When — for whatever reason — the United States Marine Corps Band said, “No” to an invitation to perform at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the Blawenburg Band said, “Yes!” According to Jerry Rife, the longtime conductor and musical director of the Blawenburg Band, when the venue’s representatives reached out to him, he said, “Sure, we’ve got your back.”
“We have lots of things going on this summer, but we have a performance at Longwood Gardens on (Friday) June 27, probably our most auspicious concert of the season,” Rife says. “Longwood Gardens doesn’t invite community bands anymore — they have the Philadelphia Orchestra playing there for example. They’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of their Open Air Theater, which had John Philip Sousa and his band performing at its first concert. We happen to be playing Sousa concerts — historical Sousa concerts — so it worked out perfectly.”
The Blawenburg Band can top Longwood Gardens Open Air Theater for longevity, as the community band will be marking its 125th anniversary in 2015 — the big birthday concert is May 17, 2015 — and Rife will be celebrating 30 years on the podium. Staying alive and well and creative, the Blawenburg Band is carrying on an all-American tradition of community bands, many of which have ceased to exist.
While it seems that many people today are jaded and/or plugged in and zoned out in front of their electronic devices, Rife says something as old-fashioned as a band still draws a dedicated audience — at least the Blawenburg Band does.
“We see all ages at our concerts, and everybody is excited because band music is a universal kind of music,” Rife says. “We have little kids, teens tapping their toes, their parents, and their grandparents, all clapping along. The oldest ones might be remembering the tradition of the band and the culture of Americana. At one time every town seemed to have a gazebo and a band to play there.”
Noting that there were some 10,000 bands across the United States, Rife says, “The Blawenburg Band is one of the last remaining of its kind, part of America’s roots. A band performance is an avenue back to the feeling of Americana, and that’s why we love doing this. Our musicians are talented and giving, and they love bringing this music and tradition to the listener. There’s always a first time to hear ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ you know.”
When Rife speaks of what might be Sousa’s most famous composition, he notes that this piece requires a superior piccolo player because that solo is the centerpiece, maybe the climax of the march. No problem there.
“I’m married to the piccolo player,” Rife says, referring to his wife Leslie, a talented flutist and pianist.
Even if the band weren’t marking its almost-125th year, Rife would have a full schedule of free community concerts for the summer. The band performs at the Hopewell Gazebo/Train Station Summer Series in Hopewell, Mondays, June 16, July 7, and July 21; at Nassau Park Pavilion in West Windsor, Saturday, June 28; at the Princeton Shopping Center, Tuesday, July 1; at the Community Center in Yardley, Pennsylvania, Friday, July 4; at the Hunterdon County Library in Flemington, Wednesday, July 30; at the venerable Harvest Home festivities at the Griggstown Reformed Church, Saturday, August 16; and at the ice cream social at Ewing Presbyterian Church on Sunday, August 24.
The Harvest Home concert is a special one for Rife and the Blawenburg Band, as they have been performing at the venue for some 80 years.
“I have a poster that advertises ‘The Blawenburg Band at the Harvest Home Festival’ from August 27, 1926,” Rife says. “We think of ourselves as a service band for our community. The gazebos and ice cream socials and train station concerts are our most important jobs, along with our concerts at retirement communities and nursing homes. The band takes those very seriously and has for 125 years.”
As mentioned before, the Blawenburg Band is esteemed for its renditions of Sousa favorites, as well as lesser-known compositions by the American composer.
“We’re becoming known as golden age re-creators of the Sousa style,” Rife says. “His music had died out, for one reason, because Sousa was so secretive; he didn’t like his band’s performances to be on the radio” where an astute listener might transcribe the nuances of Sousa’s music.
“Sousa wrote his marches and music (in one way), and would perform them differently than they are on the page,” Rife says. “So we’re bringing a lot of this lost music back to life and playing it in Sousa’s style.”
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was, at his time, the most famous American in the world, even more so than our presidents, Rife says.
