Before we delve into the past, here’s a little tidbit about the current members of the Municipal Band. As of 2018, the musicians you see on stage collectively represent over 3,800 combined years of experience practicing, rehearsing and performing all kinds of music on all sorts of instruments. But despite this diversity of backgrounds and experience, they all share one thing in common: at some point in their musical past they were all just beginners.
So it was with the 32 men who were charter members of the Municipal Band when it was formed in August 1922. They, too, were all once just beginners on their chosen instruments. The interesting thing about these gentlemen, though, is that at the time they joined the Band, many of them, if not a majority, had no prior musical experience! They truly were complete beginners. They had mostly been recruited by Sol Kaufman and Ed Joachim from among the members of various civic organizations such as the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club, and the Young Men’s Business Club. There, as a part of club meetings, the men may’ve occasionally sung popular songs of the day – and, of course, they would’ve sung hymns in church – but very few of them had any experience with wind instruments at the time they volunteered to be part of the Municipal Band. They saw joining the Band as a civic duty and perhaps a fun new thing to try. Little did they know how much work would be involved!
This lack of prior musical experience presented a real challenge for Music Director Harry Lowe. Early on, he made a public statement that the new band would present its first public concert within six months of the men receiving their instruments. This meant Mr. Lowe and his assistant, Henry Rubin, first had to teach the men all the rudiments of music – how to read musical notation, how to count time, how to stay together in rhythm, how to read and understand all those strange Italian musical terms surrounding the notes, and everything else musicians have to learn. The men began their lessons well before they ever received their instruments, attending “class” at the Charlottesville & Albemarle Railway Building on the corner of Ridge and West Main Streets. This space was generously provided by the C&A’s president, John Livers, who was an early supporter of the Band. This building is still there.
Eventually the men received their instruments, which arrived by train from the C. G. Conn Instrument Company in Elkhart, IN. It was a scene reminiscent of that in the movie “The Music Man” when the Wells Fargo wagon delivers instruments to the boys of River City Iowa. Here in Charlottesville the men gleefully received their instruments and immediately began producing what sounds they could. The Daily Progress for October 24, 1922 reported “…the public is advised that the unusual noises that may be heard in various quarters of the city during the weeks to come will be traceable to enthusiastic embryonic band musicians trying out their instruments.” Once again, Lowe and his assistant now had to teach their pupils how to turn those “unusual noises” into real music.
But there was still more the men had to learn: how to march. Organizer Sol Kaufman had always envisioned the Municipal Band as both a concert and a marching organization. So eventually Band rehearsals moved to the old Armory downtown where the men practiced keeping in step, how to turn as a group in various directions, and how to play and march at the same time. It was a big challenge – and Harry Lowe had set an ambitious deadline for the Band’s debut.
The men rose to that challenge, though, and in the early evening of April 10, 1923 – just five and a half months after receiving their instruments – the new Charlottesville Municipal Band marched out from the Armory and down Main Street to about where the Omni Hotel now stands, turned around and marched back to where the Central Place now is on the Mall, proudly playing all the way. Outside what was then Pence and Sterling’s Drug Store, the Band then proceeded to give a brief concert to a crowd of several hundred delighted listeners. The crowd was so large that for a time they completely blocked the streetcar line and the cars had to wait until the concert was finished before continuing.
From this humble beginning and with a great deal of perseverance and hard work the Municipal Band quickly rose to musical prominence. Within just a year or two the Band would be performing for numerous local occasions and traveling throughout Virginia and the South, winning cash prizes, trophies and accolades all along the way. Not bad for a group of men who were “just beginners”!