In 1865, the Missoula City Band formed under the leadership of John Barnicort.
And so it begins.
Gary Gillett spent the past quarter of a century researching, and all last year writing, the history of the city band he has directed since 1992.
It’s done and published and will enjoy a release “spectacular” at the band’s weekly summer concert on Wednesday (8 p.m., Bonner Park, free, bring a blanket or chair).
With Gillett in charge, who knows what a book release concert spectacular involves, other than there’ll be lots of music and lots of laughs?
“For the most part I’ve been sleeping well,” said Gillett, who dropped off a copy of the 104-page book titled, of all things, “The Missoula City Band,” at the Missoulian last week.
“Occasionally something would pop up in the twilight of sleep, like — omigod, there’s a connection with Pete Lawrenson, the old Missoula city police chief,” he said.
Let’s back up. On second thought, this being Gillett’s story, let’s forge ahead.
Chapter 10 is “The Lawrenson Legacy.” It’s about what Gillett calls the "father-son dynasty" of Charles and George Lawrenson with the Missoula City Band. Charles led it from 1907 to 1927. After that, he and George tag-teamed its direction into the 1940s.
“Lawrenson. That name finally clicked with me, so I started digging. The next thing I knew I was on the phone with Pete Lawrenson in Somewhere, Arizona,” Gillett said.
Yes, Charles and George were his great-grandfather and grandfather, Pete told him. His father, George Jr., became the third generation of the legacy when at age 7 in 1929 he was invited to guest-conduct Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” His dad and granddad played along in the front row.
As for the fourth generation of Lawrensons?
“Pete told me he tried,” Gillett said. “He studied piano, but he was much more talented at baseball than music.”
By the mid-1890s, the City Band had emerged as the default ‘go to’ organization in town for civic events.
“The older I get, the more that I find history interests me,” Gillett said.
He's a genuinely funny man who retired from Sentinel High School in 2016 after 41 years of teaching music, 30 of it in Missoula high schools.
Gillett would find time in summers to go down to the public library, take out the microfiche and “find out something that was done 100 years ago by the Missoula City Band,” he said.
There were feature articles on the band in the Missoulian over the years, but no one had written a comprehensive history.
Gillett shakes his head in wonder at something called Chromebook. He learned it at his last in-service at Sentinel before retirement.
“The thing doesn’t even have a hard drive,” he said on his “dumb phone” following a friend and fellow band director’s retirement party in Victor. “Everything’s stored on the cloud.”
He’d given his computer away "to a brother who needed it.” So when it came time to write the book it was “me in my Barcalounger with my Chromebook, early in the morning.”
“On good mornings, being retired, I could roll over and go back to sleep,” Gillett said. “Some days were earlier than others if I had thoughts going through my brain.”
By 1914, concerts at the courthouse yard on Friday evenings had become the rule.
Three people volunteered to edit his book “because they all know how I talk,” Gillett speculated.
He took up all three offers, sending each of the 12 chapters first to Ross Peterson in Kalispell, the son of friend and fellow music teacher Dean Peterson, for a good read-through; next to Don Spritzer, Missoula historian and retired reference librarian, who edited for content and flow; and finally to George Washington in Post Falls, Idaho, to proofread.
“He’s actually a very good writer, but my wife tells me when writers start writing they don’t worry about punctuation and spelling. They just want to get words on paper,” said Washington, 76, who played tuba in the Missoula city and community bands for 30 years and still oompahs today.
Along about Chapter 8, Washington received the offering with a note: “Try to find something wrong with this one,” Gillett challenged.
“Well, I did,” Washington said with a chuckle.
Gillett’s a trombonist, but he’s a tuba player too. Washington said Gillett’s son Kyle, who took up the tuba as a boy more than 20 years ago, “is frankly the second best tubist in the state of Montana.” Ben Kirby, a local music teacher, ranks ahead of him on the George Washington scale.
“It’s always fun when these guys get together,” said Ann (McClain) Washington, who's from a Bitterroot Valley family with roots back to the 1860s. “Tubists have a sense of humor. We call it back-row humor.”
The war years marked the dramatic appearance of our esteemed director Alex Stepanzoff, who led the band for more than fifty years!
Somehow Gillett found out that Barnicoat directed the Missoula boys brass band with the son of Missoula founder Frank Worden in 1865.
“So virtually from its founding, our little community was accompanied and enlightened by a band,” he wrote.
The book's first chapter includes the initial public announcement of the band from 1874: “The Missoula Horn-blowing Association ... to serenade as soon as the first tune can be derived from those brassy things.”
Even before Chapter 1, there’s a chronology of the 25 directors of the band from Barnicoat to Gillett. No one dominates that 153-year-old list like Stepanzoff, who wielded the baton from 1945 until Gillett took over in 1992.
Stepanzoff died in California four years later at 94 after struggling with pneumonia. Generations of Missoula concertgoers recall him leading the military marches and patriotic numbers in his white and yellow director’s uniform.
Gillett dedicated the entire final chapter to Stepanzoff’s often-quirky story, but says it's one that “deserves a book of its own.”
“The captivating vignettes could fill volumes,” Gillett wrote. “The Missoula City Band survives because of him.”
Finally, in 1987, the official campaign to replace the old bandshell kicked off, with a goal of $50,000. Alex threatened to ‘play in the (park’s) wading pool’ if they had to.
The new shell was dedicated at the Aug. 12, 1987, concert. It’s officially known as the Alex Stepanzoff Memorial Bandshell, and it's where Gillett will stand again, front and center on Wednesday night, not in a band director’s uniform but probably in shorts and sandals.
“Even though it wasn’t musical, it was fascinating to me,” Gillett said of "The Missoula City Band." “Every week something would come up that was totally new to me. For 41 years when I taught, I knew what I was going to be doing every day. This book has been a whole different ride.”
And the band plays on.