Reviews of the Americus Brass Band
Band Takes Redlands Audience to War
Of all the wars in human history, one of the most vile was our own Civil War. If that war was de-romanticized with the emphasis put on gory instead of glory, one aspect would remain the same: It produced an astonishing amount of music...
The band uses instruments dating from the 19th century, some made during the war years. They play them very well with no more problems than found with today’s instruments. In fact, "Dixie," "Bonnie Blue Flag," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and all the other Civil War tunes they played probably never sounded better...
The Memorial Chapel was transformed into a very real-looking Confederate Army camp. It was here the mostly true stroyline unfolds. Here also are shown the hopes and dreams held together with music A soldier’s two worst enemies -- death and boredom -- are never far away.
The story is told by an old man (Mark Toresso), who sees his younger self as the band’s first director Ludwig [sic] Zitterbart (Richard Birkemeier). Their German accents were close enough to sound like the same person 40 years apart. Other spoken roles included P.M. Howard as the lieutenant; Tim Catlin as the Yankee band leader, and Katie Jensen, who did various women’s parts...
The Americus Brass Band is made up of 13 fine musicians playing cornets, alto, tenor, baritone and brass [sic] horns. All that, plus two drummers. Their efforts in bringing to life and important but sad chapter of history was appreciated.
Americus Brass Band Gave a Rousing, Musical History of Civil War
Rally ’round the Flag, Boys and Hurrah for the Americus Brass Band. The performance of their 17 members in the University of Redlands Memorial Chapel Friday night established, in a very special way, the mood for Saturday’s 61st annual Lincoln Pilgrimage and dinner.
Instead of a straight-forward concert of Civil War music, and in place of comprehending the total tragedy of the Civil War, I felt the personal emotion of those times through the dramatized action of the band members and three costumed singer/actors. Through a staged musical show we followed with historical accuracy this band, which was founded in 1860 in Americus, Ga. -- one of only two confederate bands to remain intact throughout the entire war. I came for the music and hearing how the authentic brass instruments sounded, but came away with an emotionally moving experience of being there with the troops.
The 14 band members’ musicianship proved flawless as they switched from their everyday jobs performing concerts and in studios and teaching here in Southern California to these antique instruments. The horns basically looked like cornets and euphoniums and French horn, but most were of very altered shapes and dully unlacquered as befitting 150 years ago. One in particular had an elongated bell that reached back over the player’s shoulder. He marched at the head of the band and that carried the sound back...
But in addition to their brass music, the band members set their instruments aside and surprised us with several beautiful a cappella numbers -- not a fatigued, hoarse, sing-around-the-campfire, but harmonically gorgeous arrangements. Then there was the drama and humor each member added. And the costuming -- everything from the black long-jacketed Lincolnesque coats worn for their early town concerts to the pride in the smart gray uniforms and caps, to meeting up with the Union blues, to the final detail -- frayed coats and make-do black hats they ended up with by 1865...
Through the narrator/director now aged 35 years after the Great Conflict, sitting stage left in his rocker with a box of memorabilia, we learn the sequence of the band and his role in establishing it... The town band was the most popular form of entertainment, performing in the town square, the narrator tells us in his German accent, relating how he is brought to Georgia to form the band which performed marches, quick steps and favorite opera overtures...
We see the band becoming a rallying organization for four companies of volunteers leaving Georgia and then enlisting themselves as a group. They serve as noncombatants, and their life at first is mostly drill with marches. We follow the humor and misery of camp life, complete with white tents and benches and cooking pots set up on stage... We learn, however, that the Americus Brass Band fought in every battle on the East Coast and the Shenandoah Valley, as the narrator ticks off one familiar place after another and relates how those banners were added to the band’s flag... The horror of the war becomes apparent as the players begin leaving the stage one by one as their names are read as being wounded or killed in action (including the director out for many months with a wound, and one member’s left hand having to be amputated)... The horrors of the Civil War are brought home when we’re told that only six of the original band members returned to Americus.
The evening was an educational and moving experience. I wish more than the 300 in the audience could have taken advantage of it.
[Hollywood] Bowl Strikes up the Bands of Period Brass and Winds
The Americus Brass Band ... presented its portion of the concert as a costumed Civil War pageant, effectively narrated by Mark Torreso. The marches, quicksteps and songs it played were short, characterful and often quite demanding in terms of individual technical finesse and ensemble cohesion. A blazing dash through the closing section of Rossini’s "William Tell" Overture completed the taut first half.
Formed 23 years ago at Cal State Long Beach, Americus, which plays period instruments, has appeared in historical dramas on film and television. Its 13 members, conducted with brisk authority by Richard Birkemeier, handled their assignments with virtuoso flair, including a plangent "Amazing Grace" solo on baritone horn by Loren Marsteller.
