The July 4 holiday elicits memories of fireworks, family BBQs, and brass bands playing patriotic songs. These brass bands date back to before the Civil War and have evolved over the past 150 years. Independence Day celebrations today feature a variety of musical styles, but it is the marching bands, with drum corps and vibrant horn sections, that many associate with the holiday.
Brass bands began in England during the 1850s. The first professional bands comprised members of the military, and, eventually, companies formed amateur bands to boost morale of their employees. These amateur bands became equal in proficiency to the professional military bands, and businesses set up competitions between their groups. The competitions were highly attended by enthusiastic fans who sometimes even violently supported their favorite band.
Prior to the Civil War, brass bands started performing in the US, but it was during the war that each military unit began having its own band for ceremonies and to lead them into battle. When the war ended, ceremony and patriotism were important aspects of American culture. The military armories retained and expanded their brass bands to perform at public events in parks, in addition to military functions. The most popular Buffalo area brass bands were the 65th Armory Band and the 74th Armory Band.
Originally, these bands included only brass instruments and percussion, called British-style brass bands. In Europe, especially France, the bands started to include woodwind, like the saxophone and clarinet. It was this type of instrumentation that became popular in the US, where the leader of the eminent band was John Philip Sousa.
Sousa began his musical career at age thirteen as an apprentice in the Marine Corps Band. He became the conductor of the US Marine Band, also known as “The President’s Own” band, and served five presidents. After leaving the military, he formed a civilian band to perform the 137 patriotic marches he composed, along with his 322 arrangements of European symphonic works. It was John Philip Sousa’s civilian band that performed in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and Sousa established the transition from military to professional civilian touring bands.
In the tradition of a Sousa-style band, WWI veterans and Post 264 members formed the award winning American Legion Band of the Tonawandas in 1929. It has been the New York State American Legion Senior Band champion almost continually since 1947, won the American Legion Concert Band Championships twenty times, and received the Canadian National Exhibition International Band Championship on six occasions. The band comprises members from diverse civilian occupations, and includes many instrumental music educators and graduates or students from university music programs. The Legion Band has performed at Carnegie Hall and portrayed the John Philip Sousa Band in a PBS television special. At every concert, the band plays Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the official National March of the United States of America, as their final song.
During the 1960s drum and bugle corps, sponsored by legion or veterans posts and fire companies, were very popular. These organizations evolved from military drum and bugle corps and are considered part of Americana. Along with high school bands, they performed at the many parades with a large contingent of marching bands. These groups performed locally or regionally, but the American Legion and VFW sponsored National Championships. When Drum Corps International was formed to coordinate regional and national events, touring drum corps were created to compete in events. These are specialized, professional organizations that often rehearse ten hours a day. College bands at football games strive to emulate the marching and dancing of the touring drum corps.
Buffalo hosted the Drum Corps World Championships and to influence the possibility of hosting another championship, a Regional Drum Corp event was held at the Bison’s Baseball Stadium in 1997. That has evolved into Drums Along the Waterfront, which is a tour of champions and is held at New Era Field. This summer, ten touring drum corps perform at the event on Sunday, August 5.
Enjoy the Independence Day Eve BPO performance, complete with fireworks, at the Bison’s Baseball game on July 3, or watch school bands playing patriotic Sousa Marches at town parades. But, if you want to experience an authentic British-style brass band, see the Buffalo Silver Band, which was formed in 1915. It will perform at Lincoln Park in Tonawanda on July 12 and Central Park United Methodist Church in Buffalo on July 24.