A Band For The Ages
By Ashley Zuelke
Among a scattering of Griz hats and music stands, more than seventy current and former UM students spanning eight decades rehearsed for the twentieth time in a small basement performance room.
Above: The Alumni Band celebrates its twentieth birthday during the 2008 Homecoming parade. Right: UM’s fight song, ”Up With Montana,“ is a staple of the band’s playlist.
GIs, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials—they all were on the same page through a routine bookended by a twenty-first century rock-’n’-roll tune and a century-old fight song.
On the first and only day of practice for the 2008 UM Alumni Band, students joined their predecessors to fill out the drum, wind, and brass sections. Some snapped photos. And as the ensemble hit the punchy “bah dat-da-dah dat-da bah dat-da-dahs” of the UM Marching Band’s halftime number, more students poked their heads in the door. They began striking notes in the air and directing the percussion.
The alumni and current students, within the usual joking around, pointed out inconsistencies when the band practiced UM’s fight song “Up with Montana.” Lance Boyd, longtime director of UM’s Jazz Band, was amazed at the exchange.
“We didn’t do it that way, we did it this way,” Boyd says band members commented to one another.
That dynamic melding of past and present students was an echo of an event twenty years ago in that small basement performance room.
During Homecoming festivities for the College of Fine Arts in 1988, then-Director of Bands Tom Cook asked Department of Music alumni to join a concert band rehearsal. “We read through some music together and had a wonderful time,” he says.
Cook then requested that anyone interested in forming a band for alumni stay after. About ten did.
Fred Nelson, a 1952 graduate of the music program, was elected the first UM Alumni Band chair, and he jumped right into the role.
For days, Nelson and Hal Herbig, who would go on to direct the Alumni Jazz Band for eighteen years, sifted through hundreds of concert programs dating back to the 1930s, plucking out names and connecting them to addresses. With the help of the Alumni Association, they sent letters to dozens of alumni. More than forty of them came back to participate in the Alumni Band’s inaugural Homecoming parade march in 1989.
Nelson led the initial band behind a makeshift banner on the traditional route up Higgins and down University Avenue.
“People knew who we were, we wanted to make sure of that,” Nelson says. “And they were surprised. We got a lot of older grads who were really thrilled because we played an old fight song from back in the ’50s and ’40s, ‘Hail Copper.’”
Fred Nelson (left in hat), the first UM Alumni band chair, helped jump-start the program.
Nelson would be the first to see onlookers’ excitement upon the band’s approach as its parade leader for the next sixteen years.
“He was so dedicated to the project. He’s really the one that pushed us to work,” Cook says.
“He built a legacy.”
On a crisp mid-September morning, an hour before the Homecoming parade, almost eighty alumni formed five lines in the street next to the University Theatre.
“OK,” UM Director of Bands James Smart yells out, “We’ll do the Grizzly fight song, ‘Montana,’ and ‘Hail Copper.’”
“You’ve been through it before. It pretty much runs itself. Just remember the last tune you played,” he says, garnering some snickers from older members.
After a lead-in drum cadence, the trombones and brass started off with some shaky notes, getting stronger with each one. The wind section easily fell into tune. By the time the band reached its second number, the excitement was palpable. “M-O-N-T-A-N-A!” they shouted while singing the state song. And the band carried its volume throughout the parade.
“Our aim is not to be the sharpest band in the parade because we know we won’t be,” Nelson says. “But our aim is to be the most fun.”
Spectators unfailingly give the Alumni Band a warm reception. This year as the band turned onto the last leg of the parade, seated onlookers stood up to cheer and nearly everyone clapped along.
“These people are doing the same thing they’ve been doing since the ’40s,” Boyd says of the Alumni Band. (He was forced to join the trombone section this year on a wager.) To him, it’s only natural that the crowd will identify with the band.
Top to bottom: Scott McKenzie, the current Alumni Band president, recruited his family to join the band this year; Don Stanaway, led the trombone section in push-ups at the game to get the crowd energized;
The Alumni Band transcends age with members ranging from their twenties to their eighties involved in performing at UM every fall.
“People always respond to tradition,” he says.
Fittingly, the UM Marching Band kicks off the parade and the Alumni Band brings up the rear—the current students welcome the graduates back home.
So alumni come every year to make music again, to relive the good old days.
After seeing the inaugural band’s two cheerleaders—Nelson and Herbig—trombone player Don Stanaway decided his section needed to do its part. “So I got the trombone section to do push-ups,” he says. And Stanaway, in his late 70s, led his section in push-ups at the football game during the band’s twentieth meeting.
What brings him back? “The feeling that you get when you come to support your school,” he says. “How many alumni can do what we do?”
Virginia Vinal, a 1950 graduate of UM and Alumni Band member for nineteen years, has seen the group’s participation fluctuate, but she’s quick to point out that new alumni have taken the older members’ places in line. She insists the band won’t lose steam. “If people didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t come back,” she says.
When the band began, the majority of the group was from the graduating classes of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Now, most members are from the classes of the ’80s and ’90s, Nelson says. Because of a hiatus in the UM Marching Band program during the late ’60s and ’70s, the Alumni Band has few members from those years.
Phil Doty, another original member and ’64 graduate, says he and other alumni saw the need for a boost in UM’s marching band when the Grizzly football team made it to the playoffs in 2001. The Grizzlies had little musical support compared to team rivals, Doty says. Shortly after, UM began its scholarship program for marching band members.
But throughout the past twenty years the Alumni Band has consistently provided a support group for students. The Alumni Band has donated music stands, instruments, or “whatever the director thinks they need,” Doty says.
Every year, Nelson estimates, alumni contribute about $2,000 in small donations to the UM bands.
“It’s our way of saying thank you,” Stanaway says.
For some members, marching with the Alumni Band is the highlight of their year. For others, such as Grant and Diane Thraikill, participating has added a new dimension to their marriage. And a good portion of members makes the band a family tradition.
New Alumni Band President Scott McKenzie, a ’94 alumnus, recruited his family for the band this year. His grandson, three-month-old Benjamin, became the band’s youngest member as his son, Peter, packed the baby while playing the trombone. McKenzie’s daughter-in-law played the clarinet. And her mother? She was the baton twirler.
The Alumni Band is the sum of its parts. It’s people like nineteen-year member Linda Morkert who provides the band with maroon gear to buy for the parade. It’s the dozen members and UM faculty who meet at a corner table at Finnegan’s restaurant four to six times a year to coordinate each Homecoming and gather enough instruments. And it’s the new members who come back and replenish the organization’s spirit.
To Nelson, the band transcends age. “Members range from their twenties to their eighties,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they cannot relate.
“I’ve always believed that in music, there are no generations.”
Ashley Zuelke ’09 is an assistant news editor with UM’s University Relations. She will graduate with degrees in print journalism and international relations/comparative politics, as well as a French minor. She most recently worked as a copy editor in Tacoma, Wash., through the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.