Happy music, bass line keeps Thompson playing
Back in the day when Bemidji State University had a lab school for students and teachers in training, Jim Thompson was trying out various instruments.
“My father (Carl O. Thompson) was head of the music department at Bemidji State and he wanted me to be a great musician,” Thompson said recently. “I tried the clarinet, oboe, string bass and the cello but never practiced very much so I didn’t get very good.
“I decided that I was sick of all these different instruments and trying to be molded into a great musician. In the 10th grade at Bemidji High School, I tried the tuba because I always liked the bass line.”
Thompson said he played for the ROTC marching band at Iowa’s Grinnell College, where the only march they knew was “Thunderer,” which they played over and over.
After two years at Grinnell, Thompson transferred to the University of Minnesota and was accepted into the band but decided that a parttime job which paid for all his meals was a better option.
In 1961, after medical school and an internship, Thompson started in family practice here in Bemidji.
“I did play in the community band (Bemidji Area Community Band) when Roy Hester was the director.” said Thompson, who serves on the Bemidji City Council. “He had been a circus band director and we played everything very fast. It was kind of hard to keep up. We played in the old bandshell in Library Park.”
Thompson left Bemidji for three years for an ophthalmology residency at Mayo Clinic and again set the horn aside. When he returned in 1966 and set up his ophthalmology practice, Thompson also bought a tuba from Brent Stolpestad, who had a music store downtown.
“I paid $1,000 for it in and I am still playing the same tuba,” said Thompson. “Now it would cost $10,000 at least.”
In 1974, Thompson and a few others got together in Dave Nordley’s basement of his house on Lake Movil. Ed Gersich was the one who really set it up; he played the accordion.
Jack Downing, who played the clarinet in the Army band and was a BSU professor, joined the group. Then Chuck Austad joined with his cornet and they decided to play “old-time music,” primarily Slovenian from the Iron Range. Gersich knew the music from his father, who also played the accordion. The casual group played polka and waltz tunes for family occasions and gatherings.
“We were playing a lot of Frankie Yankovic’s Slovenian style polka music,” said Thompson. “Yankovic wrote ‘Just Because’ and through Gersich’s contacts we were able to ask Yankovic if we could use that title so we finally had a name, Just Because.
“We later met with him and shared the stage a few times.”
Just Because played in Tenstrike and for barn dances. They actually got paid in Tenstrike; a group of doctors, professors, business people who just got together in their downtime to have some fun. They had a lot of drummers during that time until Don Papreck joined the group; a good drummer and musician, Thompson opined.
“In 1976, my world collapsed,” said Thompson, “and my marriage ended. After our divorce, all I had left was my tuba so playing with the band saved my sanity to some extent. Later I had the good fortune to hook up with my wife, Dot.”
Thompson said Just Because was in high demand. They played every weekend, and every other weekend Thompson would be on-call at the hospital so he couldn’t go on a lot of the dates.
“We played a lot of gigs in North Dakota, Wisconsin and the Iron Range and at the International Polka Fest just about every summer for quite a few years,” said Thompson. “We went to Alaska twice to play. We traveled in a house trailer and it was tight.”
Thompson described a time when his tuba was not sounding quite right and he found a black sock inside of it when he cleaned it out.
Another time, his daughter Sarah and her friend put some popcorn into the horn to play a practical joke. When Thompson started to blow, popcorn came flying out into the audience.
There are many stories about those fun years but as time progressed, some of the players retired elsewhere and Just Because broke up as a polka band in 1986.
Tuba Jim, as Thompson likes to be called, is still playing but this time with a group that spreads joy at GoldPine, Neilson Place, Northview Manor and Baker Park. His present group plays happy music, Thompson said, adding his favorite song is “Dear Hearts and Gentle People.”