The Best Band in the Land

This past weekend, a group raising money for an aviation history museum held an event at the local airport. The gathering was a very festive 1940s themed affair. Held in a period airplane hangar, there was a beautiful Fairchild PT-19 trainer aircraft parked in a corner. A trio of ladies dressed as the Andrews Sisters sang a selection of tunes from the group’s heyday. There were many others in costume or period-influenced attire. 

The sponsor served ten cent Cokes in glass bottles and fifteen cent hot dogs. I’m not sure either of these very popular treats helped the bottom line, but building friends is often more important than building immediate funds. It certainly seemed to accomplish the former.

All of this was fine and fun, but my reasons for being there had nothing to do with the area’s rich aviation history. I was there for a much more personal reason. 

For a couple of decades now, my father has played in the Pine Bluff Community Band. It’s a volunteer group of musicians – most of whom are of a certain age – who come together every Thursday night to practice, perform and recapture a joy they experienced in their youth. They laugh a lot. They seem to revel in one another’s company.  

The members vary in talent and craft. There are professional musicians among their number. There are players whose enthusiasm is perhaps a more compelling force. It’s an interesting mix of personalities and experiences that somehow coalesces into a really fine band. 

When someone says their childhood home was “always full of music,” I’m pretty sure mine was fuller. 

My dad plays tuba. The one he played this weekend is a bright red plastic thing (the fellow beside him plays a similar model in purple). Growing up with a house full of tubas probably isn’t common. When someone says their childhood home was “always full of music,” I’m pretty sure mine was fuller. 

I’m glad my house was full of music. Because my dad spoke with great fondness of his days playing in the high school band, I wanted to follow suit. My dad’s most memorable band director was a tyrannical figure named R. B. “Scrubby” Watson. The band Watson started in 1932 rose to national prominence over the next three decades. For all his machinations, Watson seems to have inspired a tremendous and enduring legacy.

Coincidentally, the man who would eventually succeed Watson, W. E. “Bud” Childers was also born in 1932. I mention Bud because he was my high school band director. Bud had a similar hard edge, but man-o-man was Bud a character. 

I remember a very hot late summer day when my bandmates and I were practicing a marching routine on the football field. I wasn’t quite getting it. I had repeatedly turned at the wrong spot or wrong time. Bud blew his whistle loudly and yelled from atop his perch, “Pate! Pate! What’s wrong with you? Did your mother forget to put the rock in your pocket this morning so you could tell right from left?”

Everybody laughed – me included. That was Bud. In many ways, Bud’s presence made me feel like I was part of an unbroken historical line of local musicians. 

My mom and dad were both very active “band parents” they travelled to football games, dutifully attended concerts and endured endless fundraisers. I don’t recall being put upon because my parents were always there. I know a lot of kids would have been. I was always proud that my folks cared that much and supported me.

All of which brings me back to the Community Band. I was there, huddled beside my mother, our teeth chattering in the poorly heated metal hangar. The Band sounded especially good that day. They played several big band tunes and marches that were squarely in their wheelhouse. People chomped cheap hot dogs and guzzled little Cokes. Others danced and reminisced.

Pine Bluff Community Band Plays a Duke Ellington Medley.
Apologies for both the videography and sound quality!

It’s a funny thing, but I have always felt a bit protective of the Community Band. I make it a point to clap a little too loudly so other audience members will take the cue. The Band members work hard and I want others to demonstrate their appreciation of that fact.

As much as I want to support this group, the larger community doesn’t. At least not in the way it should. They’re always struggling to find practice space. Their original practice space in the local Band Museum was destroyed when the building collapsed. They were recently run out of the “community” center for reasons known only to the Director of City Parks. Area churches have often provided a temporary place, but the city itself has never done what it should for these people. 

The city leaders would do well to remember that these folks are all volunteers. They foot the bills for travel, music and equipment. They provide free concerts at nursing homes, holiday festivals and all manner of other occasions. They give this otherwise dingy town a little levity and honest joy. The city government shouldn’t take that for granted. It’s a very positive thing; and for a city that’s struggling to “Go Forward,” this little band is a huge asset. 

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