Great American Rocky Mountain Brass Band Festival

Musicians in the 37th Annual Great American Rocky Mountain

Brass Band Festival, which took place last year. (Courtesy photo)

“Walk into just about any mining museum in the American West, and you’ll be welcomed by a photo of the community band,” tubist Gary Miller said.

The grassroots musical groups were a vital part of life in the San Juans, and serve as a reminder of the way it was during earlier, hard rock mining days.

Miller fondly recalled the historical, cultural and community importance that such musical organizations provided then and now.

“Back in the mid-19th century, community bands became popular because they were seen to provide music for the ‘common people,’ outside of what was considered to be more highbrow symphony music,” he explained. “But anyone who played a musical instrument at any level was welcome to join a community band.”

Indeed, inclusion is at the heart of these organizations. “They rehearsed during the week, with the more seasoned players mentoring the beginners, and they all played a Sunday concert, typically in the town park, weather permitting,” he said. “Everyone came to listen and enjoy. It was the entertainment and social event of the week.”

The concert not only brought together musicians. It also united townsfolk and cultivated a rich sense of place and belonging.

It’s unfair to pigeonhole Miller as simply “a tuba player” in light of his musical knowledge, longevity and harmonious influence on the Western Slope. He’s a founding member of both the Montrose Community and the Silverton brass bands, and the Great American Rocky Mountain Brass Band Festival. He’s been the principal tubist of the Valley Symphony Association Orchestra for over a quarter-century, has played with the Grand Junction Centennial Band over the years and has taken part in the majority of the Lake City Stinger Community Band Concert Weekends.

In fact, Miller loves playing in community bands so much that he spends his vacations, grandkids in tow, zigzagging across the country, performing in community bands along the route. He recently returned from a stint with the Garden City, Kansas, Municipal Band; at 141 years old, it’s one of the longest running such groups in the U.S.

Miller’s zeal is an embodiment of the musical spirit you’ll find each summer in Silverton and Lake City. Both towns offer stellar community band events that annually lure musicians from across the country to stay and play in the San Juans.

This year, the Lake City Stinger Community Band will welcome visiting musicians for a “Concert Weekend” from Aug. 16-18. Participating instrumentalists travel to Lake City from all over the state; others are from neighboring New Mexico and a few come from as far away as Ohio.

Some, like Miller, travel throughout the country in order to participate in such groups.

Originally founded during mining’s “boom” times, the Lake City Community Band, and similar surrounding mining camps’ bands, waxed and waned along with the mining industry itself into the early 1920s. The group was re-established as the Lake City Stinger Community Band in the 1990s under the direction of Durell Thompson, a former school administrator and high school band director from Nebraska who retired to Lake City.

After attending a performance by the Silverton Brass Band — Silverton’s community band — Thompson was inspired to re-form the Lake City Community Band. “He said, ‘If Silverton can do it, Lake City can do it!’” Miller recalled with a chuckle. Thompson called on seven retired former bandleaders, and several dozen full-time and seasonal Lake City denizens. Altogether, they added up to 50 musicians.

The Stinger Band, and various offshoots like the Lake City Jazz Band, for years maintained a busy schedule of civic, patriotic and other performances. But by the mid-2000s, its numbers and activity had peaked. With an aging membership, participation began to diminish and reached a low of about a dozen players. In 2010, the band adopted a new plan, relying on local musicians for most events and inviting guest players to help solidify and expand instrumentation for the August Concert Weekend.

The brainchild of Mike Pearce, Concert Weekend’s creative force and musical director, the event has become an important economic driver for the community.

Pearce, a former K-12 music teacher from the Front Range and longtime seasonal Lake City resident, said, “The sole mission of Concert Weekend is to have fun while making music with other like-minded individuals.”

The goal may be to enjoy themselves, but this is no fly-by-night operation: Participating musicians “love playing their instruments, are well trained, experienced performers, and are willing to devote themselves to practicing and preparing their individual parts in advance,” Pearce said.

They may not all be professional musicians, but they all behave professionally — they’ll rehearse just four times between Friday evening and Sunday morning before presenting a single concert Sunday afternoon. The repertoire “is robust, diverse and complex in its presentation,” enjoyable to perform, and entertaining to listen to, Pearce said.

