Bristol Town Band fetes 150 years, honors members
BRISTOL — Next year, the Bristol Town Band — you know, the musicians that gather to play in the park every Wednesday evening through the summer — celebrates 150 years. That’s right, 150 years. And it’s about time they get some recognition.
The group got together in 1870, started by Smith Hatch, and has existed (in one form or another) ever since. In 1983, longtime band director Roy Clark stepped aside due to ill health and Mount Abraham music teacher William “Bill” Bowers took over as band conductor. At the same time Ken Weston took on the duties of band manager. For the past 36 years these two have kept this wonderful musical tradition alive and well in Bristol.
This Sunday, April 7, the 5 Town Friends of the Arts group (representing the towns of Bristol, Monkton, New Haven, Lincoln and Starksboro) will honor Bowers, Weston and the Bristol Town Band at Holley Hall in Bristol, from 1-3 p.m. The public is invited to come enjoy refreshments, music and stories by current and past band members.
“We nominate a bunch of people every year who have contributed to the arts for a long time,” said Rick Ceballos, who is co-chair of 5 Town Friends of the Arts with Linda Cormany. “Bill’s name came up because of his work at the high school and with the Bristol Band… But then someone said, ‘Well, wait a minute, if you’re going to talk about the Bristol Band you have to include Ken too’… and then we found out how long the band has been in existence.”
At that point, the 12 volunteer members of the board, agreed. Bowers, Weston and the Bristol Town Band would share the honor this year during the group’s annual meeting/celebration on Sunday.
Last year the honor went to Marianne Lust and Deborah Lubar; and the year before that it was Pete Sutherland. This is the sixth year that 5 Town Friends of the Arts has given this type of honor.
THE BRISTOL TOWN Band has been around a long time. This photo was taken sometime before 1920.
Photo courtesy of the Henry Sheldon Museum
The first thing you should know about Ken Weston is that he’s almost 87 years old (the oldest band member with the longest tenure) and is still playing a horn. It’s an alto horn, called the mellophone — and it takes a lot of wind.
Weston moved to Bristol in 1960, bought the house across from Clark, the former band director, and joined the band in the summer of ’61. “Roy recruited me,” said Weston, the father of six. “We had young children at the time and Roy needed my wife and I to come play so he found a babysitter for us.”
Weston didn’t have any formal music training. He grew up learning to play on his own in Conway, Mass., where he and friends started a square dance band. When he came to Bristol he worked for A. Johnson as a forester and land surveyor for 15 years. Then he started his own business as a land surveyor, moved with his wife from the village out to their farm in Bristol — where they also raise Christmas trees.
“A lot of these town bands got started right after the Civil War,” Weston explained. “They wanted to keep the music going… It’s one of the few remnants of the Civil War we still have.”
But don’t get bogged down with the history, Weston certainly doesn’t. “We all play because we enjoy it,” he said. “I think of the band as part of the community, and I think quite a few people recognize this as an institution that the community wants to keep going.”
Sure the band has had its ups and downs over the years. Like when Weston first joined there weren’t too many people. “We were lucky to get 12-15 people out for a concert,” he said. “It wasn’t as organized as it is now. I think we have members from 15-16 different towns.”
The Bristol Town Band now boasts around 55 members, with 40 or so showing up for each Wednesday concert. “We play a lot more upbeat and modern music these days,” said Weston, remembering a time that the band only played marches. “We’re playing stuff now that the band wouldn’t dare play 25-30 years ago, because it’s too difficult. We’ve had people tells us we sound pretty good. Bill makes sure we sound good. He gets the credit, I just show up.”
Bowers comes from more formal musical training than Weston. He got his start as a kid and pursued his musical education degree in college (he graduated from what was Glassboro State College in New Jersey in 1963). Then he was drafted in ’64 and played in the U.S. Army School of Music with the First Army Band in New York City.
“We got to play for dignitaries and march in parades and all that good stuff,” remembered Bowers, who plays the tuba, trombone and swing bass.
Bowers got out of the army in 1967, married his wife who he met in New York City and took a job teaching instrumental music to students in grades 3-9 in New Jersey.
“We decided we weren’t too crazy about living in New Jersey any more, so we took a trip up to Vermont,” he said. After a fateful stop into a real estate office in Vergennes, Bowers found himself with an offer to teach music at Mount Abe and Vergennes high schools, as well as Bristol and New Haven elementary schools.
“It was a hectic two years,” he said. “Then Mount Abe hired me full-time in 1971… and I stayed until 2000. I put in 31 years there.”
Somewhere in the middle (1985 to be exact), Weston asked Bowers if he was interested in taking over the Bristol Band.
“I told Ken I would,” said Bowers, who had taught all six of the Weston kids in school. “Ken used to bring all the music in a suitcase, a lot of marches… pretty limited. My idea was to make it more varied, and introduce some show tunes and pop tunes — I borrowed music we were playing at Mount Abe. Eventually members joined and now we’re up to 50-plus members. Fortunately they don’t all show up to play on Wednesday nights, because they wouldn’t all fit on the bandstand.”
Long gone are the days of carrying the sheet music in a suitcase too. Now each person has their own binder of loose leaf music. They have over 180 pieces in the concert book for Wednesday nights, plus 80 pieces in an alternative book for smaller groups that use fewer instruments and marches too.
“I’m proud of that fact that I built it up, like a concert band with the town band flavor,” said Bower, explaining that the flavor of the “town band” is much more relaxed and includes socializing between songs. “We joke around and have fun up there. That’s my claim to fame.”
There are no tryouts. Anyone who would like to play, can just show up and play.
“We have a bunch of people who are really good at sight-reading music, others play by ear… sometimes out-of-towners come and sit in, too,” Bowers said. “Then on occasion you get someone who’s not so good… You just grit your teeth and smile, and hope they don’t come back next week. That doesn’t happen too often, but it could and that’s your town band — it could be a pretty miserable or it could be great.”
Beyond the Wednesday night performances, the Bristol Town Band or Ridge Runners (a small group started by Weston) play around the county for other occasions. Like, for example, Ridge Runners plays at Project Independence once a month all year round. The Bristol Band also plays once a year at Porter Nursing Home. And they play for special occasions too.
Come on out this Sunday afternoon to celebrate the band’s 150 years (OK, just 149 years) and thank Bowers and Weston for their enthusiasm for the Bristol Town Band.
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