The American Bandmasters Association Celebrates Excellence

Mike Lawson • Choral • May 13, 2017

Legends and excellence met together in Lexington, Kentucky March 7-12 this year.

This was the 83rd Annual Convention of the American Bandmaster’s Association. The ABA, as it is generally known, is the invitation-only recognition group for America’s concert band directing and composing community. Founded in 1929 by Edwin Franco Goldman, it’s stated objectives are recognition of outstanding achievement in the field of concert band and its development, an increasingly higher standard of artistic excellence for the concert band and its performers, conductors and literature as well as a constantly greater contribution through the concert band to the musical life and culture of all peoples.

The objective most demonstrated at this convention was to build helpfulness and fellowship among members.

While many conferences and conventions present numerous workshops, seminars and the like, the ABA Convention serves as perhaps the closing session for these other conferences! Attending are concert band directors, composers and associates (music businesses and individuals provide significant service to bands).

The ABA is more like a close-knit family than a professional organization. The convention spends much of its scheduled time together in professional recognition and reunion rather than discussing techniques and methodology. Perhaps outgoing President Timothy Rhea’s convention welcome letter summed it up best with “gathering in Kentucky for musicianship, fellowship, and the business of our association.” These were clearly the sequence/ order of the priorities at this gathering!

The ABA is 89 years old but did not hold conventions for five years during World War II. The 2017 event is the 83rd Annual Convention.

Recognition at the extremes of age and experience are seen here. Al Wright at 100+ is the living legend of music education and directing accomplishment. Other extremes seen are the wide range of director’s organizations from grade school directors to the Director Emeritus of the “President’s Own,” the United States Marine Band.

Even though simply being invited to be a member of the ABA is an honor, there are honors within the association. Two ABA Honorary Life Presidents were named. Col. John R. Bourgeois, Director Emeritus, United States Marine Band, and Col. Arnald D. Gabriel, Director, United States Air Force Band.

While many such honorary groups may be stodgy and focus on the grand successes of the past the ABA has struck that delicate balance of both honoring the past and its accomplishments and providing leadership and direction to the future of their profession.

ABA President Rhea’s welcoming letter in the association’s convention program offered “Best wishes to everyone as we gather in Kentucky for musicianship, fellowship, and the business of our association.”

The fifteen new 2016 members were presented to the convention group by their sponsors and each had an opportunity to make brief comments. Ten individuals were inducted this year including Scott Boerma, Michael Daugherty, Darrin Davis, Eric Hammer, Bradley Kent, Joseph Parisi, Matthew Temple, Kevin Walczyk, Scotty Walker and Luigi Zaninelli. They will be presented at the 2018 convention.

The ABA also includes forty-eight invited associate members. These are described as firms, organizations and individuals engaged in the music industry or related fields who are supportive of the ABA. Bob Grace, designated an Honorary Life Associate Member, heads up this element of the ABA. Some of these associates have been the subject of feature articles in SBO.

Paul Noble, noted arranger and operator of bandmusicpdf was introduced as a new associate at this convention even though he was elected three years ago. Health problems had not allowed him to be recognized at the time of his election. Bandmusicpdf is a source of online music arrangements for concert band. As a licensed partner of the Oxford University Press many of their offerings are Paul Noble’s arrangements of previously orchestra only compositions.

A brief memorial service remembered thirteen of the association members who had passed away during 2016. These included Ralph L. Mills, Paul E. Bierley, Lt. Col. Gilbert Mitchell, Frank Fendorf, Wilbur “Bodie” Hinton, William A. Gora, Richard S. Lum, Cmndr. Allen E. Beck, Donnald E. McGinnis, Donald A. Stanley, Melvin “Mel” B. Montgomery, Karel Husa, and Weston H. Noble. An in memoriam booklet was distributed with full biographies of each of these. Accomplishments, in addition to band direction, included an Honorary Life President of ABA (McGinnis), the seventh director of the US Navy Band (Beck), noted Sousa biographer and historian (Bierley), music publisher, composer, and choral director. As a testimony to music facilitating a long life, ten of this group were ninety or older at the time of their passing!

While the Lexington Hilton Downtown served as the convention site and host hotel, some convention participants were housed at two interesting properties. The 21c Museum Hotel is in the restored historic Fayette National Bank building that was Lexington’s first skyscraper in 1913 at fifteen stories. This relatively new concept in hotels dedicates an entire floor as an art gallery and decorates every floor and lobby with original contemporary art of all media and forms. The art, room furnishings and décor all reflect modernism. Modernist is enclosed in historical heritage.

