Excerpts from “Westerly Band, 1852-1990"

by Lawrence Chick, published by the Westerly Sun

Posters From The 1850's

"The Westerly Band is the oldest, non-military musical organization in continuous service in America." Everett L. Perrin, director since 1946, clingss to this belief as firmly as he does his choice of "Anima Nobile" for his marching musicians as they proudly pass the Town Hall reviewing stand each Veterans Day. Hand written notes have declared that in 1852 a Westerly Brass Band did perform. A treasured memento informs all readers that in 1854 rhetorical exercises by the Westerly High School were accompanied by The Westerly Brass Band (tickets were 12 1/2 cents, no half price admissions). More written notes from the archives suggest a citizens band was also playing at this time. "A Grand Concert" by the Brass Band, this time with A. J. Foster, leader, lists a program in 1859, along with Vincent's String Band. And references to early instructors like Stephen Phalens and W. B. Lowery are available.

Old PosterBut, as oral history has it, those who loved to play band music, also loved their country more, and marched off to the Civil War. This military interruption foreshadowed two low points in the next century when band attendance bowed to two World Wars. More written notes suggest that "during that sad period in the country's history, to keep morale high in Westerly, another attempt was made to form a brass group with eight musicians, and A. J. Foster as director." The year was 1863, the date now cited by band members as the beginning of 127 uninterrupted years of rehearsals and performances, month in and month out, making it the oldest civic group in continuous service in the country. (148 years now, ed.)

Conductors: The Long and Short of It

Today in 1989, we can look back on almost a century of conducting by two men: the late Charles O. Gavitt and Everett L. Perrin. Gavitt was a trumpeter and officer before the turn of the century, taking up the baton in 1900. Perrin a teenage member prior to Navy duty in WWII, took over in 1946 and has been going strong ever since. But the 1800's were something else. A stormy and combative period, conductors came and went like revolving doors, with the exception of Thomas Worthington, a respected leader and admired baritone player in the late 1800's. But from the A. J. Foster days there were, according to the secretary's minutes, several conductors whose term of conduction was terminated by parliamentary procedure. And then returned to office shortly, when their successors were also unceremoniously ushered out of favor. Some of the names were Dudley Brown, Henry Foster, H. Morgan, Valantine Yeager, Harry Datson, Walter Kinney, Joseph Sheffield and, for the romantic among the readers, Charles Redford, a distant relative of movie star Robert Redford.Little Boy

Shape up or Ship Out

Back in the 1800's and through the 1930's there were band MEETINGS that were just as important as the rehearsals. And these were no-nonsense, serious business sessions, not just lollygagging, while someone occasionally let off steam (artistic temperament in today's vernacular). According to the secretary's minutes a vote was once made and passed that "any member of the band caught drunk or disorderly while on duty will be discharged from the band." There were fines for all kinds of offenses: 10 cents for swearing; a fine, no sum mentioned, for missing a moonlight cruise job; and "all members who do not attend practice sessions without a reasonable excuse, please hand in their resignations."


Fire and Destruction, 1891

Westerly Band UniformsA big fire raged through the Miner Building, the American Hall, and the Loveland Block, Aug 13, 1891, near Canal and High Streets, destroying the band's second floor rehearsal rooms, a number of instruments, uniforms, records, and all of the music. A reporter from the Westerly Narragansett Weekly, Thursday, Aug. 20, 1891, wrote that the band suffered the worst loss with insurance of $400 but damage estimated at $2700. Three horns alone were worth $400, he noted. The report mentioned that "Incendiary" was considered, but that spontaneous combustion due to extreme August heat was more likely. Within a week, he said, members were measured for new uniforms, 25 in all, each costing $25.75. "They were to be dark blue cloth, coat and trousers, trimmed with gilt braid and maroon velvet on collar and sleeve. The hat will be a shako. Shoulder knots will have a 'W.B.' in gold and silver braid and 'Westerly worked into the braid."


The Women, Bless 'Em

Since its misty origins, this has been a man's band. Look at these pictures of strong silent men, uniformed and proud... and masculine. Today, at the after-rehearsal campfires (or is it afterglow from Al's Cafe rehearsal room?) the male tradition of beer and man-talk flows as fluidly as ever. But a hundred years after its beginnings, the band welcomed its first lady musician, Paula Richards, a sometimes trumpet and tuba player, better known today as the leader of Paula's German Band. In the 1960's Edith Richards and her clarinet joined, followed by fellow clarinetist Donna Varriichio. From the '70s on a dozen women (more than two dozen, ed.) have influenced the organization, musically first and foremost, and in leadership roles. (In fact, our current conductor, Alison Patton, is a woman and a lady, ed.)


The Park is Alive with Music

Wilcox Park and the Westerly Band have a long history of mutual admiration. Although the musical group had given concerts for over 30 years BEFORE the park and bandstand were created, the band was on hand in 1902 for the opening. "The Westerly Band's first concert in Wilcox Park last night was a success. An estimated 2500 to 3000 people assembled on the park grounds, or listened from the piazza on Grove. Ave., and adjacent streets. Grove Ave. was lined with carriages the whole evening." (So reported the July 24, 1902, Westerly Sun, four years after Harriet Wilcox had announced that "the people shall have a park.") Since World War II, Conductor Ev Perrin has brought the popularity of concerts in the park, with a boost by the Town Fathers who recognize this addition to the quality of life in Westerly. (A tradition that continues into the 21st century, ed.)WEsterly Band in Wilcox Park


Afterword: On to the future

Although the baton has passed on to Alison Patton, this season will begin as it always has, in the Gavitt years and the Perrin years, by ushering in the new music for the weekly Wednesday evening rehearsals as the Westerly Band prepares for another year of parades and concerts. There have been both good times and low periods through the years. But the faithful will assemble now, just as they have since those early stirrings of the energy that the love of band music generates, back in 1852.

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