City Bands Embodied Early Montana Communities (Part 1 of 3)
The history of the Missoula City Band in many ways mirrors the history of Missoula, Montana. Since Missoula’s virtual beginning – the time Montana was only a territory and not yet a state – the Missoula City Band played.
Through two world wars and the Great Depression, through a surge of pioneers moving west and into contemporary times, its horns blew, reeds vibrated, drummers drummed and cymbals crashed. And our community has enjoyed many great performances.
“The Missoula City Band: Stories in Time” reaches back to the band’s establishment in 1865, and brings readers to the end of the 20th century. Culled from the local historical record, including old newspaper articles, city archives and oral interviews, it presents countless entertaining and illuminating stories of the band through history.
Learn about its maestros, its musicians, its triumphant as well as trying moments. From page to page, you will see that the spirit of Missoula has been embodied, since the town’s virtual start, by its band. And now, thanks to its current director, Gary L. Gillett, and a supporting cast of several band members, we have this well-presented and insightful look into the band’s history to enjoy.
Gillett recently retired after 41 years of teaching music. He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, went to the University of Michigan and studied with the greats – including Dr. William Revelli. A command performance at Carnegie Hall capped his “eastern years.” He moved “out west” to Nevada briefly, and then home to Montana. A Master’s of Music Education from the University of Montana and a Fellowship to Northwestern University to study with Dr. John Paynter continued his professional development. Conducting the Missoula City Band in weekly concerts at the Bonner Park Bandshell since 1993 has been the thrill of a lifetime for Gillett.
In 1865, the Missoula City Band formed under the leadership of John Barnicort. Members met fully intending to become good enough to perform in public. The band began only five years after the establishment of the first permanent white settlement in the Missoula Valley – a trading post called Hellgate Village. Created in 1860 by C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden, the trading post sat near the western edge of the valley on Grant Creek. Several years later, Worden and Higgins established a sawmill and flour mill east of Hellgate on Rattlesnake Creek. Settlers called the area “Missoula Mills.”
So virtually from its founding, Missoula was accompanied and enlightened by a band. The first public announcement read: “The Missoula Horn-blowing Association ... to serenade as soon as the first tune can be derived from those brassy things.”
At the time of the Missoula City Band’s formation, city bands were so popular in America that virtually every municipality in the country could boast of having at least one. Bands defined American culture, and by the early 20th century hardly a public occasion passed anywhere in the nation without the sound of the brasses, woodwinds, drums and cymbals. In Missoula, the City Band assumed a large role in solidifying the cultural development of the community. The band embodied the spirit of the place. Most Missoulians received their first and, in many instances, only exposure to the music of Mozart, Sousa, Beethoven, K.L. King, Rossini, Verdi, Liszt and Wagner through City Band performances.
The Missoulian recorded the band’s first documented performance on Sept. 12, 1879, stating the band played “a hop” at the Missoula County Courthouse. The paper noted additional performances every few months. At another early documented gig in 1881, the band performed for a Friday night dance at the fair. The fairgrounds became a frequent performance venue for the band, and one story said, “The boys always have a good time down there.” The band played at other sites as well, such as a New Year’s Eve dance at Kennedy Hall in 1885. Throughout that summer, they also performed regular outdoor concerts and even ordered torches to help light the evening festivities.
The band’s first major public performance, though, came in 1893, at the Women’s Relief Corps’ Memorial Day celebration and parade. The Garden City Band played at the Courthouse Square that evening. The Anaconda Standard, looking ahead to the performance, made these less than optimistic remarks: “It is an open question whether it would be well to pray for rain or pleasant weather. The powerfully noisy possibilities of the instruments, along with the fact that the boys have not had much practice time, there is consternation that the appearance under these circumstances will be a howling success!?” Band members insisted a pleasant surprise was in store for the good people of Missoula, and the town folks hoped so. The proposed program included a solo titled “Alice, Where Art Thou?” but, as was feared, the selection was deemed inappropriate for a Memorial Day celebration. So, the featured cornet soloist packed up his belongings and went off on vacation. Yes, that number was stricken from the program.
Unfortunately, the papers printed no reviews of the Memorial Day concert. Nevertheless, this first major public appearance of the band raised much interest and attracted many audience members to future performances.
Gary L. Gillett
Missoula City Band
Missoula Community Big Band
Photo: “The Missoula City Band: Stories in Time” book cover (Courtesy of Gary L. Gillett)