Leonard B. Smith and the Detroit Concert Band February 17 2014, 3 Comments

On July 16, 1922, The Detroit News' new radio station WWJ started broadcasting live performances of the Light Guard Band, led by Herman Schmeman, at the old band shell on Belle Isle. The innovative broadcasts drew national attention to the fledgling broadcast industry and WWJ. Bands performed almost nightly in the gazebos and shelters of the local parks, including Belle Isle, Clark Park, Palmer, Cass, Pingree, Nardin and Roosevelt parks. Matinees were often performed on weekends. The Belle Isle concerts were not confined to the band shell. One band played on top of a small bridge while people paddled in their canoes below.

Schmeman left the band in 1927. "The conducting of the band concerts in the city parks of Detroit for the last 19 years has always been strictly a hobby with me," he said. "I have never made any money out of it, nor have I ever sought to do so. After these years of service I feel entitled to retire." He had hoped that the idea of free concerts in the parks would continue because the performances pleased fans "in every country of the globe."

In 1937 Leonard B. Smith arrived in Detroit from New York City to play with the Detroit Symphony on the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, which was carried by 440 CBS radio stations. A champion of the music of John Philip Sousa, in 1946 he was invited by Detroit Mayor Jeffries to leave the symphony and take over the Detroit Concert Band, which played throughout the summer at Belle Isle.

The Detroit Concert Band wasn't alone in filling the air over the city with music. During the summer of 1950 the Detroit Symphony led by Valter Poole performed for free at the State Fair band shell with parking for 10,000 cars. That same year, a new $150,000 Belle Isle band shell replaced the old rounded one on a small waterway nestled between the Nancy Brown Carillon Tower and the skating pavilion. Listeners could sit on the rows of green park benches, lie on blankets on the lawn, or sit in their canoes pulled up on the shore.

The stage was 40 by 80 feet and could accommodate 80 musicians. It included restrooms, a radio control room, dressing and assembly rooms and storage. The design of the shell could mix sound waves for an audience of more than 10,000. The lighting spotlighted the performers elegantly. The Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation would make it available to other groups also. It was named after music publisher Jerome H. Remick, a Detroiter and owner of the largest music publishing firm in the world. The new band shell was dedicated on July 16, 1950, coinciding with the Tenth Annual Old Timers Day, which honored former band members. Smith conducted a concert by the old musicians and the regulars, totaling 100 players, and also soloed on his coronet. The Belle Isle concerts were so popular and the fans so devoted that one group was able to collect 8,000 signatures on a petition for year round concerts. Cooler heads prevailed -- the musicians preferred the summer warmth.

Smith's concerts became the standard for Sousa lovers. In 1969 the British Broadcasting Company flew Sousa expert Kenneth Corden to Detroit for a documentary. The Detroit Concert Band's precise beat, vigor and showmanship were a highlight of the production. Smith, pleased by this honor, called it a milestone in the band's history. "It recognized (our) efforts to maintain the high Sousa tradition."

In 1976, to mark the nation's bicentennial, Smith and the Detroit Concert Band recorded two albums of the most popular Sousa marches and sold them for $7.76 each from the Detroit Concert Band office at 20962 Mack, Grosse Pointe Woods. Included on the records: The Invincible Eagle, Fairest of the Fair, King Cotton, La Flor de Sevilla, and Century of Progress. Smith and the band recorded 22 more albums in his Gems of Concert Band series, a project begun in the 1970s that included the complete recordings of Sousa's compositions. While he considered this to be his legacy to concert band music, but Smith's primary source of income was from the royalties on 350 of his own musical composition.

Like Sousa, Smith was a disciplinarian, a trait acquired from his stint with the U.S. Navy band during World War II. He allowed no nonsense and no smoking during rehearsals. "The only thing I've ever fired people for is drinking," he said. "There is no drinking on or before the job, whether it's a teaspoon or a gallon. I've fired five men in the past 30 years, and I've been ruthless when I did it."


For a period Smith also hosted his own Sunday radio program, "From the Bandstand," on WQRS-FM. Smith's trumpet solo of the William Tell Overture ushered "The Lone Ranger" into the homes of radio listeners for 17 years. He also played theme music for "The Green Hornet," and "Call of the Yukon" radio shows. He got $75 for playing trumpet calls seven times in a row with no mistakes for Fox Movietone News.

Smith agreed with Sousa: "People want to be entertained. They don't want to be educated. Henry Ford, the old man, made a wonderful statement. He said, 'The masses resent any frontal attack on their ignorance. It's their most priceless possession.'" As if to prove Ford's point, new attitudes in the 1960s and '70s eventually brought an end to the concert band performances on Belle Isle. The band shell began to be used for free rock concerts which drew large and often unruly crowds with no taste for the music of the Detroit Concert Band. Concerts were sometimes delayed when rock musicians refused to give up the stage at scheduled times and often were disrupted by catcalls and shouted insults. Once an impromptu striptease by a young female passerby caused an unscheduled break in the program. One Sunday evening in 1979, Smith cancelled a concert when a blue van pulled up and parked on the street near the band shell with a stereo radio blaring. Detroit police ordered the owner to turn down the radio but the noise resumed when they left. "We thoroughly intended to play that concert," said Smith, "but I figured it was unfair to ask me, the musicians, or the audience to be patient when there was that much loud blaring." The Belle Isle concerts ended in 1980, The band, however, continued performing at other sites in the suburbs and the State Fairgrounds.

Smith performed as the principal trumpet player with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and was considered a successor of John Philip Sousa. He conducted the Blossom Festival Concert Band, near Cleveland, from 1972 until 1997. He also briefly played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Toscanini's NBC Orchestra, and studied with Ernest Williams. Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, Smith began studying the trumpet at age 8, received a musical scholarship to the New York Military Academy at 14 and joined the Edwin Franko Goldman Band at 19. In the 1930s, he served his tenure as principal trumpet of the Detroit Symphony. During World War II, he was principal cornetist and soloist with the U.S. Navy Band.

Smith founded the Detroit Concert Band in 1946, recorded all of John Philip Sousa's marches, made a BBC documentary about Sousa's life and amassed a huge collection of symphonies, operas and ballet music arranged for band. "He was the world's leading authority on Sousa," said his daughter, Sandra Smith Neilson, also of Scottsdale. Although he gave up playing trumpet and cornet when he was 55, Smith conducted the Detroit Concert Band until 1991. Trumpeter/cornetist Leonard B. Smith died July 26, 2004 in Scottsdale, AZ of a heart attack. He was 86.


- Jack Kopstein