Marching through History
April 26, 2020
When in June 1950 the Municipal Band’s third conductor, Emil Rada, stepped down from the podium for the last time and relinquished his baton as Music Director, the Band’s Board of Directors was once again faced with the task of finding and hiring a new conductor to take Rada’s place. Fortunately for them and for the Band they didn’t have far to look. Clarinetist Marlin Brown, who had been a member of the Band since August 1947, got the nod in short order to become the Band’s fourth Conductor and Music Director. He would hold that post from July 5, 1950 until March 1, 1957.
Marlin L. Brown was born in 1919 in Sioux Falls, SD, where he grew up. An extraordinarily talented musician, he majored in music at Sioux Falls College where he received a four-year scholarship and played clarinet. During his time at SFC, he also played in the Sioux Falls Municipal Band, the college’s band and orchestra, and several other local and nearby musical organizations. Among his non-musical college honors, Brown was Vice-President of his senior class and was also voted “most handsome man in South Dakota”! He also served as Assistant Director of the Washington High School band during his time in college, accompanying that group to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and in 1941 touring with the band in both the U.S. and Canada. On this latter trip the group participated in the christening of the U.S. Navy’s battleship the USS South Dakota, which would see considerable action in the Pacific during WWII.
After graduating from college, Brown was for a time band instructor at Bridgewater, SD, high school and then at Madison Central High School in Madison, SD. He married the love of his life, LaVonne Jorgenson and the couple would have two sons, Marlin and Eric.
Brown himself participated in WWII, serving in the Navy as a communications officer on Guam and at Pearl Harbor. After his discharge from the Navy in 1946 Brown went to work for the Central Electric and Gas Company in Sioux Falls. In March 1947 he and his family were transferred to that company’s affiliate here in Charlottesville, the Virginia Telephone and Telegraph Company. It was a natural that he would soon join the Municipal Band, which he did six months after his arrival in town.
Brown occasionally served as Assistant Conductor during the latter years of Emil Rada’s tenure as Music Director. He was appointed the Band’s fourth Music Director starting on July 5, 1950. Former Municipal Band Music Director James W. Simmons was a young clarinetist in the Band at the time Marlin took over leadership of the group. Simmons recalled that Brown “was a pleasant person who didn’t crack down on the group” and that he “revitalized the Band”. Brown himself later stated his musical philosophy this way: “I play to the crowd. The secret is to play what people want to hear.” During his tenure the Municipal Band continued its tradition of performing classical overtures and similar works, but Brown also introduced many new popular songs and Broadway show tunes into the repertoire. And, of course, he didn’t neglect patriotic and stirring marches, especially those by John Philip Sousa, perhaps Brown’s favorite march composer. It was also during Brown’s tenure as Music Director that the Municipal Band became the official Band of the Charlottesville Fire Department, a relationship that continues to this day.
After living in Charlottesville for almost exactly ten years and serving as the Band’s Music Director for six and a half of those years, Brown and his family left Charlottesville so that he could take a job with Citizens Utilities in Redding, CA. Brown and his family would live in various locations up and down the West Coast until 1984 when he retired. In 1991 the Browns moved back to Sioux Falls, where Marlin conducted and played in the local Shrine band.
However, Brown’s association with the Municipal Band wasn’t quite finished. The Band celebrated its 75th anniversary during the summer of 1997, and as a part of those celebrations former members and conductors were invited to participate. Brown was among those invited, and he and his wife LaVonne made their first trip back to Charlottesville in forty years. On July 29, 1997 Brown was the featured guest conductor for that evening’s Municipal Band performance, sharing the podium with Music Director Jim Simmons. Brown had much praise for the Band and how it had grown and developed in the years since his departure. He especially applauded the admission of women into the Band, which occurred for the first time just a few months after Brown’s tenure ended back in 1957. Admitting women was, he said, “The greatest thing that ever happened to the band.”
Marlin Brown died in Sioux Falls on June 27, 2009 at the age of 90. Music was always an essential part of Brown’s life. In his obituary family members wrote “Throughout his life, no matter what his career or location, Marlin was always a musician. If there wasn’t a band for him to join or lead, he would start one of his own.” The Municipal Band benefitted greatly from Marlin Brown’s contributions as both performer and Music Director, and he will always be remembered as one of those who led the way toward insuring the Band would grow and attain the excellence of which Marlin Brown surely knew it was capable and always strived to achieve.