Wild West Music of Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band
My favorite CD from the past year affected me the most probably because it caught me completely by surprise. I first read about the Wild West Music of Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band on Ted Zateslo’s brass mailing list on the Internet. I tracked down a copy in deference to my brass-reviewing duties for Fanfare and didn’t know what to expect, but I was absolutely blown away once I heard (and read) it. The playing of this wonderfully original program is of the highest caliber, and the wealth of documentation that complements it serves as an impressive model for any historically oriented release. Project director Michael L. Masterson and the Americus Brass Band (augmented to the point of being essentially a concert band) have created a release that transcends the genre and should be in any serious collector’s library.
From 1882 through the early 1900s, William F. Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill, entertained millions of people in the United States and Europe with his traveling Wild West Show. Parades, sharpshooting and horse-riding demonstrations, battle re-enactments, and cowboy and Indian acts gave spectators a vivid taste of the Old West. Accompanying this spectacle was Buffalo Bill’s Famous Cowboy Band. Although the Wild West Show is ensconced in history books, as recording project director Michael L. Masterson points out in the extensive liner notes, the contributions and music of the Cowboy Band have largely been forgotten. This release goes a long way in correcting that oversight, thanks to the financial backing of the Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, which is marketing this disc.
Masterson sums up the music of the Cowboy Band best : "As heard on this recording, Cody brought to his audiences an American musical diversity representative of the time -- styles like the ordered marches representing ninteenth-century notions of progress in American history, ragtime-influenced pieces embodying the cultural diversity of urban, industrial reality at the beginning of the twentieth century, and light overtures and orchestral transcriptions demonstrating European culture’s continued influence on America."
The Americus Brass Band is a period-instrument group whose credits include Civil War re-enactments as well as TV series and films. The band most recently toured with a re-creation of the Dodge City Cowboy Band of the 1880s and 90s, which made the group an ideal choice for the Buffalo project. Although the band gets top billing, several woodwind players were added for the recording to achieve historical accuracy. The resulting ensemble is essentially a concert band, although the brass dominate. And, man, can they lay out a tune!
As the Star-Spangled Banner began each Wild West Show -- nearly fifty years before it became our national anthem -- so does it begin the program here. Edward Beyer’s arrangement, taken from his Recollections of the War: A Grand Medley of Old War Songs, add a rousing, William Tell-like fanfare that, along with the band’s wonderful sense of ensemble and deliberate phrasing, makes this overly familiar piece a delight from the beginning to end. Other disc highlights include the rarely heard pieces written specifically for Cody and his band -- the ragtime-influenced Two Bills’ March and Two Step and Buffalo Bills’ Farewell March and Two Step, by William Sweeney, who organized the Cowboy Band and directed it for thirty years, and Buffalo Bill’s Equestrian March and Sweeney’s Cavalcade, by William Paris Chambers. Noted bandmaster Karl L. King led the Cowboy Band in 1915 and 1916, and four of his works used in the Wild West Show are included. Among them are two songs used to portray American Indians -- On the Warpath, whose stertypical sounds and melodies reflect prevailing public attitudes of yore, and The Passing of the Red Man, a more serious affair that nevertheless uses some of the same musical ideas that today would be deemed culturally insensitive. Masterson balances that by programming a traditional Grass Dance, performed here by the Plenty Coups Singers of Pryor, Montana, between the two works to show that the Wild West Show also included authentic tribal music performed by Indians. Such familiar stuff as the Offenbach melodies come off smashingly, too, thanks to a fresh arrangement and snappy playing. Even Buffalo Bill himself makes an appearance via a scratchy recording in which he introduces "a Congress of Rough Riders of the World" -- placed appropriately after See, the Conquering Hero Comes, the piece played during Cody’s grand entrance. The hour-long program closes with Walter Kittredge’s Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground, a tribute to the soldiers of the Civil War and said to be Cody’s favorite.
The sound overall is fine, especially when the full band is playing. There is not as much reverberation as in most band CDs today. I assumed this was because the recording was made in a "dead" hall, but I later found out via e-mail from Masterson, a music professor at Northwest College, that the opposite was true -- at least initally. Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College in Claremont, California, was too reverberant, so he recorded the band on a stage with the curtain pulled to compensate. There also is some thinness in brass tone due to the use of period instruments, which are exposed even more by some of the sparsely scored works, but the players’ performance abilities are never in question.
The packaging is a model for which such releases should strive. The CD itself is housed in the pockets of a four-flapped cardboard package that, when folded up into its jewelbox-sized finished form, gives the subtle impression of a saddlebag. Included with the CD are (1) a booklet about the Wild West Show, the Cowboy Band, and its music, with essays by scholars Paul Fees, Richard B. Wilson, Harriet Bloom-Wilson, and Masterson; (2)a booklet about the music on the CD, with a track-by-track commentary by Masterson; and (3) an 8 1/2-by-14-inch folded sheet that offers detailed redording credits on one side and a collection of Cowboy Band photos on the other. It forms an impressive mass of material to wade through while listening.
But once all the essays, liner notes, and photos have been digested, the listener is ultimately left with only the music and the performances. In this case, who could want for anything more? Wild West Music of Buffalo Bill’s Cowboy Band is not a release you’ll shelve once the history lesson is over. It’s a fine collection of heretofore forgotten music, destined to become a band recording classic.
