Summer guide: Bristol Band celebrates 150 years

Concerts are held every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. from July 3 through Aug. 28 — Wednesday before Labor Day — in the gazebo on the town green. Bring a lawn chair, blanket or picnic dinner and enjoy an evening of small town entertainment.
BRISTOL — Bristol resident and music teacher Kendra Gratton started playing flute in the Bristol Band at the end of fifth grade in 1975.
“I would pretty much play the first note, a middle note and maybe the last note,” she recalled, laughing. “It went so fast! I just remember getting lost over and over again. But I sat next to a really experienced player, who would reach up and point out where we were (on the sheet music).”
By the time Gratton joined the Bristol Band it had already been around for a century. This town band was founded in 1870 by Smith Hatch and will next year celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Thanks in large part to the band’s encouraging atmosphere in 1975, Gratton, 55, stuck with it.
“It was a safe challenge,” she said. “You didn’t feel like a complete failure if you messed up. We didn’t really have rehearsals back then. We just showed up at the bandstand and started playing.”
KENDRA GRATTON HAS been playing the flute in the Bristol Band since 1975.
Courtesy photo
Some of the most memorable times of her early participation involved “train-wreck endings,” she said.
“Invariably there would be at least one song where the band would end in different moments and sort of peter out, and the brass would kind of go RRAAWwrrrrhhhhhh, just like a comedy, and everyone would just crack up.”
At that time, people would listen from their cars, which were parked around the edges of the Bristol town green.
“They would beep at the end of the songs (instead of clapping),” she said. “So at the end of one of those train-wrecks it would be like ‘… honk …’ ” She laughed. “But after a particularly good Souza march it would be like ‘beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep!’”
The conductor at the time — Roy Clark, for whom the Bristol Memorial Bandstand would later be named — was especially encouraging of the kids, Gratton recalled.
“Once in a while he would pick a young person — and I was frequently that person because I was so intent on being a part of the music — and he would hand over the baton. I’d take it up and all these faces would be looking up at me, this skinny little fifth-grader. I was so terrified but also exhilarated. And I’d go ‘one, two’ (just like Roy did), and they’d all start playing.”
As with her playing in those early years, she couldn’t keep up.
“I didn’t know where we were,” she said, laughing. “But I’d know the song, kind of. You could feel the beginning, middle and end sort of happening, so I’d just keep waving. I think I sort of danced, too.”
But then as the end of a song approached, Gratton would panic because she couldn’t ever remember if there was a “stinger” — a chord, typically played by the entire band on the last beat of the last measure, that’s meant to punctuate the end of a composition.
“It was like, ‘Is there a stinger or no stinger — I don’t know!’ Then it would just … end, and everybody would laugh and my face would be flaming.”
It was always OK, though, because the Bristol Band was never about the songs being perfect, she said. It was about music filling the air.
“People just wanted to hear some music, and between the 40 of us we’d hit the notes,” she said, laughing. “So you left feeling victorious over something.”
The experience of safety and support shaped her participation in organized music. She has played in the past with the Middlebury Wind Ensemble, and sung/played with various local bands in the past 10 years, including an a capella women’s group “The Treble Makers,” a jazz trio known as the “Girls Next Door,” the R&B band “The Flames,” a Vergennes rock band “The Stray Dogs,” and last summer started a vocal/soft rock duet with Lisa Powell called “Sapphire Star.” Plus, the Bristol Band also shaped her development as a music teacher, Gratton said. She currently teaches at Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School, Salisbury Community School and the Vermont Day School in Shelburne.
“It really did affect how I teach now, which is really like investing in kids’ whole bodies to learn music. I’m imagining my fifth-grade self, dancing, as I listened and soaked up the music.”
Times may have changed — the audience sits in chairs now, and the music has gotten more challenging — but some things about Bristol Band concerts feel eternal.
“I can’t imagine summer without them,” Gratton said. “It wouldn’t feel like Bristol anymore, I don’t think.”
The concerts were always a sort of “safe haven,” she explained.
“Nothing bad ever happened on Wednesday nights. Well … my brother got run over by a bicycle once,” she added, laughing. “But it’s really amazingly safe, still, even in this day and age.
“There’s something about the safety in a small town that is so comforting in this world now.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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