The Gratz Park, which celebrated its centennial in 2016, is an Historic Hotel of America (A National Trust for Historic Preservation designation). This entire facility oozes warm maturity and character. Furnishings are antique or antique reproductions. A small library reading room also houses the guest business center, and a complete well equipped fitness center is offered as well. All modernization has been done with the historical character of the place preserved.

This diversity also reflects downtown Lexington itself…a balance avoiding falling off either extreme which finds restored historic buildings standing virtually alongside modern glass towers.

In many ways, this reflects the diversity in the wind symphony scene today. Embracing the newest in compositions while preserving a rich musical past these concerts blended classics and new works. During the three-evening concert events a total of five musical organizations performed a wide range of material. Each number was directed by a different ABA member with most of the organization’s final pieces conducted by that organization’s own director.

The Dobyns-Bennett High School Wind Symphony, conducted by Lafe Cook, performed eight compositions. They were followed by the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony directed by John Cody Birdwell, the convention host. The University of Kentucky performed seven numbers.

The second night’s concerts included the University of Louisville Wind Symphony with eight selections and six from the Ohio State University Wind Symphony. The University of Louisville Wind Symphony program is a prime example of the diversity in terms of vintage, style and arrangement. After opening with the obligatory United States and Canadian national anthems, Steve Bryant’s 2013 Whirlwind followed. Three 1926 George Gershwin preludes reworked in 2015 (by Nicholas Enrico Williams) were followed by Jess Langston Turner’s 2008 Through the Looking Glass directed by  his father, Dan Turner, Director of Bands at Bob Jones University. ABA founder Edwin Franco Goldman’s Fantasia on My Old Kentucky Home was written in 1914 as a tribute to his birthplace, Louisville, Kentucky, with the cornet solo provided by SSGT Lorenzo Trujillo of the US Army Band, “Pershing’s Own”. Walter Piston’s 1950 Tunbridge Fair, and Sousa’s 1928 Golden Jubilee would take the band to their closing number, Reznicek’s 1894 overture to Donna Diana.

The final evening’s concert was devoted totally to the United States Marine Band, “The President’s Own”. Thirteen compositions, after the national anthems, were performed ending with Sousa’s rousing march, The Stars and Stripes Forever. This conclusion was reminiscent of the ending of the popular 1952 Clifton Webb movie about the March King. One of the highlights was Col. John R. Bourgeois, Director Emeritus of the Marine Band, ABA Past President and Honorary Life Member directing Offenbach’s Overture to Voyage to the Moon. Other numbers were directed by outgoing ABA President Tim Rhea, ABA Past President Terry Austin, ABA Past President John Locke, ABA Past President Paula Crider, and Gary Smith, the incoming ABA President.

The music provided for both listening and dancing at the closing banquet was provided by the University of Kentucky Jazz Band. One highlight of this appearance was a somewhat unusual jazz bassoon!

But the convention also inspires for the future. Part of that inspiration is through the experiences of the members of these six performing bands. What did the members of the participating bands think about performing for this convention? Angela Tseng with the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony offered, “performing with a new conductor for every song was a little intimidating, but this concert was definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life!” Will Lovan, trumpet player in the University of Kentucky Jazz Band and the Wind Symphony commented, “Being conducted by many of North America’s finest wind band conductors was truly an experience of a lifetime.”

The University of Kentucky jazz bassoonist, Jonathon Barrett, took it a step further with his comments. “The ABA is a place where time stands still. When the past presidents are announced, and walk in (to the banquet), you can feel the ones before them there in the room with you. I love playing swing gigs, because where I’m sitting, I’m there, playing in the big band era. It’s the same for whatever you play be it big band, wind ensemble, rock…anything. Having the music there in the room brings it to life, and it brings the people playing and everyone listening to life too. That’s why conventions like the ABA are so important. They bring together individuals from all parts of the country and elsewhere and give them an opportunity to get excited about the music and the connections through the music with others that feel the same way. Reinvigorated they return home and keep spreading the joy of music, and of being alive! And it goes on!”

And just as these youths expressed themselves, so does Gary Smith, the new ABA President. “ABA represents a historical and significant contribution to the concert band movement on the world. The impact that its members have had on the band world since its creation cannot be described in words.”

Coming down off that mountain and reflecting on the convention, this annual celebration had served its purpose of both recognizing and inspiring excellence in the world of America’s concert bands, be they school, university (public and private) as well as military. Fond recollections, sincere partings and wishes for safe travel among the attendees ended the gathering. Many commenting about new friendships and points of commonality found.

Next year’s ABA convention is scheduled for March 7-10, 2018 in Ft. Worth, Texas and the 2019 event will be in Denver on March 6-8. The ABA website, provides general information about the association, full convention information and the 2017 annual report.


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