His 12-piece group, the Upper Mississippians, play the best selections from the collection, or at least the best of the stuff Block has sifted through. Block and a Connecticut-based friend, with whom he shares the collection, have entered about half of the music into a database for easy reference.
"It's always a winter project to catalogue the music," said Block, 64, who acquires the music from all over, including about 800 songs at an estate auction a couple years ago in Park Rapids.
His summer (and spring and fall) project is to expose the masses to the often-overlooked style of 1920s orchestra music, characterized by a happy, fun sound and distinguished from the improvisational jazz and blues of its era by a tighter sound. The Upper Mississippians will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Woodtick Theater in Akeley.
The number of working 1920s orchestras in the United States can be counted on both hands, but this is actually the second one Block has formed. The first was the South Avenue Society in Connecticut, where Block lived before moving to rural Park Rapids upon his retirement from a management career in 1996.
The first thing he did upon moving to Minnesota was form a new group. Surprisingly, it wasn't that difficult. Block knew where to look.
"I figured education is strong in Minnesota and there are a lot of high schools with bands," Block said. "So I went to the high schools. The backbone of the band is still high school band directors, either active or retired."
The Upper Mississippians consists of seven men and five women, including Block's wife, Gwen. Among the group are teachers, a doctor, a banker and a few housewives. They range in age from about 30 to 80. Most are from central Minnesota; one drives from Iowa (where he plays in another of the rare 1920s orchestras) to attend practices and shows. This is a type of music that necessitates regular practices.
"You really have to work at this to make it sound good," Block said.
The music the Upper Mississippians play is usually labeled "1920s orchestra music" but the style's heyday was actually 1925-34. That also happened to be the era of prohibition, which leads Block to a theory about why this music was characterized by its crisp sound, with every band member on the same page.
Block's business career once brought him to Saudi Arabia, a dry country in more ways than one, and he remembers the food as being excellent. He suspects '20s orchestras, playing to sober audiences, weren't allowed the freedom to jam too much.
"It better be really good without a glass of wine to take the edge off," Block said, describing both the Saudi cuisine and the music he loves.
Whether they're sipping a beverage or not, audience members have taken to this music. The Upper Mississippians had a semi-weekly gig for seven years at the Chateau Paulette in Dorset before it was damaged by fire last year. When repairs are completed, the Mississippians expect to return.
The Sunday gig in Akeley might allow them to pick up a few new fans. Block's approach to doing that is similar to that of a rock band getting the attention of a bar crowd with cover songs before playing their originals. The Mississippians hook newcomers with classics such as "The Charleston," then reel them in with rare gems such as "A Hotdog, a Blanket and You."
Block enjoys playing the rarities most of all, because they are simultaneously something old and something new.
"The repertoire is 80 years old, but nobody has played it in the last 80 years," Block said. "There's so much good music you've never heard before. It's all fresh and new."
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.