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Like a Sousa march, the Fort Worth City Band stands the test of time

By DAVID CASSTEVENS, Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 1, 2010

FORT WORTH -- They played Scheherazade and Loch Lomond. They played Amazing Grace.

Performing at a local retirement community, the concert band saved the best for last when it struck up John Philip Sousa's patriotic march Stars and Stripes Forever. The audience included widows of veterans and old soldiers of long-ago wars.

As the crowd listened, eyes glistened. Some rose proudly from wheelchairs to applaud. "The music is so moving," said Sherri Warren, lifestyles program director at Town Village Ridgmar. "Our residents were in rapture."

The Fort Worth City Band is a community treasure. "But few people know we even exist," percussionist Robert Harold Bray said. This self-supporting ensemble of amateur musicians -- ranging in age from 19 to 84 -- is celebrating the band's 50-year history with a series of spring and summer concerts.

"What sets us apart is that we take music to people who can't go to music," said Kenneth Javier Iyescas, the band's 33-year-old conductor. "We don't rent out halls. We don't make people pay. That's not what we're about." The band performs primarily at retirement centers and churches.

Originally named the Greater Fort Worth Lions Club Band, the group served as the Dallas Cowboys' band in the 1960s and early '70s. The Fort Worth City Council recognized the band in the 1980s and changed its name.

The nonprofit band reflects the diversity of the community it serves. Members include a lawyer, an insurance agent, a retired physician, two band directors and an Arlington councilman.

The conductor -- only the band's fourth -- can't say enough about the group's talent and dedication. "All I do is wave my arms up here," Iyescas said at this week's rehearsal. He smiled at the musicians grouped into sections. "You're the ones playing the notes."

The value in live music

Paul Solomon arrived early for the two-hour practice session. Asked what instrument he will play tonight when the band appears at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, the 65-year-old retired paralegal paused, a smile forming as he debated how to answer. "I attempt trumpet," he said modestly.

Solomon played the horn from the third grade until he married and started a family. Then he put the instrument away for about 25 years. Now he is having fun again, blowing notes in a citizen band that rehearses each Monday night and is open to anyone who can read music and wants to perform.

Percussionist Ed Lobb, an attorney, defined the tie that binds the group. "You can have all the iPods you want, all the iPhones you want, all the downloading capabilities that are out there," Lobb said. "But that can't hold a candle to a live performance. I truly, with all my heart, believe there is value in live music."

Randy Cobb learned to play the French horn as a kid. Ten years ago, he fell through the attic of his home and broke his back. Injuries left him partially paralyzed. He walks with the aid of a forearm crutch. Cobb, 55, recalled the first time he showed up to practice with the band.

When he looked around the room, his worries dissolved. Many of the musicians were gray-haired. One trombone player had an oxygen tank. Another trombonist, Dell Herod, the band's senior member -- and only remaining charter member -- was born when Calvin Coolidge was president.

"I thought, 'These guys are 140 years old! No problem. I got them beat,'" Cobb said. He quickly realized he underestimated his colleagues' stamina and talent."They tore me up," he said. "I didn't know if I could cut the mustard. I had to work hard, really hard, to catch up to their level of play."

Through the years

In spring 1941, months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Albany High School band director picked up Herod and drove the teenage student 37 miles to a music store in Abilene. The salesman produced a rectangular case.

Inside, on a bed of red velvet, rested a trombone, a King Silvertone 2B with a solid sterling-silver bell. The horn cost $150, a small fortune, but the owner of the Albany newspaper had offered to make the $15 down payment. Herod took a job paying 25 cents an hour so he could pay off the balance in $10 monthly installments.

Now, six decades later, Herod opened the instrument case.

He traced a finger along the slide of that trombone -- the same trombone he marched with in high school and later took to Denton where he played in the Stage Band, what is now the One O'Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas. It's the same horn he was playing the night he looked up from the orchestra pit and took in a row of cancan dancers performing onstage, students from what is now Texas Woman's University.

In the 1940s, the school was the Texas State College for Women. "TSCW -- Texas' Sweetest Collection of Women," Herod called it. His eyes fixed on one dancer, Rosemary Bennison, a pretty girl he later met, dated and asked to be his wife.

In August, the couple will celebrate their 62nd anniversary.

As Herod returned the gleaming instrument to its case, he thought of his late friend Perry Sandifer. Sandifer played trombone in the Fort Worth Symphony and the Fort Worth Opera orchestras. The man who served as coordinator of music for many years for the Fort Worth school district also played alongside Herod in the city band, well into his 90s. Sandifer died last year at 98.

His wife, Della, honored the lifelong musician's final wish at his funeral. "I don't care about flowers," her husband had told her. "Just put my trombone on top of the casket."

DAVID CASSTEVENS, 817-390-7436

 

 

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