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Fargo musician Christopher Hanson died as he lived — helping others

"He was joyful in everything," Christopher Hanson's friend said of the late musician.

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Fargo musician Christopher Hanson plays with his band Helena Handbasket in 2018.
Nate Elverum / Special to The Forum
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FARGO — In his life, Christopher Hanson worked to support and promote those around him. So it was only natural to his family and friends that in his last hours he gave away parts of himself to help others.

After suffering a massive stroke on Wednesday, Nov. 16, from which his doctors said he would not recover, calls went out to find donor matches for Hanson’s vital organs. Before he was taken off life support early Sunday morning, Nov. 20, his heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys were removed to be donated to six different recipients. Hanson died at 1:40 a.m. at age 45.

“It’s so on-brand for Chris to help people in death,” said his longtime friend Ed Schwind. “He was a servant and a facilitator. He was behind the scenes, but he was the reason, he was the glue that held us all together.”

The two met in a high school jazz program as part of the International Music Camp at the Peace Gardens. Hanson was a trombonist from Minot and Schwind a saxophonist from Bismarck. The two bonded over music and though they went back to their respective homes, they crossed paths at statewide competitions and concerts. The following summer Hanson started an all-state jazz group. In the days before social media or cellphones, Hanson wrote letters to musicians around the state to line things up, showing Schwind and others the organizing force he would become. In 1995, the year they graduated from high school, Hanson lined up their first “real gig,” playing the Frisky Goat in Fargo.

They played their last show together Wednesday morning at Start-Up Brew, just hours before Hanson lost consciousness. It was just a few songs and paid just enough for the musicians to go out to lunch. Wednesdays were busy for Hanson as he was preparing to work with youth groups at his church those days, but Schwind was happy to see his old friend join them.

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“It was kind of a nothing gig, but I’m so thankful I had a chance to play music with my best friend one more time. Praise God for that,” Schwind said Sunday afternoon.

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Christopher Hanson (right) plays with longtime friend and rhythm section partner Russ Pfaff on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. Hours later Hanson would suffer a massive stroke. He was removed from life support early on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.
Rick Gion / Special to The Forum

“It’s so hard to summarize a life in a few words. Chris was a servant in every aspect. At church for sure. In his military service. And in his music,” Schwind said.

After high school, Hanson joined the U.S. Army and played in the 323rd Army Band at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, for four years. After active service, he enrolled in the music program at North Dakota State University where he became a fixture. He also joined the North Dakota Army National Guard where he played in the 188th Army Band until retiring in 2017 after 22 years, with the rank of sergeant.

Hanson later served as commander of the American Legion Post 2 and on the military honors funeral team.

When Schwind finished his own service in the Marines in 2001, he enrolled in North Dakota State University and soon got reacquainted with his old friend. They got a house with guitarist Tim Stine and started Patents Pending with drummer Russ Pfaff and others.

The group quickly developed a following based on energetic horn adaptations of popular songs, like a ska version of “Sweet Home Alabama.” That group eventually became Helena Handbasket before disbanding a few years ago.

Hanson picked up the bass guitar to give himself more opportunities to perform and he was also an accomplished pianist and vocalist.

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Bassist Christopher Hanson, seen here in the summer of 2022, died early Sunday morning, Nov. 20, 2022, after a stroke.
W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum

“He could do a gig just singing and playing a piano if he needed to,” Schwind said.

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In fact, just 81 days ago Hanson surprised his bride for their first wedding dance when he took the floor wearing a headset and singing “Crazy Love.” The couple’s wedding served as a reunion for Helena Handbasket, and Schwind, the best man, recalls how Hanson spent a good part of the night playing with the band.

“All he wanted to do was make music with his friends,” he said. “He was always looking for another excuse or place to play, either in the church, in the Guard or in the bars.”

Hanson played in a variety of groups, including the Imperial Big Band of the El Zagal Shrine, the Jazz Nickel Combo, Guys and Dolls, and others.

“I think what is cool about a big band is you can paint a really interesting picture depending on how you tell the story,” Hanson told The Arts Partnership in a 2020 Forum story. “I’ve done the rock band and show band side of things, I had a horn band called Helena Handbasket for about 15 years, then I play in small jazz groups, some traditional and others are a bit more modern. I’ll always take a big band gig.”

Even after Helena Handbasket folded, Hanson remained active, sitting in with other acts as well as promoting his annual JASS Festival, which he started as a send-off for himself before shipping off to boot camp. After 10 years in Minot the annual concert moved to Fargo. He looked at the concert as a good way to promote younger musicians. After 25 years organizing shows, he handed the reins over to Tim Johnson of the FM Kicks Band and the event was renamed the Kicks Band Jazz Festival.

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Christopher Hanson with the 188th Army Band in 2015.
Contributed / 188th Army Band

Hanson played trombone with the Kicks Band since 2009 and was looking forward to playing last Saturday’s concerts of originals and arrangements by local musicians, including Schwind. Instead, at that show, Schwind took the stage to explain Hanson’s absence and that he would be taken off life support later that night.

Hanson took his love of music to church after he started working in the office at Faith United Methodist Church in Fargo. Hanson became the music director and also worked with youth groups.

“If he was doing a thing, there would have to be a musical component,” Schwind said, adding that Hanson started the praise band, The Big House Band.

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As much as Hanson loved his church, Schwind says the space will be too small to hold Hanson’s funeral. Instead the church will host a visitation from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 27. The funeral will be at 6 p.m., Monday, Nov. 28, at NDSU’s Festival Concert Hall.

Now some of those people Hanson helped in his life are paying it back to his widow, Sarah Beck Hanson. Schwind is raising money for her through his Venmo account, sidestepping crowdfunding sites which can take sizable service fees. On Friday Schwind posted a goal of raising $25,000 to help offset funeral and hospital bills. He challenged all musicians who ever got a gig because of Hanson to chip in $100. By noon on Monday the campaign had raised over $25,000 through about 200 donations, half of which were from musicians.

“He was joyful in everything. In spite of the sadness this week we’ve had so much fun having gut-busting laughs remembering some of those tiny stages in those tiny towns we’d play. He was just so full of joy,” Schwind said. “He was a very social creature. Music brings people together and he felt that. The creativity and the high of performing, he loved creating that.”

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