The Music in Him
Simon Estes’ Iowa Roots Sprout Wings
Story by Terri Queck-Matzie, Photography by Paul Gates
It’s a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, and the Nodaway Valley High School gym in Greenfield is awash with excitement. Chairs have been meticulously arranged in symmetrical rows.
Sound checks have been completed. A chorus of warm-up scales rises and falls backstage. When the hands of the wire cage-encased clock above the basketball backboard reach the top of the hour, a hush comes over the room.
Simon Estes, in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt, walks onto the stage. The crowd rises to its feet in greeting. Then there is silence. Then the perfectly executed words “Our Father” open the show as Estes delivers the reverent “The Lord’s Prayer.”
His voice is strong and clear. And powerful. He seems to effortlessly reach the high notes on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and growl out the low notes on “Old Man River” with a barely perceptible quiver of his lower lip.
Seated next to a grand piano on the simple, makeshift stage, Estes fills the space with voluminous song while simultaneously making this Adair County gymnasium an intimate venue.
He’ll perform a similar concert in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties as part of a three-year tour dubbed Roots & Wings. Half of his performance fees are donated to a scholarship fund — the Simon Estes Iowa Educational Foundation, Inc. — supporting young Iowans’ artistic and educational endeavors.
To date, 53 Iowa students are attending the college of their choice with the help of one of the Foundation’s scholarships.
A grand piano anchors the small studio in Ames. Framed honorary degrees and citations fill the walls. Bound musical scores and photos of dignitaries and lavishly costumed characters fill the shelves. Simon Estes fills the room.
With one shake of that great hand, one greeting uttered by that rich voice, Estes presents the stature expected of a world-renowned artist. At 73, the singer is acknowledged as one of the premier bass-baritones in the world.
He has taught at The Juilliard School of Music and in classrooms throughout Europe, Africa, South America, and the United States. He has performed for six U.S. presidents. He has graced the stage of every major opera house in nearly every country around the globe.
“I don’t feel like a star,” says Estes as a slow, reflective smile spreads across his face. “In my mind, I’m still that skinny boy from Centerville.”
Estes has strong, deep Iowa roots. The grandson of a slave who was sold for $500, he grew up in Appanoose County, singing in the church where his mother was the pianist and choir director.
“The Second Baptist Church was the ‘colored’ church. The First Baptist Church was the ‘white’ church,” explains Estes, professor and artist-in-residence at both Iowa State University and Wartburg College in Waverly, where he now lives.
Like much of the country, Centerville was segregated in the 1940s and ’50s, when Estes was playing on the streets and plopping down change for ice cream cones he had to take outside to enjoy. He swam in the city’s public swimming pool only during designated hours on Saturday morning, learning years later that extra disinfectant was added after the session.
He sat in the balcony near the restrooms, the “colored section,” at the local theater, until his high school friends pressured the manager with their parents’ Chamber of Commerce influence to allow Estes to sit “down front.”
“It was the most amazing view of the screen and didn’t smell like urine,” recalls Estes with a hearty laugh. “And I went to school and told all my colored friends we could sit down front now.”
Estes says he was profoundly shaped by those early experiences, but not in the way some may expect.
“I want everyone to know I’m not bitter,” he says with great emphasis. “That’s the way it was then. Things have changed now.”
He credits his mother with his forgiving attitude. A deeply religious man from a deeply religious family, Estes says he was instructed from an early age to pray for those who mistreated him. “I was never given any sympathy, even when I was called names or hit by other kids,” he says. “My mother would say, ‘Simon, you get on your knees and pray for those kids.’”
Estes says he received the same instruction when, as a young adult, he was denied access to U.S. stages. “I’m human. It hurt. I called [my mother] practically in tears, and she said, ‘Simon, you pray for those people.’”
Being black in a predominantly white world was a wall Estes would face until he moved to Europe. He auditioned for the Deutsche Oper Berlin on a whim, and the landed role as the High Priest of Egypt launched his career in 1965. (He left Juilliard without graduating, which prompted school officials to warn him that he’d never have a career.)
Estes is eager to share his story with Iowa’s youth, and his Roots & Wings tour includes a school assembly at each stop.
While he’s been dubbed “Iowa’s Ambassador to the World” by Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, he says his Iowa concert dates are an opportunity to create the next generation of ambassadors. He wants to give young Iowans wings.
The music in the Nodaway Valley High School gym begins with the beat of drums. Students take their place on the stage risers, their bodies — draped in blue tribal prints — sway to the beat.
A range of octaves blends in effortless melodies. These voices of maturity belie the young ages of the singers. On and off stage, they are vibrant. Music radiates from their very being. These are kids who are touched by art, and Estes wants Iowa kids to feel the same.
Estes met the talented singers in South Africa. “I stepped off a plane in Cape Town 17 years ago and was greeted by the most amazing voices I have ever heard,” he says.
The students’ school was sparse, lacking even the most basic musical instruments. Their living conditions were even starker.
