Brass Band Festival Rings Through Danville, Ky.

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on May 24, 2011
Doug Strickland Vince DiMartino plays a flugelhorn solo last June during the Great American Brass Band Festival, which he helped found in 1990.

“One, two, one, two, three, four,” counts pianist Dick Domek, 64, kicking off “Ain’t She Sweet” as the Walnut Street Ragtime Ramblers launch into the 1927 hit song during last year’s Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, Ky. (pop. 15,477).

Wearing black derbies and vests, David Anderson, 69, plays the clarinet; Dennis Davis, 47, strums the banjo; David Hummel, 41, blows the cornet; and Bob Hackett, 66, keeps time on the tuba as the Lexington, Ky.-based combo performs a 50-minute show on the open-air stage in Weisiger Park.

In the audience, Evelyn Egolf, 76, waves a small American flag to the beat of the classic jazz tune. “I like the music, of course, but also the patriotic feel,” says Egolf, of Loudon, Tenn., sporting a red, white and blue scarf.

Each June, downtown Danville comes alive with the sounds of clarinets and cornets, French horns and flugelhorns, trumpets and trombones, and saxophones and sousaphones during the old-fashioned music festival, replete with a fire engine-led parade, an evening picnic in front of the main stage on the Centre College campus, and an instrument “petting zoo,” where children can experiment and make their own music.

“It meets a need for good, wholesome entertainment of a certain Americana style,” says Ron Holz, 61, the festival’s artistic director. “It captures a spirit of the country.”

And sometimes the essence of another century. Ralph Bright, 5, of Lexington, Ky., squirms in his father James’ lap, eagerly waiting for Saxton’s Cornet Band to take the stage. Why? “Because they play Civil War-era music and they wear red coats,” Ralph says.

David Henderson, 53, who leads Saxton’s Cornet Band, a Frankfort, Ky.-based re-enactment group that insists on strict authenticity, says Danville is the perfect setting for a brass band festival. Such an event would be nearly invisible in a larger city, but having a whole town involved is “reminiscent of how America was 100 years ago,” he says. “People like it because it’s very nostalgic of a long lost era.”

Brass band fans from across the nation attend the four-day festival, many making the trip each summer to hear up to 20 groups perform an array of musical styles, from military marches and classical compositions to New Orleans jazz. Every 10 or 12 years, the festival spotlights international bands that travel to Danville from as far away as Germany, Japan and Spain.

“I think the inclusiveness of it is really what’s most attractive to everybody,” says Vince DiMartino, 62, who plays cornet and trumpet in several bands and teaches music at Centre College.

DiMartino co-founded the festival in 1990 with George Foreman, a band scholar and former Centre College employee. The two played in the Danville-based Advocate Brass Band and decided to expand their concerts into larger community events. The idea blossomed, with city and county government, local businesses, and private donors chipping in to fund and organize a festival. Many of the 30,000-plus attendees drop as little as a quarter or as much as a $20 bill in a donation box—made from a truncated tuba—near the main stage.

Settled in 1783, Danville bills itself as a City of Firsts, claiming to be the site of the first U.S. Post Office, constitutional convention, Presbyterian church and college west of the Allegheny Mountains. Add to that the first significant brass band festival, which Holz calls “a wonderful cultural event, with the very best professional-level groups.”

Evelyn Egolf understands why music lovers gather in Danville each year for the Great American Brass Band Festival. “It just makes you feel good,” she says, “to be in a little town in the good ole summertime.”