African Americans and the Band

African Americans and the Band

April 14, 2019

When the Municipal Band was first organized in August of 1922 racial segregation was, unfortunately, the norm throughout the United States.  It’s safe to say that including any African American musicians in the Band never occurred to the white businessmen and civic leaders who organized the Band and formed its original members.  This is despite the fact that there were many talented black musicians in Charlottesville and all across the country.  The Band regrets this early display of racial prejudice but—historically—those were the customs at the time.

It would not be until February 1968, some 46 years after it was organized, that the Municipal Band invited its first African American members to join the group as players.  Early in that year James W. Simmons, who was at the time director of the Albemarle High School Band and a long-time Municipal Band member, had just been elected the Band’s President.  He and the Band’s music director Sharon Hoose invited two outstanding African American educators and musicians to become members of the Municipal Band.  Both men accepted.  In the years since 1968 there has rarely, if ever, been a time that there were no black musicians in the Band.  Let’s take a closer look at these two pioneering members.

Sonny Sampson

The first to join was Elmer F. “Sonny” Sampson, who joined on February 6, 1968 and who remained a member for the next twenty years.  Mr. Sampson was a native of Charlottesville, born here November 10, 1925.  He had a life-long interest in music and could play many instruments, but his favorite was the trombone.  His early musical experience came from playing in his older brother Percy’s swing band called “Sampson’s Happy Pals”.  Mr. Sampson was also 1st chair trombone and student conductor in the band at Jefferson High School.  During the latter stages of World War II Mr. Sampson served in a U.S. Navy Band and after the war he attended James Millikin College in Decatur, IL, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Music Education.  He taught music in a number of Virginia schools for some 38 years, eventually becoming the band director at Albemarle High School.  There he developed an outstanding music program and was an outspoken advocate for music and the arts.  During his career, Mr. Sampson performed in bands for such notable persons as Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Red Skelton, and The Temptations.  He was named to “Who’s Who Among Black Americans” in 1980.  Municipal Band members remember Mr. Sampson as a friendly, fun-loving person with a penchant for practical jokes.  He died December 11, 1999.

Calvin Cage

The second African American musician to join the Municipal Band arrived just a week after Mr. Sampson, on February 13, 1968.  His name was Calvin Cage, and he would remain a member of the Band for 23 years.  Mr. Cage was born in Memphis, TN, on April 27, 1924.  He, too, was a man of many musical talents, a clarinet and saxophone player, who had a particular passion for big band, jazz, rock ‘n roll, and blues music, which he learned growing up in the Deep South.  He served in the Army during World War II in the European Theater.  After receiving a Music Education degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, Mr. Cage moved to Charlottesville, where he taught band and vocal music in a number of city schools before eventually becoming the band director at Western Albemarle High School.  In addition to his teaching activities, Mr. Cage played in a number of local jazz and swing bands, including two he organized himself.  He also was an avid golfer and after retiring from teaching worked for the University of Virginia at their Birdwood Golf Course.  Mr. Cage died November 25, 2007.  Municipal Band members also remember him fondly.

Municipal Band, 1924

Now for one last historical tidbit regarding African Americans and the Municipal Band.  One of the very earliest photographs of the Band was made in the summer of 1924, when the Band traveled to Harrisonburg, VA, to march and perform at that year’s Virginia Volunteer Firemen’s Convention.  If you look closely at that photograph, you will see in the next to back row on the right-hand side a young African American man.  He is wearing a uniform and hat, although not one as elaborate as the other members of the Band.  Who was this person and how did he come to appear in this picture of the Band, from a time when there were no black musicians in the group?  Our best historical guess comes from long-time Municipal Band member and former Music Director Jim Simmons.  He stated that in those early days of the Band the bass drummer did not march in parades with the drum attached to his back and chest with a harness, as drummers now often do.  Rather, the drum was pulled on a small cart with the drummer marching along behind it.  The speculation is that the black man in the photograph was hired to pull the bass drum cart.  No records exist that definitely confirm this, but it’s our belief that this is the most likely explanation.  While some might view this as a demeaning task, in reality it required considerable skill and stamina and was an important, if not essential, function when the Band marched.  Music historian Paul E. Bierley writes in his book John Philip Sousa: an American Phenomenon that no less a master of the march than Sousa himself “…repeatedly declared that the layman had no idea whatever of the importance of the bass drum in a band but that no band could possibly be greater than its bass drummer.”1  For the Municipal Band if the bass drum cart was pulled too quickly or too slowly, the drummer would either not be able to keep up or would run into the drum.  In either case, the Band’s formation and sound would suffer.  So whoever pulled the cart needed to understand how to march at a steady pace, just as did all the other band members, even if he didn’t actually play the instrument.  Whoever the man in the picture is, it’s safe to say he possessed skill and understanding as a musician—and whether or not the Band considered him truly a member of the group, he performed an essential task just as important as that of any of the other musicians.  In this sense this unnamed and unheralded African American man could—and should—be considered truly the first African American member of the Municipal Band.

  1. Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa: An American Phenomenon (Revised Edition).  Alfred Music, 1973, p. 146
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