UpClose: American Band History

Mike Lawson • • December 11, 2015

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And the Band Played On! Georgia Museum of Art Introduces American Band History with ExhibitBefore the March King: Nineteenth – Century American Bands

Just the mention of the word “band” and dozens of different images come to mind. Today a small group with not a single wind instrument may be considered a band. But historically there is a fairly definitive form of musical group that is a “band”. At least one major dictionary still defines a band as “a musical group, usually employing brass, percussion, and often woodwind instruments, that plays especially marching or open-air performances”

Many older communities across the country still have open bandstands located near the center of the town. Many of these towns never had a community band, so why did they have a bandstand?

Long before iTunes, MP3, boom boxes, stereo, radio, or even the iconic Victrola, music provided both entertainment and relaxation. Touring bands traveled from town to town performing a mix of stirring marches and sentimental ballads. These were the concert bands, usually brass bands, which climaxed with the famous Sousa band. After 13 years as the director of the U.S. Marine Corps Band Sousa had assembled a traveling band that toured from 1892 until 1925 performing both Sousa compositions as well as other popular tunes of the time.

A current exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, provides a rare opportunity to see and learn about the American band from almost the beginning of the Republic. Presenting just a fragment of a collection assembled by George C Foreman, director of the Georgia Performing Arts Center in Athens, the exhibit presents artifacts from the early 1800s into the early 1900s.

Foreman, who obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education at the University of New Mexico, intended to be a high school band director. During his study, however, he became quite aware of the total lack of any band history in the curriculum. This caused him to pursue a Masters in Musicology (the study of music as an academic subject, distinct from training in performance or composition) with an emphasis on American band history. And the rest is, well, history! Foreman’s master’s study would lead to his interest in actually collecting the historical artifacts of American band music. Today that interest is reflected in his collection of thousands of items, the teaching of a graduate course, which utilizes these artifacts to bring life to that history and now, this museum exhibit.

A little history is in order. Bands are noted in America as early as 1750, primarily in parades, patriotic and other special events. The very first brass instruments were bugles that were not capable of playing all the notes of a scale. Keyed bugles, equipped with keys similar to a saxophone, solved that shortcoming in 1810. With that development, brass bands featuring keyed bugles flourished.

Valves replaced the keys in the 1850’s and cornets became the new voice of these bands. Examples of each of these important developments are seen in the Georgia Museum of Art exhibit.

This exhibit of 51 objects is not just a group of old instruments, but a multi-discipline array of original art, illustrated sheet music, uniforms, early photos, posters, and even tickets, badges, and commemorative tokens from special band events. It is almost essential to include all of these types of objects to understand the instruments, their performers, directors, and their history.

Collecting these objects follows a pattern similar to how an aspiring musician first selected an instrument to play and then learned to perform with it. Advertising by band instrument makers such as C. G. Conn illustrated the instruments and identified famous players and bands of the time using that instrument. Method, or instructional, books explained the fine points of a specific instrument type. Song sheets (aka sheet music), or music books, provide an insight to the popular music and styles of the time. Early recordings provide actual historical performances with these vintage instruments. In similar fashion, player piano rolls would duplicate the rendition from years ago. Vintage printed concert programs, newspaper and magazine articles, broadsides and photographs complete our view into the past. Other collectible specialties, such as autographs, post cards, and other ephemera offer additional insight as well as collecting opportunities.

To amplify the broad influence that these instruments and bands had on our history, Saxton’s Cornet Band from Frankfort, Kentucky, presented a narrated performance of vintage music in the museum auditorium during the exhibit opening. Laced with a touch of period humor, those in attendance of the exhibit opening got a rare treat of what a typical touring brass band concert might possibly have looked and sounded like. All instruments used were authentic examples of those used well over a century ago.

The Saxton’s Cornet Band traces its roots to the early 1860s and was recreated in its present form in 1989. It has performed at the George W. Bush Presidential Inauguration and in two major Turner feature films, Gettysburg and The Day Lincoln Was Shot. The band frequently performs and has toured nationally and internationally.

