July 23--MENOMONIE -- Larry Jess' involvement with the Ludington Guard Band spans most of his life.
Jess first saw the band perform when his parents took him to hear the "big horns play" when he was 4 or 5. A few years later Jess began playing a musical instrument to help with his asthma, and at age 14 he joined the Ludington Guard Band when he heard the group needed another saxophone player.
Fifty-one years later, as the Menomonie community band celebrates its 125th anniversary, Jess, 65, still performs with the group, making him its longest-continuously playing member. He plays saxophone and clarinet, as does his sister, Margaret Breisch, a band member of 46 years who also plays clarinet and saxophone.
"It's the ambiance," Jess said when asked why he has remained with the band, the longest continually operating community band in Wisconsin, for a half century. "So many people come to the concerts. I can't think of any activity where kids come, their parents and grandparents. The band is sometimes the background for people sitting in the back. It's a social thing."
The band will officially celebrate its 125 years playing music with a concert at 8 p.m. July 30 in Wilson Park. The event will feature the premiere of the song "Legacy of Honor" the band commissioned by composer Larry Clark, who is vice president of a New York music publishing company.
The song is dedicated to all of the past directors of the Ludington Guard Band. Clark will conduct the performance. After that the song will be available for other bands to perform elsewhere, Ludington Guard Band President Carroll Rund said.
Past living band directors have been invited to the concert. There will be cake donated by Marketplace Foods and a raffle drawing for a quilt.
Rund, who plays tuba, has performed with the Ludington Guard Band for 40 years.
"It's the camaraderie," he said of why he and others enjoy being in the band. "They are kind of like my extended family. We work well together and we have a lot of fun."
Growing with time
The band has grown over time, from 11 members in 1888 to its current 70 performers. The band's roots date to 1869, when it first became associated with a cavalry unit called the Ludington Guard, named for former Wisconsin Gov. Harrison Ludington.
In 1887 the band became part of the cavalry unit and was dissolved six years later when the unit became part of the Third Infantry, Wisconsin National Guard.
But that wasn't the end of the band. It was reorganized the following year.
"It just became popular," Rund said. "This was a major entertainment for people. They played music people liked."
In its early days the band played mostly military-style marches. But over time the group's performances expanded to include concert band music, overture medleys from Broadway musicals and novelty selections.
These days much of the band's funding comes from the city of Menomonie. The nonprofit band organization provides camp scholarships to area band students.
Band members meet to rehearse Monday nights and perform Tuesdays during the summer at the Wilson Park band shell. The group performs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. for 10 weeks each summer.
The band, directed by James Woodford, is comprised of a variety of ages, from midteens up to senior citizens. At the band's July 16 performance, people listening to the band sat on park benches, in lawn chairs, and on blankets. Children danced to the music as visitors enjoyed popcorn, pie and ice cream.
That night's performance included a circus theme. Band members dressed in costumes for the concert.
Menomonie resident Debra Anderson attends most of the band's concerts. She has lived in Menomonie for most of her life and enjoys listening to the band play along with her mother, Lois, 88.
"It's a tradition," Anderson said. "For me, it's about the music. I think the director is doing a wonderful job on the selections. There is some kind of music for everybody. It is probably the best free entertainment in town."
Another fan favorite is the children's march that occurs at each of the band's performances. The march may well be one of the activities that has kept the band alive, Rund said. Many concertgoers took part in marches when they were children and now bring their children or grandchildren to do the same.
"I love watching the children going across the stage," Anderson said.
Powers can be reached at 715-556-9018 or email@example.com.
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