven, he would run out the front door of his family’s home. Sneak past his father working in the fields, racing as fast as his little legs could carry him…way out behind the barn where there was a huge gas tank. A gas tank the size of an elephant, he’d say. Looking out past the rows of tall Iowa corn he’d make sure his folks were nowhere nearby. 

Once he knew the coast was clear, he would take the lid off the tank and stick his entire head in.

Freddie would inhale huge quantities of gasoline fumes.

He knew just how much his young body could handle.

When he felt himself getting to the point of no return, he’d take one more deep hit of the toxic fumes, quickly close the lid and run as fast he could up the hill away from the family farm, laughing maniacally.

He would laugh-run like this until his world went blank. His young body collapsing amidst the corn.

Hours later, Freddie would wake up – wondering how he got there and what time it was.

That was the Garnavillo, Iowa of his youth. A youth spent playing saxophone and piano…all while huffing gas. Gallons of it. And laugh-running, high as a kite, through rows upon rows of corn.

Decades of Fisher’s laugh-running would pass. It would make him a celebrity. It would make him a fortune. It would make him a god amongst the jazzmen in the know. 

Finally, in late 1959, Time Magazine profiled the aging musician. It wasn’t pretty. The article opened with this zinger: “Freddie Fisher’s idea of jazz is telling bad jokes while jumping on a trampoline of falsies.”

Fisher was used to this kind of ridicule, he didn’t care. Why should he? He invented corn jazz. He got to play his sax while leaping up and down on trampoline made out of fake boobies. So, Schnickelfritz fired a short note back to the editor of Time: “You old fool! That’s not my idea of jazz…just my idea of a good way to make a living!”

And so begins our cornball journey…

Freddie “Schnickelfritz” Fisher singing on his trampoline of falsies. Is this what midwest jazz looks like? Image copyright Jack and Kitty Norton.

This article was based on the book “Cornstars: Rube Music in Swing Time” by Jack Norton. Available in paperback and ebook on Amazon or wherever books are sold. Ebook edition is available direct from the author in the Jack and Kitty store here: https://payhip.com/b/i3OVT. This blog is reader supported. If you’d like to help us out, please consider becoming a Patreon or visit the “Support” section on our Contact page if you’d like to send a one-time gift. This article and all supporting images (unless otherwise noted) are copyright © 2023 by Jack Norton and Kitty Norton.