A contemporary American concert band’s “performance literature” is comprised of at least 25 individual wind and percussion parts.

“There are so many genres that make up the literature,” Pearce explained. “Together, they’re at the heart of what informs the cultural context of American concert band music.”

The performers — community players who may have never even have set eyes on each other before this weekend — are nevertheless able to accurately execute musical styles from swing, ragtime, ballads, marches, dance and folk songs to Broadway show tunes and the cornerstone of concert band literature: religious works.

“The tonal colors and technical potential of a concert band is quite extensive and rich,” Pearce said. “There is so much excellent music available to capitalize on this group’s talent level; our program is significant, good, artistically strong music. We don’t do filler or fluff.”

This year, the Lake City Arts organization seamlessly brought the Concert Weekend under its organizational umbrella because it aligns so well with the group’s extensive — and impressive — portfolio of events.

“It’s a great opportunity to build on the hard work over the years of the Stinger Band and help ensure the event’s future,” President Bob Johns said. “It’s a perfect fit, and we’re happy to include it as part of our offerings.”

He added that taking over sponsorship of the event “also serves to broaden our mission to provide year-round performance, studio, and educational arts experiences for all ages as an integral part of our community life here in the San Juan Mountains.”

RETURNING TO PERFORMING

Though they may have been accomplished musicians in high school and college, many adult players put down their instruments.

“For wind players and percussionists, it’s a communal thing,” Pearce explained. “You need a group to play in and to and socialize with. That’s a big part of the joy of it.”

Community bands, jazz ensembles, orchestras, and the like — as well as events like Concert Weekend — offer a perfect opportunity to dust off the instrument case. As part of such a group, adults can once again begin practicing with a purpose, and experience again the joy of ensemble performance in a fun, supportive and friendly environment.

Some participants lovingly — and a little wistfully — liken the three-day sojourn to “adult band camp,” and gladly shoulder the cost of food and lodging for their weekend stay.

“Playing at something like Concert Weekend is fun and regenerative for musicians, even for those who regularly participate in different groups, because it mixes it up,” Pearce said. Most musicians hear about it “organically, through a friend, or by some other word-of-mouth invitation or recommendation.”

With increasing numbers and quality of musicians comes the potential for programming repertoire even more diverse, entertaining and challenging.

“Concert Weekend is a cultural offering to the community and the musicians,” Pearce said. “It benefits both groups, and we’re happy to see it grow and flourish.”

The 2018 event brought 55 local, out-of-town and out-of-state amateur and professional instrumentalists to Lake City for the musical reunion.

This year, over 60 musicians will take part, which has necessitated moving rehearsals to the largest building in town — the Armory, the only place able to accommodate a group of this size. Many participants also volunteer their time and talents throughout the year in other Western Slope performing arts ensembles, including the Valley Symphony Association Orchestra, Montrose Community Band, Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, Grand Junction Centennial Band, Silverton Brass Band and more. Other performers are current or retired professional musicians and music directors. Among them is Dr. Steven Siegel, who joined the faculty at Western Colorado University in Gunnison in 2017 as the school’s professor of bands and brass. About a month before assuming that role, he joined in the fun at Lake City for the first time and will this year present a solo piece on cornet.

“As an educator and performer, experiencing this excitement provides me a great deal of joy,” he said, “and is the reason I made this my career.”

GET-TOGETHER IN SILVERTON

In addition to the event in Lake City, the 38th Annual Great Western Rocky Mountain Brass Band Festival in Silverton attracts 45 musicians from throughout the country. This year the festival will be held Aug. 9-11. Founded in 1981 by members of the Silverton Brass Band, the event features the musical traditions of turn-of-the-century brass bands, also known as the “golden age of bands,” and showcases the all-American, instantly recognizable music of John Phillip Souza, Karl King and their contemporaries. Directed by Paul Maybery, a music historian from St. Paul, Minnesota, whose expertise includes the history of brass bands, the event’s programming reflects the way Souza designed his concerts: it flows with changes and shifts in repertoire, including overtures, solos, softer numbers and (of course) marches.

