Ashland City Band, Part 3: The band’s history since 1876!

An Ashland City Band concert in Lithia Park during the 1920s. The current Butler Bandshell is in the same location in Lithia Park as this original bandstand. Image from the Stories of Southern Oregon Collection in the Southern Oregon University/Hannon Library digital archives
July 24, 2022

Why is our City Band different?

By Peter Finkle for Ashland News

“We’re all having so much fun….”

When I interviewed Don Bieghler, Ed Wight and the late Raoul Maddox, I was told that band members are “all having so much fun that nobody’s leaving the band!” That’s why over half the band is now more than 60 years old.

Band history goes back to 1876!

The Ashland City Band has had four (and possibly six) names in the past 144 years. It began with the Ashland Brass Band, founded in 1876. Then there is a photo on the Ashland City Band website taken between 1880 and 1895 labeled “Ashland Band.” In 1890, Otis Helman (son of Ashland co-founder Abel Helman) was named the conductor. His band was also known as the “Helman Red Suit Band.” The band became the Ashland Concert Band in 1915. Then, in the 1940s, the name was Ashland Municipal Band. Finally, in 1952 the band got its current name.

In 1938, Ashland voters wrote the City Band into the Municipal Charter and approved funding to support it. In 1947, Raoul Maddox’s first year with the band as a 14-year-old, the band still played at the 1916-era raised bandstand in Lithia Park. The only way up was through a trap door in the middle of the bandstand floor! The City Band was limited to about 26 musicians by the tight space atop the bandstand. With help from a donation by Gwin Butler, the current band shell was built in 1949. When Maddox was band conductor from 1977 to 1997, he built the band to its current size of about 75 musicians.

This is possibly the earliest photo of the Ashland City Band. It was called the Brass Band at the time. This photo may be from the late 1870s or in the 1880s. Southern Oregon Historical Society photo via Ashland City Band website
Why is the City Band different from other bands?

The band has only one two-hour rehearsal for each show. The musicians walk into each Wednesday evening rehearsal and open a folder of pieces that they will play at the Thursday evening concert. That’s 10 pieces to learn in two hours! How is that possible?

Here is a brief exchange during my interview to give you a little appreciation for the level of musicianship in the Ashland City Band.

Raoul Maddox, seen here in 2015, played trombone for the Ashland City Band for 50 years, and also conducted the band for another 21 years. Greg Badger photo

Me: “The whole band concert takes 45 minutes to an hour, doesn’t it?”

Don: “Yes.”

Me: “So how can you fit a whole rehearsal into two hours…”

Don, Raoul, Ed: (laughter)

Me: “… playing the whole pieces, plus going over the challenging parts?”

Don: “I know that a piece of music is going to take four minutes to play, so I can allow eight minutes for it in rehearsal. A one-hour concert becomes two hours in rehearsal. So that’s the kind of guide I use.”

Me: “You’re really pushing .…”

Ed: “It’s a challenge for the players. Not all good musicians are also good sight readers. You have to be a good sight reader — able to play a piece well the first time you see it — to play in the Ashland City Band.”

There is no “luxury” to practice a piece for a few weeks, or even days, and then be ready for the concert. Current band conductor Don Bieghler explained that it starts with his selection of the music. “It has to be music at a level that we can read it. I have to select music that the audience will enjoy, so they want to come back. And I have to select music that the band enjoys playing.”

Ashland City Band quality

Why do band members and audience members come back each summer, year after year, decade after decade, to Ashland City Band concerts in Lithia Park? I’ll let long-time band member Ed Wright have the last word.

Come hear the Ashland City Band at 7 p.m. every Thursday evening through Aug. 11 at Butler Bandshell in Lithia Park. Bring a picnic and enjoy this century-old community tradition!

“It’s so much fun to play in an ensemble this good and to get an incredible variety of music. If you’re a musician who loves band music, to play with musicians this accomplished is nothing short of a thrill. Top to bottom, it’s one of the very best community bands in the state, because we get the symphony wind players, the music teachers who want to play during the summer, and several (Southern Oregon University) faculty members — all these people who are too busy to play in community bands during fall, winter and spring.

“Just one example: The French horn section of the Ashland City Band is led by Cindy Hutton, Jenifer Carstensen and Linda Harris, all horn players in the Rogue Valley Symphony. Additionally, the first chairs throughout the entire City Band brass section all play in the symphony. There’s such a high level of personnel sprinkled throughout the band, it increases the pleasure in performing good band repertory to hear all parts played so well.”

More to come

This article, part 3 of 4, is based primarily on a 2019 interview with three men (Don Bieghler, Ed Wight and the late Raoul Maddox) who between them have 170 years of experience with the Ashland City Band. I will share more humorous and meaningful band stories in Part 4 of this series.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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