Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Band on the Run

Yesterday, we were dodging the remnants of Hurricane Irma, and for much of that time, I was checking Facebook to make sure that our friends farther south were weathering it all without damage or injury. Once the downgraded tropical storm arrived here in Atlanta, it was a case of staying put and hoping for the best. But in the early morning, while the winds were still rather calm, a high school friend of mine posted a note on Facebook, looking for people who had been in our high school band. That set off a chain reaction of nostalgic posts which ended up putting a nice polish on an otherwise stressful day.

The Treadwell High School Band, 1972-1973
The Treadwell High School Marching Band was an institution in my hometown of Memphis. Under the direction of Dr. Harlo McCall, an accomplished musician who had graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music, the Treadwell band had truly "gone places." The band played all around the Mid-South, toured in Mexico, and even played in the Rose Bowl Parade one year. But Dr. McCall, or "Doc" as we called him, suffered a heart attack when I was in ninth grade and ended up leaving his position at Treadwell. Since he was such an icon at the school, the future of the band was somewhat up in the air.

Mr. Wilson took over the band when I was in ninth grade, and for a time, chaos ensued. It wasn't necessarily Mr. Wilson's doing, but some people had taken Dr. McCall's absence as an opportunity to turn the band period into a free-for-all. I distinctly remember one day when an exasperated Mr. Wilson stood on the podium as band members yelled and threw smoke bombs across the floor. The rehearsal had been an unmitigated disaster. Someone must have called their parents, because a few minutes before the end of the band period, one of the band moms suddenly appeared at the door to the band room, and looking on in horror, she yelled, "What are y'all doing to your BAND?" That was a low point, but it was also a turning point.

Mr. Cleotha R. Strong
We finished out that school year, and on the first day of the fall semester, we had a new sheriff in town. His name was Cleotha R. Strong. He was a tall, stylish man who bore a striking resemblance to Richard Roundtree of "Shaft" fame. We were somewhat intrigued by his calm, yet commanding, demeanor. Mr. Strong ("C.R.", the other teachers called him) told us that he played electric bass in what he called a "jazz combo." His appointment to the position so long held by "Doc" was to some students and parents controversial, but my friends and I noticed a few things about Mr. Strong: he was always willing to help any band member, he liked exploring new music, and he could talk about almost any subject.

Our Treadwell cafeteria was adjacent to the band room, so fairly soon into the new school year, several of us started finishing our lunches early and heading to the band room to hang out with Mr. Strong. He would bring all these albums from musicians we'd never heard, but he could discuss the music of any current band we happened to be listening to at the moment: he was equally as comfortable with Led Zeppelin as he was with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Most of all, he seemed to enjoy spending time with us, and fairly soon, the band as a whole began to pick up on this. He was nice to people, and he gained a following among Treadwell students, regardless of whether they were members of the band.

Mr. Strong could be a strict disciplinarian when necessary, but that firmness was always complemented by a desire to make us better musicians. Many afternoons after school, we would line up outside to practice marching, and for some otherwise well-mannered students, the idea of behaving during this time simply proved too demanding. I remember that my friend Mike, an honor student when not in band, would taunt Mr. Strong about staying in line, to which Mr. Strong, from behind his ultra-cool wraparound sunglasses, would reply with some admonition that generally kept the rest of us in stitches. My friend Charles was an excellent trumpet player, but he loved to talk. When this would happen during rehearsals, Mr. Strong, without missing a beat, would say, "Charles, shut yo' mouth." Business as usual.

(L to R) Neil Conner, Charly McClain, Anne Freeman,
Richard Brooks, Tim Howard, Lewis Wright
The long and the short of this story is that we came back as a serious high school band. Under Mr. Strong's leadership, we entered all kinds of band competitions, marched in parades in Memphis and elsewhere in Tennessee and Arkansas, and played at every football game. We played on nights when it was below freezing, and we played on days when it approached a hundred degrees. It was like we never stopped playing.

I was very honored during my senior year to serve as the drum major for the band. I will never forget the experiences I had: keeping track of who was looking faint (and who fainted) during lineups for parades, making sure we knew where we were going when we marched down Main Street, and keeping track of everyone who was supposed to be on the buses. One night late in my senior year, while we were at a band competition in Knoxville, I pulled out my acoustic guitar and started playing in our hotel room. A few other people joined me, and within about a half hour, almost all the members of the band, along with our chaperones, were either in or just outside the room, singing along. Right in the midst of our spontaneous merriment, Mr. Strong appeared, smiling from ear to ear. That moment absolutely made my senior year.

In my time in the band, I played trumpet, flugelhorn (Chuck Mangione's favorite), and French horn. I found, and still find, the performance of music fascinating, but equally as enjoyable during those band years was just being part of that group. People who use the term "band geeks" may be missing out on the true spirit of being in a band. There's a camaraderie in a band that is born of hours of rehearsals, physical exertion and exhaustion, and riding bumpy buses to and from performances. For me, at least, it was one excellent period of my life, and that Facebook post yesterday brought it all back.

To those of you who may be reading this and who enjoyed being part of the Treadwell band, you know what I mean: our shared experiences were demanding, yet incredibly rewarding. In my own case, I emerged from junior high a bit timid, but by the time I completed my years in band, I had the whole social thing down, and I suspect that holds for many of you. The good times we all shared were something that we might not be able to replicate, but in those days we grew, we forged friendships and respect, and we definitely made some memories.

Sending peace to all you Eagles, wherever you may be.