“Sousa did enormous tours through Europe, with 70-piece bands, and people went crazy for him,” he says. “Sousa did it — strengthened his band’s popularity — the only way he could, at a time before phonograph records. He and the band got on trains and toured and toured. His band was the highest-paid musical organization in the United States; Sousa was the highest-paid conductor, even more than classical conductors; and he had the best-paid musicians, who would often play three or four concerts a day.”
Rife was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and his family moved to the Scotch Plains/Watchung Hills area of New Jersey when his father took a position with Black Flag, maker of insecticides and insect removal products.
“He was an entomologist and formulated those kinds of products, including the Roach Motel,” Rife says. “That was my dad’s invention, and it’s basically a box with molasses in the middle. Roaches crawl in and get stuck. It’s non-poisonous, and I was so proud of him for that.”
His mother was the more musical of Rife’s parents and had been a singer in the “funeral circuit” in rural Kansas.
“She would sing ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Abide with Me,’ and her mother would play the organ, her father, the cornet,” Rife says. “My mom wanted all three of us siblings to play, and we were allowed to pick our instruments. I wanted to play cornet, because I had my grandfather’s instrument, but I had braces, so the teacher gave me a clarinet instead.”
Rife took to the clarinet with enthusiasm, playing in a variety of school and jazz bands. After learning to improvise, he and some friends formed a Dixieland-style band that performed on the old “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” television program. Before he took over conducting duties, Rife played clarinet in the Blawenburg Band.
When Rife is not leading the Blawenburg Band, he is a professor of music at Rider University in Lawrenceville, where he teaches music history courses and is the director of bands. He has chaired the music area in the fine arts department since 1984 and is currently the chairman of the fine arts department. Rife has also taught graduate-level musicology courses at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
He has an undergraduate degree in music education and a master’s in music in clarinet performance from Kansas State University as well as a doctorate in musicology from Michigan State University, where he was an assistant professor. Rife privately studied clarinet with Clark Brodie of the Chicago Symphony and George Silfies of the St. Louis Symphony, among others.
Under Rife’s guidance, the Blawenburg Band has grown from a small-town ensemble to a 70-member musical organization that performs more than 30 concerts each year. The band now enjoys a position of prominence in New Jersey, with concert performances at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus, the 1992 Sousa Centennial Ceremony in Plainfield, as well as at the White House in Washington, D.C.
Along with longtime Blawenburg Band member and documentary filmmaker Tom Spain, Rife helped produce “If You Knew Sousa,” a 90-minute film funded by WGBH public television station in Boston and aired as part of “The American Experience” series in the early 1990s.
Rife is not all Sousa or Blawenburg. He has also been involved in the John Johnson Trio, Blue Skies jazz quartet, and his traditional jazz band, the Rhythm Kings, which has performed regularly for 25 years. A Ewing resident, Rife has a daughter, Whitney, also a talented musician.
The Blawenburg Band is not only an outlet for musicians and music educators. Its members are also research scientists, computer specialists, lawyers, homemakers, and active retirees, with musicians ranging in age from teens to 90-somethings. Though the large band has a healthy distribution of instrumentation, Rife says it is always open to new players through an audition process. Percussionists and trombone players seem to be needed the most, currently.
Though the band is welcoming and non-judgmental, it is not for slackers, as the Blawenburg Band rehearses weekly for two hours. “It’s a commitment, but I make it fun; I make it so you can’t wait to get there and play,” Rife says. “That’s my job.”
“We love to have people who want to play and give their time. It’s a real family,” he says. “If you’re interested, just contact me. For a musician, if you’re not making music physically, you’re losing out on something, losing that vibration. I tell this to my students: you owe it to yourself to continue with music all your life.”
Blawenburg Band, Hopewell Train Station, Broad Street, Hopewell. Monday, June 16, 7:30 p.m. Free. community-music.info/blawenburg/Concerts.html, 609-882-4148, or 609-475-2831.