Charlottesville Municipal Band strikes new chord after funding loss

The naturalization ceremony went on July 4. File Photo: Jack Looney The naturalization ceremony went on July 4. File Photo: Jack Looney

It’s 7pm on a Tuesday, and the Municipal Arts Center is filled with the sound of the Charlottesville Municipal Band filing into the large practice hall to prepare for another installment of its bi-weekly summer concert series. The evening resembles a family reunion: Musicians greet one other with smiles, pats on the back and familial updates shared between people who have known one another for a long time.

Wayne Clark plays the baritone horn and has been in the muni band for 29 years. Clark grew up in Baton Rouge, with a passion for music.

“This is just a really good band,” he says. “There are municipal bands across the country, but this is one of the best.”

This summer marks the CMB’s 94th season, and it’s one of the oldest continuously operating amateur community bands in the country that provides free concerts. This season is also the band’s first without city funding—a decision that equates to a loss of approximately $55,000, nearly one-third of its operating budget.

“Any time you lose that much, you have to make changes,” says Music Director Steve Layman. “The immediate change we had to make was to leave the Paramount. It’s a great place to play and we loved that as our summer home—but that’s $28,000 for six concerts. It’s expensive for something that’s not bringing in funds.”

Changing concert locations from the Paramount to area high schools affords the band some flexibility. But Layman and his musicians have a list of concerns: the loss of business their concerts brought to the Downtown Mall, the band’s commitment to free membership, auditions and concerts and the Charlottesville Agency Budget Review Team’s designation of the arts as a social service.

“There is no evidence that the band is able to engage underserved populations effectively, despite outreach strategies,” stated the report for the city’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. “The evaluation plan and metrics are weak.” With that designation, the ABRT recommended reducing city funding from $55,000 to $0.

And City Council agreed: With a motion from Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, seconded by Kristin Szakos, and a 4-1 vote (Bob Fenwick was the lone “no”), City Council approved the new budget on April 4.

“It’s a bump in the road and we’ll figure out how to deal with it,” Layman says. “If we have to make adjustments—and we have already—we’ll make those adjustments and hope folks understand and support us.”

Nancy Lowry, who plays the French horn for the CMB, expresses the same resilient-yet-frustrated attitude toward the defunding. “The band’s been affiliated with the city for such a long time,” she says. “It was very sad to have that completely stopped.”

Lowry joined the band more than 50 years ago, not long after it first permitted women musicians. “When I started playing in the band, we rehearsed in the Armory, which was on Market Street and is now a basketball recreation place,” she says. “On Saturday mornings they had rollerskating and on Tuesday nights we had band rehearsal.”

Talk to any longtime band member—some have more than 60 years under their belts—and they will gladly spin stories from a golden age, one where Lee Park would overflow with Municipal Band concertgoers. Lowry recalls playing for Queen Elizabeth, George W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and one particularly memorable concert with Bill Clinton in attendance, when the band performed outside—in February. Brass instruments’ valves, condensation and freezing temperatures don’t harmonize well, Lowry says.

Fast forward to 2022, when the band plans to celebrate its centennial: Layman, board members and musicians are adamant they will reach this number. The CMB and a number of local organizations have called the Municipal Arts Center home since the late 1990s, but, again, due to budget cuts, Layman worries this may change—rental rates have already increased by 40 percent.

“When we built this building, it was part of our mission to build a place that the community could use and enjoy,” Layman says. “We’ve got people teaching dance and instruments, we’ve got a business on the third floor, two churches, theater groups—it’s really a community resource. The thing that’s sad is that when we built the building, the City Council saw it as a resource. The current City Council no longer sees it as a resource. I don’t know why.”

But dedication to the band continues, and musicians practice nearly every Tuesday night, 48 weeks of the year, in preparation for six summer concerts, three seasonal concerts and more than 25 ensemble performances—pulled off by 14,000 volunteer hours annually.

On July 23, and for the first time since 2008, the band will perform its Family Pops concert at the Sprint Pavilion, and many of the musicians are excited to play for their grandchildren. First, though, they’ll watch them interact with instruments in a pre-performance “petting zoo,” followed by a Saturday afternoon sing-along to Disney and Hollywood classics.

“This is a place where people find themselves at home,” Clark says as he readies to practice alongside his bandmates. “People don’t ever want to leave.”

–Mary Shea Valliant

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