The Long Beach Municipal Band March 24 2014, 0 Comments

Contributed by Jack Kopstein


The Long Beach Municipal Band

The Musical Soul of Long Beach California

The Long Beach Municipal band is one of the finest community bands in the United States. Being such a musical staple in its community, it was more than fitting that Long Beach's own 100 -year-old band performed at the port's Centennial celebration, just as it did when the port dedicated Municipal Pier 1, now Pier D, Berth 49, 100 years ago. Both institutions are symbolic of the spirit and sense of community upon which Long Beach was built.

In many ways, the port and the band are civic siblings that matured into world-class institutions. The ensemble is made up of 40 professionals, primarily brass, woodwind and percussion players, who are top studio, symphony, and orchestra musicians. Band members join by invitation only, and some have been with the group more than 30 years.

Many of the musicians have ties to the Long Beach community, including those who studied music at California State University, Long Beach and Long Beach Community College. Band Director Larry Curtis took the job after 25 years as Director of Bands at Cal State Long Beach.  He expanded upon the tradition of showcasing a variety of classical and popular selections by creating weekly themes whose programs spotlight jazz, film, Latin, Broadway tunes and other musical styles.

The band's immense popularity is due to its high calibre of music, which Curtis describes as world-class and worthy of any stage or venue. The summer series draws an estimated 10,000 people a week. Fans include locals, former residents who return for concerts, and tourists from all over the globe who plan vacations around the concert season. The band's international following includes professionals, and it has welcomed guest conductors from overseas.

Long Beach Municipal Band concerts also enjoy tremendous popularity because the performances are, "a family affair." The concerts unite the young and old across sometimes three or four generations, some making reunions at Municipal Band concerts a family tradition. Schedules are rearranged in order to attend performances, which are celebrations of neighbors coming together, enjoying a special meal, or just a night out for the family dog, all on an iconic Southern California summer's eve. The family tradition extends to the members of the band; concerts in the park are an opportunity for spouses and children to see their loved ones perform.

The band was born out of an era in which communities desired their own "Marine band" based on the John Philip Sousa model. It was founded in 1909 as a department of the city and the original members were city employees who worked everyday jobs just like their neighbours.

In general, municipal bands, which predate more sophisticated orchestras in many emerging American cities, signaled a thriving community. At the same time, municipal bands were considered an added attraction that promoted tourism and boosted property values. The band's history includes performing for ocean travelers disembarking from luxury liners calling at the port.

In its early years, the Long Beach Municipal Band traveled throughout the country and performed at major events such as the San Francisco World's Fair in 1915. It also played for live radio shows, broadcasting to faraway places such as Australia and New Zealand. The band quickly developed an international reputation as a premier musical attraction and a cultural ambassador for Long Beach. The popularity of "the people's band" encouraged city leaders to develop performance venues, most notably the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium, the former home of the Municipal Band. The site is now the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.


During World War I, the band regularly performed fundraising concerts to support the military. Likewise during World War II, the band performed at USO functions, bond rallies and bases throughout Southern California. The band also played for every naval ship that left and returned to the Long Beach Naval Station – the hub of port operations.

During those years, Herbert L. Clarke, a virtuoso cornet soloist and assistant conductor for the John Philip Sousa band, retired and accepted an invitation to become the band director – a position he held for two decades. At his first concert, he debuted a new march he composed, Long Beach Is Calling, which the Municipal Band will perform at the Centennial celebration. Under his leadership, the band's reputation continued to grow and added to the prominence of music in Long Beach.

Just as the community has supported the Municipal Band, the band has responded to the needs of its community. When the band was laid off during the Great Depression, it voluntarily performed Sunday afternoon concerts. In the wake of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake that killed 120 people and destroyed homes, buildings, and schools, the band offered its services by playing countless concerts for displaced families camped out in parks. It later performed at the dedication of many new buildings that arose from the devastation.

The Municipal Band is an integral part of Long Beach's rich musical tradition that today includes the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, the Long Beach Opera, the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach, jazz and blues radio station KKJZ 88.1 FM and nationally recognized public school music programs.

During the 1950's, band director Charles Payne teamed with former Supervisor of Music for Long Beach schools, Fred Ohlendorf, to schedule 123 concerts for more than 49,000 students in a single academic year. The number grew to more than 300 performances. It was during those years that Payne launched what is known today as the band's summer Concerts in the Park series. Under his successor, Everett E. Siegrist, the band's schedule swelled to 750 park and school concerts annually.

In recent years, the summer season has been shortened due to city budget constraints. The Port of Long Beach is among those who have donated funds to keep the band playing.

The Long Beach Municipal Band's longstanding reputation as a premier music organization, and one of only a handful of municipal bands still performing, remains strong. More recently, honors include its performance at the 1999 World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles Conference held in San Luis Obispo. The biennial event takes place at different locations around the world and features symphonic bands of international acclaim.

- Jack Kopstein