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This article by Michael Schumacher was prepared for the July 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Stars & Stripes & the Blawenburg Band Forever
What would make a teacher, a chemist, a filmmaker,
a physical therapist, a lawyer, an FBI agent, a molecular biologist,
a minister, and a statistician and about 60 other men and women ranging
in age from teenagers to nonagenarians come together each week?
The answer is a universal one — music. They are all members of
the Blawenburg Band, the oldest community band in central and southern
New Jersey. And each Monday evening year-round they can be found faithfully
rehearsing at Princeton Junior School. They give over 30 performances
each year, both public and private, in community centers, town squares
and gazebos, school auditoriums, nursing homes and retirement villages.
On Friday, July 4, at 4 p.m., the 65-member group will hold its fith
annual patriotic concert at Yardley Community Center.
There, under the baton of Jerry Rife, chair of music at Rider University,
the band will perform patriotic and classical pieces, both familiar
and new. "We will play what Sousa would have played," says
Rife, referring to the famous late 19th and early 20th century bandleader
and composer. Also known as "The March King," John Philip
Sousa is probably best remembered for "Stars and Stripes Forever,"
a tune that will be heard at public gatherings all across this nation
on this day. "Sousa knew what people wanted and he rewarded them
with it," says Rife.
Following the national anthem, the band will start off the Independence
Day program with "Orpheus in the Underworld" by the French
composer Jacques Offenbach. "Then, while people are applauding,"
says Rife, "we will go right into an encore, a march, `The High
School Cadets,’ just like Sousa would have done."
The remainder of the program will consist of many more marches and
waltzes, including selections from Sousa’s 1895 operetta "El Capitan,"
as well as a solo piece preformed by clarinetist Tom Boyd. "Sousa
always featured a soloist in his performances," adds Rife.
There is a special connection between the Blawenburg Band and the
Yardley Community Center where they will perform. Both were created
the same year, 1890. "It is concerts such as this one," says
Rife, "that have supported the effort to restore the old building
and resurrect its usefulness. I like to see old things come to life
again." The self-professed historian of music could just as easily
have been speaking about obscure pieces of music he discovered in
his on-going desire to make them known again.
Like hundreds of other bands across the country, the Blawenburg Band
was founded during the Golden Era of concert bands in America. It
was a time when live music was considered a necessity for communities,
and when towns depended upon their own residents to provide it. Bands
such as this were part of a tradition brought to this country by immigrants
familiar with military bands in the Old World.
One of the most compelling characteristics of the Blawenburg Band
is the range in ages of its members, as well as their tenure with
the group. Norm Bergstom of West Windsor joined in 1962 and at age
57, he has no plans for giving up his seat in the trumpet section
any time soon. "It’s lots of fun," says Bergstom, "and
we bring some measure of entertainment to those who need it most,"
referring to the many concerts the group holds each year in retirement
homes and senior citizen centers. "When I started, we had twelve
or fifteen members."
The record for the longest membership with the band is currently held
by the late J. Percy Van Zandt, who performed between 1919 and the
late 1970s. By day, he sold tractors and other types of farm equipment
for International Harvester, during a period when farming was New
Jersey’s primary economy. According to trumpet player Dave Hackler,
who also serves as the official historian, Van Zandt "used to
trade tractors for horses, and after a while he wound up with a large
herd." Hackler has been with the band a mere 19 years.
In the category of age, the oldest current member is Woody White,
now in his 90s, a former member of the Firemen’s Band in New York
City. "He’s a real delight to be with," notes Hackler, "and
an inspiration to play music with." White shares his time with
another group, the Crescent Temple Band, during the summer months.
A "snowbird," he spends winters in Florida, where he participates
in three other bands.
One of the youngest members is Mercerville resident
Rob Jellineck, who just graduated from Princeton Day School. During
the band’s anniversary concert in May, Jellineck was presented with
an educational scholarship from the band. He will be attending Harvard
University. "Rob is a very talented guy who has given a lot of
time to the band," says Rife. "I like to think that we had
some part in shaping who he has become. I have no doubt that music
will be an avocation for him all his life."
It is only the second time a scholarship was awarded by the band,
and there is no guarantee of it continuing on a regular basis, due
to the band’s unpredictable revenue stream. That’s because there is
never an admission charge for any Blawenburg Band performance. It
relies solely upon contributions and the sale of CDs of their annual
The number of family members that perform together is also impressive.
There’s husband and wife David and Bonnie Waltz, father and daughter
Herb and Kate Forster, father and son Bob and Rob Scholink, and father
and son Jim and Steve Gillberg. Even Rife’s wife Leslie and daughter
Whitney are regular players. "It’s a great joy to have the family
together," says Rife.
Another husband and wife team, Raymond and Carolyn Auerbach of Kingston,
met through the band a dozen years ago and will celebrate their 10th
wedding anniversary in October. Both have been making music all their
lives, especially Raymond who used to have his own much smaller band
that played at weddings and other weekend functions. He proudly recalls
that while in his junior high school band, he played at the 1939 New
York World’s Fair.
One band member easily spotted on every occasion is award-winning
documentary filmmaker and Rocky Hill resident Tom Spain. That’s because
he plays tuba, and has been doing so for nearly 18 years. "He’s
the heartbeat of the band," says Rife. "He knows the style
of the Sousa band, and he has the ability to know just the right duration
of notes as in the Sousa band." Otherwise, contends Rife, the
notes played on the tuba would sound muddy. "It’s important to
know how something will sound to the ears of those seated eight or
even 30 feet away. Tom knows how to do this."
Spain too is quite familiar with Sousa and his band,
having made the 1992 documentary film "If You Knew Sousa."
Unfortunately, due to copyright licensing issues (the music rights
have expired and not yet been renewed) the film is no longer aired.
Currently, Spain is on a tight deadline editing a film for the Franklin
Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York. But that won’t prevent him
from attending the upcoming Yardley concert.
Although the Sousa Band’s first concert was performed in Plainfield,
New Jersey, in 1892, and though it traveled extensively in the area
for decades, there are no records to prove there was any interaction
between it and the Blawenburg Band. Yet Sousa continues to make
a deep impression upon the group’s every performance.
In 1932, when the Blawenburg Band was a mere 42 years old, Sousa attended
his last rehearsal with the Ringgold Band in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The last piece he conducted that night was his own work "Stars
and Stripes Forever." This is also the final number the Blawenburg
Band plays each time it performs. And you can bet that the concert
in Yardley will be no different. It will be a concert in true Sousa
fashion, especially in the tuba section.
"As our nation celebrates another Independence Day," notes
Rife, "we can be proud that the rich and noble tradition of the
community band continues." Nowhere is this tradition more visible
than in our very own corner of the state.
— Michael Schumacher
Main Street, Yardley, 215-493-5014. Tickets at the door but the event
usually sells out ahead of time. $15. Friday, July 4, 4 p.m.
Park, Main Street, 609-219-9300. Free. Bring a lawn chair or blanket.
In case of rain, the show will be moved to the Kirby Arts Center of
Lawrenceville School. Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m.
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