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Exuding Excellence

Brass Band of Battle Creek attracts world-class musicians

The band has been called “the Rolls-Royce of Brass” by a fan on Facebook and “one of the most accomplished groups I’ve ever worked with” by jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen and has been said to be “packed with all the best” by the online brass band magazine 4barsrest.com.

This ensemble of world-class musicians that gives five-star concerts is none other than the Brass Band of Battle Creek.

Indeed, each concert by the Brass Band of Battle Creek (BBBC) exudes excellence from first note to last — in tight, dynamic harmonies, in enchanting solos, even in the reflective luster of the musicians’ shiny brass instruments.

The virtuosity that emanates from the stage of the band’s primary performance venue, W.K. Kellogg Auditorium, started, metaphorically, as a simple riff that inspired two men in Marshall to invoke a melody that has since crescendo-ed, accelerando-ed, and legato-ed with skillful tempos, rhythms and harmonies that resonate fortissimo today.

The two men are amateur musicians and brothers: Bill Gray (on trombone) and Jim Gray (on euphonium). These two podiatrists were president and vice president of the Marshall Community Band in the 1980s. Their father (a bass clarinetist) was president of the Michigan State Concert Band, and their mother sang soprano.

In 1985, Leonard Falcone, a pioneer in euphonium artistry and director of bands at Michigan State University from 1927 to 1978, died. His former students, who were noted musicians and music instructors around the country, organized a euphonium competition in his honor. The first Falcone Festival (now the Leonard Falcone International Tuba and Euphonium Festival) was held in 1986 at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, near Muskegon, and Bill and Jim Gray chauffeured the musicians.

Brothers in brass

Motivated to host their own brass band concert in Marshall in 1990, the brothers called upon the professionals they had met, including Paul Droste, director of the award-winning Brass Band of Columbus (Ohio). “We had top-notch players right out of the box, augmented with many local players,” says Bill.

A year later, the Grays hosted another concert, the first under the new Brass Band of Battle Creek moniker.

Their sister Kathleen sat next to a man to whom she praised the band’s talents prior to the concert. After the concert, she said to him, “I hope we can do this again.” The man replied, “I’m pretty sure you will.” That man was Russell Mawby, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which soon thereafter funded the band.

From then to the mid-’90s, the BBBC’s growth was legato and allegro. “We got very, very good very, very fast,” recalls Jim.

Bill adds, “We knew the top players — Doc Severinsen, Wynton Marsalis, leads on Broadway, players in the armed-service bands. We had all-stars.”

The same holds true today, as most of the musicians come from afar to perform with the band. “We don’t audition,” says BBBC Executive Director Shannon Aikins. “The musicians in the band have connections. When we have an opening, they recommend someone.”

They come from afar

Key players today include Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist with the New York Philharmonic; Julie Boehler, principal timpanist, retired from the U.S. Army Band; Sean Jones, director of jazz at the Peabody Institute; Richard Kelley, trumpeter with the Boston Pops Orchestra; Jens Lindemann, professor of trumpet at UCLA; Steven Mead, professor of euphonium at Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester, England.

Three brass players teach in the music department at Michigan State University, and two at Western Michigan University. A few locals occasionally play percussion, keyboard, harp or guitar with the band.
Some BBBC regulars have played with the Empire Brass Quintet, the Canadian Brass Quintet, the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, L’Orchestre Symponique de Montreal and/or the London Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, at New York City’s Lincoln Center and/or on Broadway.
The musicians in the BBBC number the traditional 29. Their instruments are those whose sound is produced by “buzzing lips” on a mouthpiece such as the cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, baritone, trombone, euphonium. No woodwinds nor strings.

Acclaimed as “the hallmark of diversification,” the Brass Band of Battle Creek entertains in a host of genres: classical, Latin, tango, klezmer, big band swing, modern, traditional, medieval, holiday, spirituals, hymns, island music, world music, rock, funk, blues, jazz. You name it, and they play it very, very well.

They mix genres within concerts and do the unexpected. For example, a trombone quartet performed a magnificent arrangement of Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” in the 2022 Holiday Concert.

A ‘magical’ conductor

The band’s talent is drawn together by resident conductor Michael J. Garasi, who has directed top-flight bands in the United States and England. Aikins describes Garasi’s prowess as “magical… He works so well with those giant superstars,” Aikins says.

Garasi is also an accomplished teacher of young musicians, which fits hand in glove with the BBBC’s core value of fostering the next generation of musicians. The band holds a five-day Youth Brass Band Camp for high school students and a three-day camp for middle school students each summer. Both camps conclude with a public concert in which the youths play alongside BBBC musicians and local band directors and music instructors.

“The kids come to camp nervous, but that side-by-side experience with the professionals and veteran music educators is powerful. They bond through music and improve quickly,” says the BBBC’s education director, Jerry Rose, who established award-winning band programs at area high schools.

Aikins says the camps “trigger in them (the students) the key for success in life, whether in music or not.”

That the Brass Band of Battle Creek is able to bond with its audiences is due in good measure to Jim Gray, who, along with Garasi, selects and sequences the tunes to be played at each concert.

“The music has to both please the audience and challenge the musicians,” says Jim, who also arranges songs for the BBBC. “Rise and fall. Ebb and flow. Different tempos. Different styles. It’s all very important in the programming.”

Here’s his description of the sequencing at December’s Holiday Concert: “A big cornet fanfare for the national anthem. Then the galloping ‘William Tell Overture’— you can’t lose with that. Then a nice slow piece” — “Hymn to Freedom,” performed as a sweet, improvised cornet duet by Sean Jones and Jens Lindemann.

Battle Creek’s own Doug LaBrecque, a vocalist extraordinaire who has performed lead roles on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera, Showboat and other productions, wowed the audience with novel and traditional holiday songs.

They ‘know what great is’

Because most of the band members come from afar, they arrive in Battle Creek on a Wednesday, rehearse on Thursday and Friday morning, perform on Saturday night and fly back to their respective homes on Sunday. Plus, on Friday night, a few musicians form combos and improvise in Battle Creek’s downtown pubs.

That ad hoc coming together alone speaks volumes about the caliber of these musicians who elicit spontaneous, uproarious standing ovations. “They feed a common energy and play together for the common good,” Aikins says.

“The musicians in the band know what great is, and they do great,” says Jim Gray. “We, as an organization, just work to uphold that standard.”

Bill Gray concludes, “People won’t remember who Jim and I are, but people know the band is a part of Battle Creek. That’s what’s important.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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