Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The American Band

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: The American Band

Detail of historical image of Reeve's American Band.
Detail of historical image from www.theamericanband.org.

They're coming to your town, they'll help you party it down.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from an Old Stone Bank educational pamphlet published by the Providence Institution for Savings on October 26, 1931. Reprinted in The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. IV, pages 174-177, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1944. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

EVERYTHING seems to have its period of It vogue, sometimes enduring and sometimes brief. It is, of course, especially easy to corroborate such a statement in one instance by pointing to the constantly changing styles in clothes. But the same thing applies in nearly every field. The generations that preferred the legitimate stage, the pleasure of evenings of quiet conversation, the coal stove, fresh vegetables, the victrola, walking, and feminine women have, with slight exception, given way to those which favor motion pictures, evenings of bridge or cocktails, gas and electric ranges, canned goods, the radio, the automobile, and the more forward and aggressive female. We shall not foolishly insist that such preferences are entirely founded upon whim. The inventions that have accelerated the tempo of everyday life must be held largely responsible. We only are tempted to wonder why the things that would seem to possess intrinsic qualities of endurance through any age should fall from full favor in such marked degree. This is the case with such a thing as band music.

During the past century the band, as a musical ensemble, was extremely popular, not only as a unit of street parades, but as a source of entertainment through the medium of public concerts, held outdoors and in. In the latter part of the century there were hundreds of well known bands and many famous band leaders, where now there are comparatively few with only a few such names as Sousa and Pryor familiar to the average individual.

Along in the early 1820s there were in Rhode Island and Providence particularly what were known as "Martial Teams," then "Martial Bands." These teams at first consisted of but a fife and a small drum. Later the bugle was added, followed by the bass drum, the clarinet, and the trombone. "Joe" Greene, of whom we shall write more fully later, had a "Martial Band" in the '20s, consisting of two bugles, one trombone, a bass drum, and a fife and small drum. This furnished some of the first regular band music this side of Boston. In 1826, William Hamilton came to town bringing what was called a "menagerie" band and a personal reputation for bugling. He immediately received an offer from the First Light Infantry Company to settle in town for good. (We might note here that the early bandsmen, leaders included, did not follow their musical calling as a full-time profession but only turned to it in the evenings when their business day drew to a close.)

Hamilton accepted the invitation, set up in business in Providence, and organized a small band that attained swift popularity. He filled many local engagements, importing extra talent from Boston whenever necessary. With his five-keyed Kent bugle, he himself was able to thrill many an audience with clever solo playing. In 1829, he was presented with a handsome nine-keyed B flat instrument but it took him some time to master it thoroughly. Meanwhile he began to have a rival. In Newport, a young man by the name of "Ned" Kendall, a good violinist with a marked versatility as far as all instruments were concerned, happened to hear Hamilton play, took a liking to bugling, and set about learning the art. His progress with the instrument was so rapid that when he asked Hamilton for a place in his band, the latter took him on. It soon became perfectly evident that he could "play circles" around Hamilton, improvising variations that the other had not the skill to match. However, in 1830, "Ned" Kendall went to Boston to become the leader of a Boston band and left the field clear for Hamilton.

In 1832, the State Fencibles of Philadelphia came to town, bringing with them Frank Johnson's Colored Band of twenty-four players. The First Light Infantry planned a great musical celebration using both Johnson's and Hamilton's bands. The latter did not take to this kindly and flatly refused to play with colored musicians. Consequently, during the scheduled parade, Johnson's Band marched up Benefit Street, while Hamilton's Band came up South Main Street. Johnson's men were excellent musicians and he himself was very obliging in playing as many pieces as his audiences desired. Hamilton was censured for his prejudices but the matter passed over and he soon regained popularity. However, he did not remain in Providence long afterwards, but moved to Hartford.

In 1837, stimulated to action by the formation of the Boston Brass Band two years before, a group of fourteen interested musicians gathered in the counting room of Benjamin P. Robinson on Canal Street to discuss the organization of a new band. The available instruments were four bugles, four horns, two trombones, two drums, a trumpet, fife and cymbals. "Joe" Greene was chosen leader, and thus what was to be the American Band came into being. Practice began at once in rooms on South Water Street, and by January, 1838, a first series of six subscription concerts was launched at City Hall. That these were very successful is revealed in a newspaper item stating that "the band will shortly appear in a new uniform which the generosity of the subscribers to the course of concerts has mainly enabled them to obtain."