Estes contributed funds toward improvements and opportunities, and today 258 students live and learn at the facility that bears his name. The youth spend part of each year touring with Estes, raising international awareness and showcasing their musical talents.
“The Simon Estes High School Choir was absolutely unbelievable,” says Phil Cannon, who chaired the committee charged with organizing the Greenfield concert and sat watching from the sidelines. “Their voices and energy were amazing. The young people behind those voices were even more so. It’s like we added some new members to our family.”
The South African guests have stayed with host families while in town for the weekend. Visitors and greeters were complete strangers from opposite sides of the world when the bus arrived in Greenfield Saturday evening.
By concert’s end, lasting friendships have been formed on the stage, on the soccer field, around bonfires, and at kitchen tables. “Seeing what happened between those two groups of kids in Greenfield is one of the highlights of my career,” says Estes.
With a pounding piano marching the melody, the voices of Adair County high school students and those of the Simon Estes Music Choir swell together in the concert’s final number. The notes rise together in one voice. Glory, Glory Hallelujah.
Led by Estes as soloist and directed by Nodaway Valley Vocal Music Director Terry Rabbitt, the four-part arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” fills the gym. His truth is marching on.
“It was absolutely amazing,” says Samantha Haase, a member of the Nodaway Valley High School choir, after the concert. “Making music with Simon and kids from another continent in Greenfield, Iowa, was something I’ll never forget. The power that filled that practice room alone was awesome.”
Simon Estes High School Choir students performing at Nodaway Valley High School in Greenfield, Iowa and at the Jefferson-Scranton Middle School in Jefferson, Iowa. Courtesy Nodaway Valley Schools.
Time to Soar
Now a freshman at Iowa State University, Haase is a Simon Estes scholar, the recipient of a $2,000 Roots & Wings scholarship.
The political science major is on her way to a law degree, but thanks to an early indoctrination into the arts — and experiences like the Roots & Wings concert — art will always be a part of her life. “Once you start, you can never stop,” she says of making music. “It’s in you. It’s a part of you.”
Estes has felt that way his entire life. Throughout the trials of his youth and early career, one thread remained constant. “I just wanted to sing.”
Estes also wants to give budding artists a start. Many concerts in his Roots & Wings tour include a featured artist, a young Iowan at the beginning of his or her career.
“We’ve had singers, violists, and oboists,” says Estes, “[The concert] gives them a chance to perform under professional conditions.”
Jodi Goble is Estes’ accompanist for the Iowa tour. She became acquainted with Estes at Boston University and has seen firsthand his interest in developing young artists.
“He’s trying to create opportunities that are mutually beneficial to the artist and the community,” she explains. “This kind of exposure gives them the chance to make a little money, to transition from student to artist.”
In an industry where even gaining an audition without established management can be difficult, Estes is hoping to fill that need by creating an artist management company for the most promising performers. He understands the value of early career intervention.
It was a University of Iowa professor who first recognized his talent in the late 1950s. Even though Estes had been denied membership in the choir due to race, had been told by the head of the music department he had no talent, and had been reminded that his major was pre-med, not music, Charles Kellis gave the promising young Iowan private lessons and coached his admittance to The Juilliard School of Music.
Goble knows from personal experience what that kind of mentorship can do, on and off stage. “As an artist, having that kind of collaboration and proximity to someone like Simon Estes is invaluable — and incredibly rewarding.”
Estes has come a long way from his childhood days gathered around the upright piano in his parents’ living room in Centerville — sister Patty expertly working the keys, his mother and other sisters joined in harmony on familiar hymns.
The grandson of a slave and son of a hotel porter has, self-admittedly, been blessed. “I had the greatest mentors in the world — my parents,” says Estes. “They nurtured me in body, mind, and spirit. And I was blessed by God to have music in me. You can’t touch it. It goes to the heart. It knows no color.”
Estes is determined to share his music with his native Iowa, one county at a time.
Find a list of concert dates and learn more about the Simon Estes Iowa Educational Foundation online
Boosting Careers and Communities
In every county along the Roots & Wings tour route, there is a civic group or project that organizes, promotes, and reaps the benefits of having an internationally known performer like Estes come to town.
Proceeds from the show in Adair County go toward Greenfield’s Warren Cultural Center, a nearly $6 million project that is rehabilitating the Warren Opera House and adjoining properties into a regional center for culture and commerce.
Countless volunteers spent countless hours over several months planning the event and soliciting local business sponsorships.
There were meals to plan, host families for the visiting choir to arrange, publicity to dispense, tickets to sell.
“There’s no doubt that this was a great event for our community and certainly well worth the time and efforts all of our wonderful volunteers put in,” says Phil Cannon, part of the organizing committee that helped bring Estes to Greenfield.
In some towns more than $50,000 has been raised for community projects, an important part of the plan, which Estes appreciates. “I’m glad we can help with that.”