In 2004, I attended a meeting of the Brentwood Arts Commission as a man on a mission. From the beginning of my life as a Brentwood resident, I had been impressed with the quality of the fine arts in the city. However, as much as I admired the visual artists and their creations, I was unhappy about the lack of such things as community theatrical productions, choirs, and bands. I made it my purpose that evening to press the commissioners to encourage more performing arts. Part of the reason why I was interested in this is because as a high school student, I had played trumpet in the Yakima, Washington Senior High Marching, Concert, and Pep Bands. The musical background hadmade me a lifelong fan of the performing arts.
Before I appeared on the local scene, people told me that there had been a theater group of some kind, but it had long since vanished. I learned from the Historical Society that a musical group, called the Brentwood- Byron Community Band, had been performing during the opening decades of the last century. They would gather with other regional bands for an annual festival at the John Marsh House. Steve Kinsella showed up at the same meeting. Depending upon your particular worldview, this was an example of divine providence, synchronicity, or simply an amazing coincidence. I didn’t know Steve personally, but knew that he was a noted professional performer. I had attended some of his performances at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center. Steve had recently moved to Brentwood and was setting up a business to promote local theater and to train performers. He had come to the meeting to press the commissioners to place greater emphasis on performance art. It was amazing that the two of us showed up at the same meeting; both sharing the same personal agenda.
I offered the commissioners a few specific suggestions about creating live theater and musical groups. One of my bright ideas was that they should sponsor an annual Sing-Along Messiah. The commission was an arm of the City Council and one of the council members, Annette Beckstand, was at the meeting that night as council liaison. Annette said that I should schedule a meeting with a woman named Susan Stuart, who was choral director at Liberty High. Annette informed me that Susan had produced and directed previous Sing-Along Messiahs. Annette turned out to be a “just get it done” kind of person and challenged me to join the Arts Commission so I could promote my ideas from the inside and not just press for them from the outside. I was subsequently appointed to a three-year term and set out to meet Susan Stuart. Sue turned out to be an enthusiastic-type person and welcomed my suggestion that we should revive the Sing-Along Messiah. She seemed so welcoming to my own enthusiasms that I added my idea that we should create a community band.
That’s the point at which the project got started because Sue’s husband, Bruce, turned out to be one of the area’s most accomplished musicians — playing the string bass and especially the trombone at levels of proficiency that earned him a trip to Carnegie Hall. Bruce was a member of many musical groups, accommodating his performance to a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional jazz to classical.
When I approached Bruce with the concert band idea, the man seemed to light up like a Christmas tree. He said that directing a community band had been near the top of his bucket list for decades. With Bruce’s impassioned leadership and my support, we secured formal agreement from the Arts Commission to sponsor the project.
Gene Clare, who was managing Liberty Adult Education at the time, played an essential role in promoting the band’s success because he generously provided access to Liberty’s band library as well as permission to use the practice room at Liberty High. Our use of the Liberty facilities was appropriate because Gene instituted the band under his Liberty Adult Education program. We were simply listed in their promotional literature as one of their community educational activities. Band members joined by signing up for the course and paying a registration fee. We originally called it The East County Concert Band, but emphasized its connection to our town by changing the name to Brentwood Concert Band. From the beginning, we knew that we weren’t going to start a community orchestra, and used to say, “It’s a band; no strings attached.” We had advertised the opening registration and practice, but had no idea how many musicians would actually show up for the first rehearsal. We were surprised and even astonished, therefore, when the room filled up with at least 60 musicians. It was difficult to process all those people, but the ensuing chaos was cheerful. The evening had a magical quality. Even though we had done a lot of work trying to put everything together in order to make this happen, we were still surprised and gratified that the performers, director, facility, and music had come together on that first day. We had our band!
I have a very clear memory of the moment when Bruce distributed the music to the gathered musicians, stood before them, raised his arms to bring them to attention, and then led them through a rendition that was loud, joyful, and in our ears perfectly wonderful.
Bruce, in particular, was living out his dream. He approached the challenge with energy and intelligence. One of his visions was to create pairs of veteran and youthful musicians. A youth who had been taking lessons on his/her instrument for a couple years might be placed beside a white-haired senior citizen who had been playing for decades and, in some cases, had performed professionally.
Bruce encouraged me to take my trumpet out of its five decades of retirement, brush up my musical skills, and join the band myself. I resisted the suggestion because it would have been more like resurrecting a skeleton than brushing off an old suit. And besides, how would I look as a musical newbie paired with some person who had been playing for decades — and me probably being the older of the two?
From the beginning Sue Stuart herself was a member of the band because, even though she was choral director, she had been playing percussion instruments all her life, and performed with near-perfect timing on whatever drum, bell, cymbal, rattle, whistle, or tambourine a particular piece might call for. It was especially fun to see her bent over a set of kettledrums, and then at the exquisitely perfect moments making them boom their loud voices into the music.
In June 2008, I was riding my bike heading for an exercise class when a pickup truck came to a screeching halt in front of me. Gene Clare got out and said. “Bad news. Bruce Stuart died last night.” It was shocking! I felt like falling to the ground. I don’t know if I ever made it to the exercise; the remainder of the day is foggy in my memory.
We might have expected the concert band to pass from the scene along with the death of its leader, but the group only missed a practice or two because Sue herself picked up the director’s baton and continued the program practically without missing a beat. I imagine that Sue regarded the band as a source of energy for making her way through the grieving process. In an important way, she was keeping Bruce with us by carrying on with the band that he loved so much. That was seven years ago and even today during performances by the band all of us who were there at the beginning can feel Bruce beaming down on us with his infectious grin. Every performance feels like an unofficial tribute to his vision and passion. His memory is blessed and a continual blessing to us.
Seven years ago, Annette Beckstrand and Sue’s son, Ian, turned the band’s music into Fund to encourage the musical ambitions of young performers by funding private music lessons, music camps, and honor groups. To date the fund has given more than $11,000 to 15 aspiring young performers.
This year, 2015, marks the Brentwood Concert Band’s tenth anniversary. On April 4, which is the actual anniversary date, the band performed at the opening event of the new season of the East Contra Costa Historical Society and Museum.
The main celebration will be a gala event that will resonate with those ancient John Marsh House band festivals. It will feature performances by seven local bands including The Brentwood Alumni Concert Band, Liberty High Symphonic and Jazz Bands, Heritage High Combined and Jazz Bands, and the Summerset Big Band. The affair will end with a set by the current Brentwood Concert Band. Join us on Saturday, May 23, for the Brentwood Concert Band’s Tenth Anniversary Musical Celebration. The festival will commence at 11:00 a.m. at Brentwood City Park.
Bruce would be so delighted! It will be an event for the ages; one that we will talk about for years and remember forever. Don’t miss it!