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The Charlottesville Band celebrates its 100th birthday

Paramount concert from 2019
Photo: Greg Harris Photo

The Charlottesville Band, formerly The Municipal Band of Charlottesville, will commemorate a century of providing free symphonic musical entertainment for the community by doing what it does best: performing.

This milestone year is especially momentous given that many musical groups and arts organizations did not survive the pandemic.

“They all love to make music together,” said Steve Layman, the band’s music director. “That's the big thing; they're all committed to it.... We were playing out in cul-de-sacs, parking garages, front yards, fields, whatever.”

The volunteer community band is made up of “a collection of 85 people from all walks of life,” continued Layman, who joined the group when he moved to the area in 1977 to teach music at Walton Middle School. “We've got about half a dozen kids that are just out of high school or first year college kids. And we've got folks that have been in the band 60 plus years.”

The Charlottesville Band, which also features seven small ensembles, performs classical music, marches, movie scores, jazz, and Broadway tunes, including pieces from Hamilton.

“We're trying to reach out and catch as many hooks on the merry-go-round as we can because if we catch those, it makes us better musicians,” Layman said. “And it just makes the band more enjoyable to listen to when there are more opportunities to play more kinds of music.”
 
While a few immunocompromised musicians were unable to return to the group since the start of the pandemic, the band gained several new members because of COVID-19.

“There are an awful lot of people who, instead of going into the office, were working from home,” recalled Layman. “And so, they pulled a trumpet or clarinet or flute out of the closet that they hadn't played in 20 years, and they thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of fun.’”

“And now we have 15 people who were not in the band beforehand,” continued Layman, who began serving as the group’s assistant conductor in 1986 and then became music director in 2008.
 
Some of the band’s musicians are high school students whose schedules, due to online learning, became flexible enough to make room for rehearsing and performing with the band.

“We basically work as hard or harder than any other band, I think, in the country,” said Layman. “I mean, in a normal year, we rehearse 48 weeks...We give 11 to 12 full concerts with the whole band and anywhere from 25 to 45 small ensemble concerts. And we do it all for nothing.”
 
In June 2020, the band’s small ensembles began performing in socially distanced outdoor settings. They played for retirement villages, birthday parties, anniversaries and backyard celebrations. Due to numerous requests, and despite the cold, they continued performing outside through December.

“People needed the music and so did we,” recalled Layman.

The full band returned to rehearsing in spring 2021 and played three concerts before stopping in late July due to a surge in Delta variant cases. Rather than cancelling their annual holiday concert, they held the performance outdoors at the Ting Pavilion. A crowd of 300 people attended the afternoon event and sang along. It was 43 degrees.

Pavillion concert
Photo: Greg Harris Photo

Like many organizations, the band learned to pivot and experiment along the way while navigating the pandemic. There were times when rehearsals and performances were put on hold—yet again. On one occasion, the whole bassoon section was out with COVID.
 
Now that people are traveling again, members must choose between playing music and taking a vacation they previously postponed or visiting family they haven’t seen in three years.

The Municipal Band of Charlottesville, Inc. was founded in August 1922 under the direction of Harry Lowe. According to the band’s website, the original group was made up of “an enthusiastic, but inexperienced group of citizen musicians.”

Municipal Band 1920s
Photo: Charlottesville Band

For the first 35 years, the group consisted of white men. Women, including Peggy Madison who still performs with the group, became members of the band in 1957. African American musicians and educators, including Elmer F. "Sonny" Sampson and Calvin Cage, joined the band in 1968.

Over the past century, and under the leadership of seven music directors, the band has performed for a variety of leaders and celebrities including U.S. Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush; Virginia governors and other state and federal officials; Sir John Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia; General Colin L. Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Secretary of State and former UN Ambassador; Carl Sagan, astronomer and author; and Nadia Comăneci, gymnast and Olympic gold medalist.

This year, the group has played a combination of indoor and outdoor concerts including ⁠— for the first time in three years ⁠— Piedmont Virginia Community College’s graduation ceremony at John Paul Jones Arena and a performance at the Independence Day and Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello. Most recently, the band returned to The Paramount Theater.

In celebration of its 100th birthday, the band will perform a free Centennial Celebration Concert at Ting Pavilion on Tuesday, August 16 at 7:30 PM. Special guest performers include The U.S. Army Brass Quintet, Ray Caddell (Big Ray and the Kool Kats), and Paul Murtha.

“Paul Murtha, who used to write for the Army Band, has written a special concert march for the centennial. He's actually going to be with us,” said Layman. “And Charlie Torian and Gary Fagan, who are band members and very fine composers in their own right, have each written a number of pieces for us.”

In honor of its centennial year, the Charlottesville Band also held a composition contest that produced four fanfares for performances this season.
 
“The Air Force band put out an album a few years back that opened with a minute-long fanfare, which is really cool,” explained Layman, “because it means that a composer has to be really specific and get right to the point. And a minute fanfare is all about excitement.”

And what are the band’s plans for the next century?

“One of the things that we wanted to do was...something to give back to the community in the next 100 years for what they've done for us,” said Layman. “So, we worked with the folks at the Charlottesville Albemarle Community Foundation to get...funding to start a middle school lesson project.”
 
“What we're going to do is offer free lessons. We're going to start with one kid from every middle school...in the City and County,” continued Layman.
 
If the program is a success, the band will offer the same program to students in Nelson, Greene, Fluvanna, Orange, and Louisa County schools.

“At the end of the year, we'll pull all these kids together and do...a piece with the band,” explained Layman. “It will be exciting for them. And it's the future of the band, if we don't get these kids now.”

And what are Layman’s aspirations for the next 100 years?

“I would hope that a symphonic band like we are would be a viable performing organization,” Layman said. “And that folks would look forward not only to doing that when they're in high school and college, but then coming to a group like ours, when they move into a town and make it part of their life ⁠— part of their way of giving back to the community ⁠— and having fun at the same time.”


More information about the history of the Charlottesville Band is available on the band’s Marching through History blog page.