The band's first appearance in parade was in April, 1838, the members resplendent in full uniform, their music setting the step for the First Light Infantry Company. Later in the year they went to Stonington for their first parade outside the city. The following season "Joe" Greene went with the Boston Brass Band and Benjamin West took over the leadership of the Providence organization till his return two years later. From then until 1865, "Joe" Greene continued as leader of the band, reaping abundant glory for both the organization and himself.

He had been born in Johnston but had spent his boyhood in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. While in the latter place he bought a three dollar bugle from a passing stagedriver and taught himself how to play. Later, in the height of his career, he was presented with a solid silver E flat bugle, equipped with twelve solid gold keys and a solid gold mouthpiece. With this magnificent instrument he used to play his famous solo, "Wood Up," to the never lessening delight of all listeners.

His band played for the renowned concert when Jenny Lind made her appearance in Howard Hall in 1850, but this was only one of the first of a host of prominent engagements, during which the band traveled through all New England, through the west and south, and even parts of Canada. Excursions, Brown commencements, parades, Masonic and military functions, in fact every occasion where a good band was needed found the organization in demand. In 1853, it was incorporated as the American Brass Band and was definitely attached to the 2nd Brigade of Militia. Later, the name "Brass" was dropped from the title inasmuch as at least ten other bands throughout the country had copied the former name.

The year 1861 found the band in the Civil War as a part of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Its members seem to have escaped unscathed in the battle of Bull Run but in the melee of that retreat "Joe" Greene and a companion had to discard the big bass drum.

With the close of the war "Joe" Greene resigned from the leadership although he continued to march with the band and even tried to organize a new one before his death. The next leader, already famous not only in this country but in England, Ireland, and Germany, relinquished his term of service with Dodsworth's [sic] great New York band to come to Providence in 1866. This was Daniel Wallis Reeves, one of the most noted band leaders of all time and the man whom Sousa, with deep reverence, has called "The Father of Band Music in America." He was a hard master at rehearsals but he moulded the American Band of Providence into perhaps the greatest unit of its day and kind, and it was small wonder that it soon became known as "Reeves' American Band" throughout march-loving America.

Reeve's American Band, Willow Grove, Illinois, circa 1902.
Reeve's American Band at a gig in Willow Grove, Illinois, circa 1902. From the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Reeves was a thorough musician, dedicating his life to his art and working for principles far beyond popular comprehension. He was a copious composer of martial music, always having something ready for publication. In this field his famous "2d Regiment March" alone won him international renown that has endured to this day. Many of his other compositions were likewise dedicatory in name. It was he who gave the first outdoor presentation of "Pinafore" at the old Park Garden, using a real boat on real water. He gave many other concerts at the Garden and at Crescent Park.

Under Reeves the band reached its greatest popularity, playing in nearly every prominent city of the country, despite those who tried to keep the organization in Providence. Reeves personally assumed all financial expenses, a large burden, music alone costing $5,000 a year. There was a short interlude during which he took charge of the Gilmore Band following P.S. Gilmore's death but he finally returned to Providence and directed the American Band until his death. At his funeral in the old First Baptist Meeting House the band played his own dirge "Immortelle" as he had requested.

Fountain honoring David Wallace Reeves, 2020.
This white marble fountain, honoring David Wallace Reeves, and designed by William T. Aldrich, was placed near the bandstand in Roger Williams Park in 1926. As of 2020 it's adjacent to the carousel. (July 14, 2020).

The band then passed into the hands of Warren R. Fales, a well known Rhode Island character, who also bought Reeves' vast musical library. But the peak of the band's glory was past. It died with Reeves. Momentum carried it on a while but it never attained the same heights.

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes

Here's a list of the fourteen original members of the American Brass Band and the instruments they played (from The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical by the American Historical Society, Inc. (1920)):

Joseph C. Greene............................E Bugle
Benjamin G. West..............1st B Bugle Principal
Simon Packard.........................B Bugle Primo
Esbeck B. MacDonald.................B Bugle Secondo
Seth B. Cook, Jr..........................E Trumpet
Henry S. Cartee.........................B Post Horn
Alfred Potter............................Small Drum
David T. Capron.....................1st French Horn
Joshua Hathaway.....................2nd Wrench Horn
Benjamin J. Bliven.................. Tenor Trombone
Moses C. Dunbar.......................Bass Trombone
Henry E. Barney...........................Bass Horn
William G. Dickney........................Bass Drum
Benjamin P. Robinson...............Fife and Cymbals

"Joe" Greene: Was born January 16, 1810, died December 23, 1891, and is buried in North Burial Ground.