Ralph Thomas Dudgeon followed the concert with an extensive presentation, about the keyed bugle in Europe and the United States. Dudgeon is also recognized as a noted trumpet soloist and performed the opening number with the Saxton’s Cornet Band at the exhibit concert.

For those who simply would like to hear some of the period brass band music, there are iTunes, MP3s, CDs, and vinyl available from Amazon and other sources. Among these are Saxton’s Cornet Band Civil War period iTunes, the Advocate Brass Band’s CDs including Dallas Morning News, and the New Columbian Brass Band’s CDs including Teddy Bears Picnic.The Humboldt Brass Band from Springfield, Illinois, produced the Vintage 1876 album also available from Amazon.

With a soft background of vintage brass band music, the history of these touring concert bands and their instruments, dating from the early 1800’s unfolds with an exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, GA. This official state museum opened “Before the March King: Nineteenth- Century American Bands” on October 10th for a three month run closing on January 3, 2016.

Exhibit visitors will first see an anonymous folk painting of a musician with a keyed bugle, the predecessor of today’s cornet and trumpet. Close by is an ophicleide, the bass voice of the brass band. Closely resembling the modern woodwind bassoon, it utilizes keys similar to the keyed bugle. Dating from 1819, it is the ancestor of today’s tuba.

Many of the popular early bands were identified with celebrity soloists or bandleaders, sometimes one and the same individual. Broadsides, posters, song sheets, and concert programs featured these in dividuals along with the list of popular songs to be performed. Many of these printed items include images of the instruments of the time as well as being dated. Song sheets (aka sheet music) with ties to bands from the 1800’s also provide illustrations as well as the vintage arrangements. Examples of all of these are part of this exhibit.

For individuals or institutions considering starting a band history collection, Foreman’s twelve-page gallery guide may be one of the most exciting elements of this exhibit. With excellent photography, ample references, and an easy style, it captures the excitement that was the nineteenth century American band. For the neophyte band collector, it is a great introduction and for the seasoned collector, a great summary.

Foreman is still acquiring artifacts for his collection. His comments about the current market for these items were, “the Civil War and other re-enactor bands have made the limited supply of vintage instruments fairly pricey. At the other extreme eBay and other online sources have driven the various paper and ephemera items’ prices to quite modest, almost bargain levels.” Numerous collectible examples of brass band memorabilia, as well as other musical forms, can be found online. Prices of items currently available online range from $5 to $6,000.

Before Foreman’s tenure at the Georgia Performing Arts Center, he was the director of the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he founded and produced the annual Great American Brass Band Festival. This festival (www.gabbf.org) continues, now in its 27th year, with the next event scheduled June 2-5, 2016. The 2015 festival featured fourteen bands of different composition as well as featured soloists.

Another similar event is the Vintage Band Festival (www.vinatgebandfestival.org) in Northfield, Minnesota, scheduled for July 28-31, 2016. Announced plans include 100 bands and 25 concerts across the four days of this event. These will include European and American bands.

The 13th Annual U. S. Open Brass Band Championships (www.usopenbrass.org) just took place in St. Charles, Illinois. Scheduled early each November it is an adjudicated event. Judges this year included Dr. Glen Flanigan, director of bands at Kentucky’s Asbury University, and Adam Frey, adjunct professor of euphonium at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A CD of the US Open Brass band Championships – Best of 2013 is available on their website.

The few other museums that exhibit vintage band instruments include The Band Museum (www.bandmuseum.tripod.com) in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and The Musical Instrument Museum (www.themim.org) in Phoenix, Arizona, which presents a global collection not specifically focused on the American band and its instruments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York devotes five galleries to musical instruments with a worldwide perspective. Among the Met’s exhibited instruments are some unusual American brass instruments of the 1800s.

The “Before the March King: Nineteenth-Century American Bands” exhibit will continue through January 3, 2016. Information is available at www.georgiamuseum.org or (706) 542-4662. Admission is free.

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