oe Blewett, 84, cradles his oboe like an old friend while, several rows back, 13-year-old Lauren Long delicately holds her triangle, waiting for director Richard Karschner to open the biggest performance of the year for one of the nation’s oldest community bands.
With a wave of his baton, Karschner launches the Quakertown (Pa.) Band into “Tuxedo Junction,” taking an appreciative hometown audience on a two-hour musical journey through the brassy sounds and rhythms of big band and blues, Broadway show tunes, and the marches of John Philip Sousa. During last year’s Fourth of July concert in Memorial Park, more than 1,000 spectators savored the musical legacy of the community band, which celebrates its 130th anniversary this year. Band members tapped their toes on the wooden floorboards of the stage while smiling fans clapped along and applauded from lawn chairs and blankets.
Band members include teachers, students, small business owners, engineers, accountants and retirees, most of whom live within five miles of Quakertown (pop. 8,931) and all of whom love music. They commit to practices each Thursday evening and more than 15 annual performances at area parks, church chancels and school auditoriums. All are volunteers who audition for the privilege of participating in the regionally renowned group.
“Sometimes, we have too much fun up there,” says Blewett, who has played oboe for the band since 1955 and is its senior member. “We’re in it for the love of music.”
The diminutive Long, an eighth-grader at Milford Middle School in Quakertown, concurs. “It’s fun to be up there,” she says after finishing her very first performance with the band. “It feels really cool.”
Long is the band’s youngest member and represents the future of a community tradition that began in a shoe factory on Quakertown’s East Broad Street in 1877. Founded by 23 local shoemakers, the group practiced in the factory and originally called itself the Citizens Silver Cornet Band. Members, mostly of German descent, changed the name to the Germania Band with the purchase of brass instruments in the 1880s, then renamed the group after the town in 1917.
“We’re an independent, self-supporting organization,” says Jim Strefeler, 52, a banker who has played trombone for the band since 1976, “but we couldn’t do it without the financial support of the community and local businesses.”
Strefeler’s family tree intertwines with the band’s history. His wife, Julie, descends from cornetist William Mininger, who joined the band in 1885. The Strefelers’ three grown children were band members before heading to college, and their youngest child, Joanna, 16, plays clarinet and hopes to join some day.
The Quakertown Band includes musicians of all ages, both amateurs and semiprofessionals, many of whom hold music degrees. The group has produced three CDs.
“There is a pride in good music in this community, as in many Pennsylvania Dutch communities,” says Karschner, referring to the rich musical traditions brought by German immigrants. “The Quakertown Band exists to provide musical entertainment to the community . . . and to provide an opportunity for instrumentalists, young and old, to perform in a quality ensemble.”
Each concert serves as a celebration of the band’s proud heritage, both for musicians and music lovers. Sax player Fred Haas, 66, can appreciate the trust placed in his nimble fingers as he performs a solo medley of Ray Charles hits before the July 4th crowd. Eyes closed, fingers effortlessly moving across the shiny instrument, the tall, white-haired Haas makes each note sing, drawing whistles and a spontaneous ovation from the crowd. A sign from Karschner sends Haas back to his seat as fellow band members beam and flash the “thumbs up” sign.
“This band is a great community thing,” Haas says in the afterglow of the show. “People know it’s a quality band. That’s why they keep coming to hear us play, and why musicians want to be a part of it.”