City Hall: The venue where the American Brass Band played their first concerts in 1838 was actually City Hotel, located on Weybosset Street. City Hall (aka Harrington's Opera House), located where the present City Hall (the municipal building) stands, wasn't built until 1865.

Howard Hall: Was located at Westminster and Dorrance in Providence. There were actually four buildings on this site with similar names. The first, built in 1847, burned on November 15, 1853. A replacement was built in 1854 and burned in November 1858. Despite its small capacity, the location hosted many of the big names of the day, including Jenny Lind, Daniel Webster, Edgar Allan Poe, Sam Houston, and General Tom Thumb. The third ediface, known as the Howard Building, was built in 1859 and, having suffered flood damage during 1954's Hurricane Carol, was demolished in 1957. The current "ten-story ultra modern" Howard Building was built in 1959.

2d Regiment March: Reeves' "2nd Regiment March" (1877) was dedicated to the officers and members of the Connecticut National Guard.

Park Garden: From King's Pocket-book of Providence, R.I. by Moses King (1882): "PARK GARDEN, Broad St., is a carefully planned summer garden, several acres in extent, and well laid out in lawns, lakes, paths, etc. The grounds contain a pavilion for theatrical and other entertainments, summer-houses, and other buildings, chiefly in the Japanese style. In the evening, the electric light, hundreds of gas-jets, and pyrotechnic displays furnish brilliant illuminations. 'Pinafore' on the lake made a decided hit in 1879. In the season the grounds are open afternoons and evenings. Horse-cars marked 'Park Garden' start from Market Sq."

From a 1987 Providence Journal profile of Elmwood: "In 1878, a 30-acre tract bounded by Broad, Sumter, Niagara and Sackett Streets was transformed into Park Garden, a summer amusement park landscaped with lawns, gardens, lakes and paths dotted with Japanese-style pavilions. In the 1890s, it was platted into house lots and sold, although a part survived as Adelaide Park until about 1905. An Adelaide Park baseball field served as the home of the Providence Grays National League baseball team until the team moved to Melrose Park, located on the south side of Thackery Street west of Melrose Street."

American Band 180th anniversary logo, 2017.
The American Band celebrated their 180th anniversary with a concert at Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College on November 5, 2017. (Facebook).

A Rhode Island Historical Society finding aid on American Brass Band records fills in some of the post-Reeves history: "At this point Bowen R. Church, the assistant conductor, took over as the band's general director like he had done in 1892. But it was not long before Church resumed his former position as assistant conductor. He was succeeded as leader first by Herbert L. Clarke, then Edward M. Fay. Fay's decision to rename the band Fay's American Band (circa 1906) was a source of much controversy amongst past and present members. By now, the band's popularity and artistic integrity were starting to decline from what it had been during the Reeves period, although it continued to tour successfully on a national level. It was around this time that Robinson, the last of the band's charter members, passed away at age 96. Warren Fales, town councilman of East Providence and financial backer of the ABB, soon replaced Fay as general director. Although he was not a musician, Fales helped the ABB regain some of its former prestige and formed a tradition where each concert began with one of D.W. Reeves's marches. The band leaders that came after Fales were Joseph Lemaire, Frank Wollenberg, and Alfred Archambault. In 1978, ABB underwent a complete reorganization under a new music director: Dr. Francis M. Marciniak, Director of Bands at Rhode Island College. Dr. Gene Pollart took over as director in 1996."

Bowen L. Church statue, Roger Williams Park, Providence, 2007.
A bronze statue commemorating bandleader Bowen L. Church, designed by Aristide B. Cianfarani, was installed in Roger Williams Park in 1928. (August 25, 2007).

"Since the death of Dr. Marciniak in May of 1996," notes theamericanband.org, "the band was under the baton of Dr. Gene Pollart of the University of Rhode Island until his retirement in April of 2013. Currently the Band is under the leadership of Dr. Brian Cardany of the University of Rhode Island."

Thanks to Sheila Lennon from the Providence Journal, for supplying additional information on City Hotel and Park Garden.

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