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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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19th Century Bands of Grand Rapids

Live music, for most of the 19th century and all the centuries preceding it, was the only way to experience music. Whether it was standing around the family piano, sitting in the concert hall, or the tapping your foot to the lively music of the marching band in one of the town’s frequent parades, there was no music but live music. Between 1900 and 1910 there were more town bands and more professional touring concert bands in existence in the United States than ever before.

Albert Baxter described the first brass band in Grand Rapids. “The first silver instrument band—full-dressed, double-breasted, bullion-bedecked, with two rows of gilt buttons—the Valley City Cornet Band was organized by W. H. Barnhart in 1855.”[i] It was much in demand at political parades and festive gatherings of Grand Rapids.

The Evening Press Newsboy Band, initiated in April 1894 by Willis H. Turner, general manager of the newspaper, became one of the city’s most popular bands. A newsboys’ band was not, in itself, a unique idea, nor was it the first newsboys’ band in the United States: Detroit had a large, well-known band, as did New Orleans, and perhaps there were a few others. The Evening Press band was unique because it was the first newsboys’ band sponsored and supported by a newspaper. The band soon became the most visible and popular symbol of the Evening Press.

Bands of all sorts increased dramatically in the 19th century, but particularly during its second half, and particularly for bands using brass instruments. By the last decade of the 19th century it was estimated that ten thousand bands were active in the United States.[ii] While that seems to be an incredible exaggeration, keep in mind that includes bands ranging from small villages with perhaps five males playing a variety of horns to large professional bands occupying the musical stratosphere, such as the mighty John Phillips Sousa. Between 1900 and 1910 there were more town bands and more professional touring concert bands in existence in the United States than ever before.

Mid-Century Changes Impacted Bands

Two circumstances impacted the makeup of America’s bands: the invention and improvement of numerous brass instruments during the nineteenth century, and bandleaders who were willing to use these improved instruments in new and unusual combinations with their ensembles.

The opportunity for newsboys and amateurs to play in bands was created by radical technological innovations in brass instruments. As an example let’s examine the simple bugle—the pitch sounded by the bugler is determined by the length of a fixed tube and by the tension of the player’s lips. A series of typical bugle-call notes can be produced, but if intermediate pitches are needed the length of the tube must be changed while the bugle is being played. Three different mechanisms—the slide, the side hole, and the valve—were developed to allow this seemingly impossible change to occur.

The slide, the oldest method, as in the slide trombone, allowed all the half steps of the chromatic scale to be played as the slide was moved. Its limitation—a significant portion of the instrument had to have a straight, cylindrical bore—thus the length of the trombone as compared to the cornet.

The side hole principle, had been used in woodwinds for centuries, but not widely used in the brass family until the early nineteenth century when the keyed bugle and the ophicleide (an instrument replaced around 1850 by the bass tuba) were introduced. These two pieces of brass changed band music; for the first time a loud brass instrument could carry any melody. However, keyed brass were awkward to play, uneven in tone, and easily damaged, often becoming unplayable due to a slightly bent key.

The valve, made possible by metallurgical developments in the construction of airtight valves, was devised during the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1860 both piston valves and rotary valves were widely used. Brass instruments with valves overcame all the deficiencies of keyed brass: easier to finger, more even in tone from the bottom to the top of the range, and more durable.

The phonograph, invented in 1877, provided the first non-live music in the history of the world, although its popularity didn’t really begin until the early 1900s. Commercial radio broadcasting, another provider of recorded music, began in 1920, with the establishment of the first permanent station in Pittsburgh.

25 bands in the 1911 GR City Directory

Ansorge’s Band and Orchestra

Charles E. Ansorge

band leader

Bistline’s Orchestra

Joseph Bistline


Burton Heights Band

L. M. Conrad


Butcher’s Orchestra

Marvin Butcher


Clement’s Orchestra

Oscar G. Clement


Concordia Band

Gerrit Winsemius


Evening Press Newsboys’ Band

J. Wesley Lafferty


Force’s Orchestra

Wilbur Force


Furniture City Band

Frank Wurzburg


Grand Rapids Battalion Band

John W. Bickert


Grand Rapids City Band

Frank M. Stamp


Graversen’s Orchestra

Hjalmar Graversen


Guthan’s Orchestra

Joseph Guthan


Heald’s Orchestra

Edgar G. Heald


Hibernian Band

Walter W. Wilkius


I. O. O. F. Band

F. H. Ellsworth


Madison Square Band

Glenn F. Bates


Polish Military Band

Andrew B. Kubasiak


Powers Opera House Orchestra

Robert Hentschel


Pythian Band

J. Wesley Lafferty


St. Aloysius Young Men’s Society Band

J. Wesley Lafferty


Second Regiment Band

Fred Kutschinski

chief musician

Stamp’s Orchestra

Frank M. Stamp


Stroup’s Orchestra

Irving H. Stroup


Tuller’s Orchestra

Sherman A. Tuller



[i] History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter, 1891, p. 258.

[ii] Margaret Hindle Hazen, The Music Men: An Illustrated History of Brass Bands in America, 1800-1920. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., London, 1987, p. xx. (Available at the Grand Rapids Public Library).

Posted November 11, 2014

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