In 100th year, Aberdeen's municipal band is timeless

In this July 18 photo, Jerry Letcher, at the microphone, talks to the audience between songs as the Aberdeen Municipal Band played at in Melgaard Park in Aberdeen. (John Davis/Aberdeen American News via AP)

ABERDEEN (AP) – Musicians' salaries and daily gigs are of a bygone era, but timeless are the music and friendships that have fueled the Aberdeen Municipal Band through its centennial season.

"Because we've had support from the community, the city council and the Parks and Recreation Department. It's a good, fun, entertaining way to listen to good music in a park setting," director Jerome Letcher told the Aberdeen American News. "I hope it never goes out of style."

Howard C. Bronson formed the band in 1919 with its first concert on June 1 of that year. "Out-of-town musicians" arrived by the 3 p.m. showtime at Aldrich Park on North Main Street, and 25 performed in total. Bronson had been a lieutenant and bandmaster with the first field artillery band for U.S. Army. His experience dotted the setlist with marches, one with Masonic origins. The performance finished with the then-105-year-old "Star Spangled Banner," according to a story that ran May 31, 1919, in the Aberdeen Daily News.

A century and two all-but-forgotten bandshells later, about 42 volunteer performers don black and white and raise instruments to the ready Thursday evenings at Melgaard Park through the summer season. It's a tight group and, although volunteer, it can be a tough one to break into.

"Every summer we just kind of look at each other. 'You going to be back next year?'" said Sue Gates, mimicking the annual conversation she'll have with one of her fellow flute players.

There are five flutists, and Gates and two others have "been there forever," she said.

"The gal on the other side is turning 50. I remember celebrating her 21st birthday," she said.

Gates said long-time members have seen each other get married, have babies and have watched those children get married.

"You only see them through the organization, but that connection is important almost as much as the music is. So there's a core group that's been around," Gates said.

"Turnover rate is pretty small. We try to keep a balance. Saxophones, there are two alto, one tenor, one bari(tone)," Letcher said. "We haven't changed tenor since I've been here, the others once or twice."

Letcher tries to keep the band balanced in selecting brass, woodwind and percussion players. Usually a potential member will spend a season as a fill-in or substitute in a section before becoming an official member. Letcher has been around for about 25 years, conducting the band, arranging music choices and handling special events like the Fourth of July concert at Wylie Park.

Gates was the first female member of the band.

"Our high school band director, Orville Evenson, was director of the (municipal) band. He'd asked several other students to play," she said.

The fact she was a teenage girl attending Central High School didn't seem to matter. Evenson just wanted good musicians. Gates estimated it was around the summer of 1968 or 1969.

She's gone on to play off and on for 50 years.

"I played through college, then got married, moved away, I commuted for a little while but it got to be too much. Then I came back in 1988 and said if you've got an opening I'm available. It's been a while. I'm not the longest running one in there," she said.

Esther Thistle, a trombonist, just hung up her instrument last year after 45 years with the band and was featured in a 2018 American News story. The longevity of the players gives the band continuity, consistency and flexibility, making Letcher's job that much easier, he said.

Aberdeen might be a misnomer in the band's name. Dedicated out-of-town members still contribute to its sound. Those players coming from places like Redfield or Langford don't always have the easiest commute to the weekly rehearsal- performance sessions.

"It's 120 miles," said Julie Borr, a clarinetist.

"One way," she clarifies of her trip from Pollock.

Borr's been with the band since 1986 except for one year when she was pregnant and doctor visits sent her to Bismarck, N.D. During her tenure and the related driving, she's seen some horrendous storms with blinding lighting and near blackout rain. She's come across deer and, one time, horses, which was a first to her. But she's never hit anything, at least not on her band trips.

"I usually come in and get some shopping done. Usually there's a group of us college friends. We get together for supper before rehearsal. Now with the earlier concert times I get home about midnight," she said. "It keeps me performing. I love playing. It keeps me involved with other teachers and other musicians in the area. I enjoy the friendships I've made being part of this organization. Obviously I wouldn't be driving it if it wasn't really worth it."

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