Historic Band Visits
They call themselves the Americus Brass Band, although none of them are from Americus, or even the state of Georgia for that matter.
The 18-member ensemble (15 musicians and three actors) is actually based in California, but it’s patterned after a band that played here during the Civil War. The band visited Americus earlier this week, pausing en route to Avon Park, Fla., for its next gig. A performance is set for Oct. 1 at the Andersonville Historic Fair.
Band president Kurt Curtis said the original Americus Brass Band can trace its history to 1860, when the mayor of Americus hired a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory of Music named Louis Zitterbart to start a city band. Zitterbart collected and trained a group of local musicians to form the band. "They were typical town folk at the time -- butchers, dentists," Curtis said. Brass bands were the most popular form of entertainment in the mid-1800s, he said, because television, radio and movies hadn’t been invented yet. The Americus Brass Band was apparently a very good band, too, he said. He has a copy of a review in an Augusta newspaper that says so.
Then the war broke out, and a friend of the band formed a company to fight in it. He finally persuaded the band to join up, and it formed the core of the 4th Georgia Regiment band. By the end of the war, only six of the original 15 were left alive.
So how did a Confederate band of 130 years ago find itself resurrected in California? It started in 1976 at Fort Tejon, Calif., Curtis said, at a Civil War re-enactment. A group of college students from California State University at Long Beach wanted to perform at the re-enactment, but the re-enactors said they weren’t authentic enough. The group began to acquire antique instruments -- actual instruments used in the 1860s, although not necessarily the ones used by the Americus Brass Band. It also accumulated songs of that time. Fairly soon, the re-enactors decided the band was authentic enough to play for them.
The band has built an entire show around the Americus Brass Band’s story, according to Mark Toresso, the actor who plays Zitterbart. Each musician portrays one of the Americus Brass Band’s original members. "It’s very dramatic as well," Toresso said, "because I read off a list of the members of the band who died, and as I read each name the person gets up and walks off stage."
The members have carefully researched the band. Actual letters from band members to their wives are read in the show. Several band members have been in Americus individually to read up on the group at the Lake Blackshear Regional Library. "We’re telling a story here about Americus, Ga., that people around the country are eating up," Curtis said.
The band performs not only for re-enactments but also for balls. They performed the musical score for the television productions Gettysburg, Geronimo, North and South and Glory. The group’s recording, Music of the Civil War, is available on Summit Records. Curtis said the band is looking for a corporate or independent sponsor so it can travel and perform more. Members also want to know more about the members of the band, especially from family members, and they want to expand their variety of instruments. Anyone who wants to contact the band about any of those subjects can reach them [through the music department at California State University, Long Beach].
Civil War Music Hits Its Target
It was probably the first time ever that a rifle has been fired in Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. Almost certainly the first time that a band on stage has been captured and held at gunpoint (although perhaps not the first time it should have been done.) Nothing to worry about, though : It was all part of the show on Sunday arranged by the Americus Brass Band, a group of 17 musicians and actors who attempt to recreate the music of America during the Civil War, right down to the tents and camp fires of the conflict.
Organized at Cal State Long Beach in 1976, the Americus Brass Band plays its music on cornets, tenor, baritone and bass horns, all genuine period instruments. And they play period music, brass band arrangements of the hits of the last century that are foot-noted right in the program. It is music that reflected the tastes of a young nation that didn’t have even the delights of vaudeville and traveling shows to divert it, much less the mechanical marvel of recording that came later in the century.
Most towns that could boast any pretensions to civilization in the pre-Civil War era could also boast a town brass band. The musicians in the Americus Brass Band recreate the band of Americus, Ga., that was led by Prof. Louis Zitterbart before the war, and which went through the Civil War as a Confederate army regimental band. To do this, the musicians dress in period clothes and uniforms, and add to the musical program —which stretches from operatic selections to Dixie and The Bonnie Blue Flag— singer/actors who portray Zitterbart in retirement; Lt. David Winn, the regiment’s lieutenant who was killed at the battle of Gettysburg; his wife Frances; and a Confederate widow turned nurse.
The battle comes near the end of the concert when the band, nearly reduced to half its size by deaths and retirements, is captured by Federal troops. Only when Yankee band members join the captured Rebels is the band restored to full strength. All of this activity is perhaps fascinating and well-staged, though for Civil War buffs rather elementary. The real key here is the music and it is lively, entertaining, brightly played and yet clearly old-fashioned. These horns have a timbre, a rough elegance, that newfangled tubas, trumpets and the like never quite captured. The emotional bite of these tunes, many, like Amazing Grace and Battle Hymn of the Republic still eminently familiar played in these antique and eloquent arrangements, is remarkable.
Next time —and there seems little doubt that there will be a next time for these performers at Ambassador— they should leave the guns home. Historical recreation is fine in its way, but this music speaks eloquently and effectively all on its own. It needs no excuse or framework save the audience’s attention.