But it’s not all marches. Miller emphasized that the concert repertoire is quite diverse, in order “to keep people and their ears interested for the entire performance.”

Like Siegel who plays in Lake City, many instrumentalists who make the trek to Silverton are professional musicians, department heads of major universities and academicians. “We have a lot of doctors of performance in our Silverton group,” Miller said.

For many, the festival is “adult band camp” wrapped around summer vacation in the Rockies. This year’s roster includes artists from Maine, Tennessee, Arizona, Minneapolis, Kansas, Utah, Ohio and California, “mixed with a healthy dose of excellent regional and visiting amateur brass players, too.”

“People are truly blown away by the quality of music performed,” Miller said. He and his fellow Silverton Brass Band members organize and offer the festival to regional community as a labor of love. “We encourage people to attend this culturally special and unique event,” he said. The fest offers four free performances between Friday evening and noon on Sunday. Alluding to the ties between the organizations that, like their mining history, runs deep between the two towns, Miller explained that the Lake City Concert takes place the weekend immediately following the Silverton festival. The timing is deliberate. “Stacking the events makes it easy to tempt these incredible brass musicians to stay on for another week and come up to stay and play in Lake City,” he said.

Like those whose families join in the journey from across the country to play-and-stay in Silverton, many Concert Weekend musicians’ friends and families come along to make it a long-weekend getaway to Lake City.

In addition to the events’ cultural, entertainment and economic benefits, the effect that the two weekends can have on musicians can be immeasurable.

When Lake City Stinger Band President and resident Jim Rowe first participated in 2015, he had never visited the area. It changed the trajectory of his life.

“Lake City was love at first sight for my wife Pam and me,” Rowe said.

The following year, they became full-time residents.

For Pearce, “The value of this weekend is that it’s illustrative of a surprisingly rich cultural and musical environment that exists on the Western Slope. I’m glad to have a small amount of participation in that.”

Johns mused, “Concert Weekend can provide a Renaissance moment for an adult who wants to get back to a craft beloved as a young person.”

Rowe not only agreed — he extended an enthusiastic invitation to all musicians  who might be interested to join in.

“It doesn’t matter if you haven’t played an instrument since high school,” he said. “We want to bring people together who love to make music.”

IF YOU GO

The Great Western Rocky Mountain Brass Band Festival in Silverton takes place Aug. 9-11. Concerts, under the direction of Dr. Paul Maybery, are free of charge but donations are appreciated and take place in the Silverton School Gym, at 1160 Snowden St., on Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 10 at noon and 7 p.m., when the Silverton Town Band will also perform; and Aug. 11 at noon.

The Lake City Stinger Community Band Concert Weekend is Aug. 16-18 for musicians. It culminates with a 3 p.m. concert Aug. 18 in Lake City’s Pitkin Guard Armory Hall at 230 Bluff St. The concert is under the direction of Mr. Mike Pearce. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.

Other regional community concerts include those by the Valley Symphony Association, which is directed by Mr. Michael Kern and has offered high-quality classical music on the Western Slope since 1970. Season 49 kicks off with free outdoor Pops in the Park concerts in Cedaredge Town Park Sept. 7 and in Riverbottom Park in Montrose Sept. 8. For more information, visit ValleySymphony.net for more information.

Montrose has a rich history of municipal bands dating back 100 years, and presents free Montrose Community Band concerts under the direction of Mr. Toby King at the Montrose Pavilion. For more information, visit montroseband.com.

Now in its 41st season, the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Charles Latshaw, offers performances in the city’s historic Avalon Theater, located downtown on Main Street. For more information, visit GJSO.org.

The Grand Junction Centennial Band is a 35-year-old, all-volunteer organization of over 60 men and women from Western Colorado directed by Ms. Elisa Janson Jones and Dr. Jonathan Hinkle. The band’s concert season typically includes three or four free performances at the Avalon. For more information, go to gjcentennialband.org.

Writer Stacey Ryan has been a clarinetist in the Valley Symphony Orchestra since 2010. This will be her third summer performing at the Lake City Stinger Community Band Concert Weekend.