Summer life in the city - all set to music

Baltimore band has been seasonal urban tradition since 1860.

July 12, 1999|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SUN STAFF

Clarinetist Albin Grden doesn't know much about the finances of Baltimore's Municipal Concert Band these days. But he does know one thing:

In 1952, when he began playing, the paycheck from the band was his best source of summer income. This year, with fewer concerts to play, his retirement check plays that role.

For 23 dates this year, the city's Concert Band and Big Band continue carrying on a tradition from more than a century ago. The two bands -- the Concert Band plays traditional music such as marches, while the Big Band offers more contemporary music -- perform around the city.

The Concert Band will play at 8 p.m. today on the grounds of the DePaul House, 3300 Vincent Ave., and will have performances throughout the week. The Big Band will play at 8 p.m. Friday at Leakin Park, 4200 Seminole Ave. The Concert Band season ends Thursday, with the Big Band season ending July 27.

Since Grden began, the band program has gone through many changes. Once four bands -- two white, two black -- played in different neighborhoods. And the music has changed a bit.

"When I first started, I played for nine weeks, six concerts per week," recalled Grden, 73, who played in one of the white bands. "About 20 years ago, that [schedule] stopped."

Summertime concerts by Baltimore bands have been a tradition since 1860, when Mayor Thomas W. Swann thought the dedication of Druid Hill Park called for a little music and had a municipal concert band assembled for the event.

By the 1930s and '40s, when the city had four municipal bands, "we were the biggest thing going," said Stephanie Esworthy, superintendent of the Baltimore City Bureau of Music, which oversees the bands. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the concert bands played nightly.

About the same time, the bands were segregated because of racial tension in the city. Jack Hook, a member of the Musicians' Association of Metropolitan Baltimore, once saw one of the black bands in Druid Hill Park. "To be frank, it was unusual to see a black band in that park when I was a kid of 5 or 6. You have to think about the era that was in," he said.

When Esworthy, 58, became head of the Bureau of Music in 1967, she desegregated the concert bands, turning the four bands into two, which eventually became one.

In 1971, Esworthy asked conductor Gene Walker to help create the city's Big Band, which would appeal to a wider and more varied audience by playing jazz and popular music.

Walker has diversified the music to better appeal to his audiences.

"When we're in a predominately white neighborhood, we try to play what they call commercial music or oldies-but-goodies," he said. "For minority neighborhoods, we play more jazz, rock and contemporary tunes."

Keeping audiences is the least of the bands' problems these days. Money is a bigger concern. As part of the City Charter, the band is guaranteed something from the city's coffers. But that contribution has shrunk in recent years.

Esworthy had a $120,000 budget in 1967 to put on a 54-show concert series. Last year, she received $60,000 for 25 concerts. This year, the two bands will put on 23 shows.

Concert Band conductor George Gaylor said, "There's always the question: Are they going to change the charter and do away with the band?"

Spokesmen from the mayor's office, including City Solicitor Otho Thompson, said recently that they were unaware of the municipal band's existence -- let alone the status of its funding.

It's not clear what the city's plans are. But some residents say they would like to hear more.

"I wish they would come more," said Bolton Hill's Shirley Robinson, who has seen the Concert Band the past few summers. "The audience appreciates the performances, and the music is very relaxing."

Information: 410-396-7076.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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