The Classic City Band members sit in formal attire, shifting music on their stands. Clarinetist Tom Cooper prompts everyone to tune. Conductor Michael Brewer strides onto the stage, dressed in a formal white shirt and black tux. He places a towel on his music stand, bows to the audience and turns to the band members. The performance begins. Drums accent the introduction and create pauses in the music. Brewer’s energy soars, and by the end of the opening number his shirt is damp and pulled loose from his jacket. His wispy front hair stands tall. After a brief bow, he wipes his face with the towel. He has managed to guide the 80-member band to a crescendo worthy of Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa.
Started in 1976 with the purpose of preserving the rich cultural heritage of the American concert band, the Classic City Band is the oldest continuously functioning community band in Georgia. On Sept. 7, 2006, then-Mayor Heidi Davison and the Athens Clarke-County Commission issued a proclamation declaring the Classic City Band “the official municipal band of Athens, GA.” They play marches, ragtime tunes, Broadway showtunes and classical pieces—all standard literature in the tradition of great bandmasters like Gilmore and Sousa. The group has performed six times a year for the past 40 years.
The Classic City Band has helped to preserve a wide variety of concert-band compositions. They also provide an opportunity for proficient, non-professional area musicians to continue to play; members range in ages from 16–94. Brewer, who has conducted the band since 2010, has played trombone for the Athens Symphony for more than 20 years and also directs the Athens Brass Choir, a community brass ensemble he founded in 2002.
Many of the band’s members are just as distinguished. “I learned to play the flute and then the piccolo from Walter Allen, my band teacher in the fifth grade,” recalls member Lee Carmon. “I remember one concert where we had been having trouble with several numbers during rehearsals, but when we played them everything fell together, and I thought, ‘Wow, it sounded good.’”
Cooper says, “I remember when we played at the Christmas tree ceremony after the Christmas parade downtown. We played carols and people sang along. One woman who was really into singing surprised us by taking something out of her pocket and throwing it onto the musicians. We were playing ‘Silent Night,’ and she threw glitter.”
Having learned to play the clarinet in 7th grade, Ken Reid became a student at UGA and knew most of the people who started the band. He remembers playing at Bishop Park one July 4 in the early 1980s when it started to rain. The band members huddled under the portable covering, audience members brought out their umbrellas, and the concert continued, to cheers from the crowd.
Albert Ligotti, the founder of the Athens Symphony, played in the Classic City Band’s very first concert. He was a guest conductor twice, and he attended a couple of concerts where Brewer used his arrangements. Ligotti, a well-published composer with 40 titles to his name, was instrumental in building Athens’ concert-band community. Sadly, Ligotti passed away Sept. 12, 2015, but his advice to members of the Classic City Band still resonates: “No matter how many times you play a tune, play every piece like it is your first time.”
In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Classic City Band will recreate its first concert this Sunday at the Botanical Garden. As always, the performance is free and open to the public.
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