Legend has it that George Ives, the eccentric Civil War—era bandleader and father of the modern composer Charles Ives, used to have groups of musicians march toward each other while playing in the middle of the park in Danbury, Connecticut. The resulting pleasant cacophony inspired his son's eclectic music.
In the concert band I play with every summer in Sag Harbor, New York, we occasionally find ourselves in a similar musical tangle, even though we're sitting down. It is, after all, a very democratic band, 45 years old, whose members have played, with little improvement, since their days as music students in the local high school. Nobody wants to get it so perfect that a neighbor's feelings are hurt.
"Gee," Fred Hines, our gentle, white-haired conductor, might say if we cross the line from music to dissonance in rehearsal. "That sounded so nice I'd like to hear it again." Usually we get it right, or almost right, if not by Memorial Day, then by the Fourth of July.
Not that anyone would notice our mistakes. People who listen carefully to outdoor music don't do it in Sag Harbor. They do it at Tanglewood in the Berkshires or Wolf Trap near D.C., where world-class musicians play for people with competitive wine and cheese on their blankets. But that's not my summer music. Mine is the humble music of communities blowing their own horns. It's the often earnest, often silly spectacle of a small town parade, where a little ingenuity and a lot of enthusiasm are enough to please a crowd.
As a child in the 1970's, I performed in the rousing Memorial Day parade of my suburban community, and I can still remember the feeling of swollen lips and swollen pride when we played the national anthem. Adolescence came, and the high school marching band just wasn't cool, so I put my trombone away. Fifteen years later, I found it again when I joined a New York City marching band for a few seasons. I've been playing outdoors in various bands ever since. Show tunes, New Orleans dirges, Sousa— I've played and loved it all over the years.
What is the charm, exactly?Maybe it comes down to the pleasure of imperfection. Whether it's on a front porch with a mandolin, singing with friends until the neighbors complain, or with a band playing Gershwin for a crowd in lawn chairs, summer music is about letting go.
Besides, a band like ours in Sag Harbor is an institution. We put some nice, old-fashioned harmonies into the air and don't expect anything in return but a little applause. Talk if you want while we play, dance in the aisles, leave in the middle to go home and watch TV. It's all among friends.
"Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is," Noël Coward wrote. Extraordinary how much more potent it is under a summer sky.