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Ashland City Band history, since 1876

The Ashland City Band’s present concert location in Lithia Park. [Photo by Peter Finkle]
Ashland City Band concert about 1916, at the original Lithia Park bandstand. [Photo from Southern Oregon Digital Archives at SOU Library]

How many names has the Ashland City Band had since 1876? What makes our city band unique?

All this and more are explored in this article, part 2 of 4. It is based primarily on a 2019 interview with three men (Don Bieghler, Ed Wight and the late Raoul Maddox) who between them have 164 years of experience with the Ashland City Band.

Founded as the Ashland Brass Band in 1876, the Ashland City Band has had at least four (and possibly six) names in the past 145 years. There is a photo on the Ashland City Band website taken between 1880 and 1895 labeled “Ashland Band.”

After 1890, when Otis Helman (Ashland co-founder Abel Helman's son) was named the conductor, it was also known as the “Helman Red Suit Band.” The city 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.

Ashland citizens have always been strong supporters of the City Band. In 1938, voters even approved a small tax to support the band. I consider that a huge vote of confidence in the band by the people of Ashland. However, state Measures 47 and 50 in the 1990s overrode local funding, so its annual financing now comes from the city general fund. The city' charter states, “The City Band shall present not less than 10 concerts, including the Fourth of July parade, during each summer season.” And it does.

Here's a little story to give you an idea how long Raoul Maddox played in or conducted the City Band. In 1947, Maddox’s first year with the band — he was 14 — 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. When the band began to play, it was closed, and no one else could get in. The Butler Bandshell where City Band concerts are now held replaced the old bandstand in 1949.

For a community band, the Ashland City Band has exceptional quality. Ed Wight said, “When I was in high school, seven of my high school classmates were in the band. This was when it was 45 to 55 musicians. I looked around three or four years ago, now that band is 75-strong. You would think there is even more room for high school kids. Well, there were only two, and they were both state champions on their instruments! The band under Raoul didn’t just get bigger, it got better.”

City Band members now come from the Rogue Valley Symphony, SOU music faculty and many other local bands.

Here's a shocker that opened my eyes. Bieghler and Wight explained why the City Band is different than other bands. The biggest reason: the band has only one two-hour rehearsal for each concert. The musicians walk into each Wednesday evening rehearsal and open a folder of pieces 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 to give you an appreciation for the level of musicianship in the Ashland City Band.

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

Don Bieghler: “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 said 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.”

Bieghler said he usually chooses only one very challenging piece each season, which would take two or three weeks of rehearsal for that piece.

“Now if we have something that’s more challenging, and takes more time in rehearsal, then the piece before that and the piece after, we could probably sight read at the concert. So, if needed, I choose something that’s simple enough to sight read while playing at the concert.”

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? They love the positive energy, the beautiful setting and the excellent concert.

“We’re all having so much fun that nobody’s leaving the band,” said long-time band member Ed Wight. “Over half the band is more than 60 years old now. It’s so much fun to play in an ensemble this good, and to get an incredible variety of music, and each concert is different.

“If you’re a musician who loves band music, to play with musicians this accomplished is nothing short of a thrill,” Wight added. “Top to bottom, it’s one of the very best bands in the state, because we get the symphony wind players, the music teachers who want to play during the summer, and the SOU faculty members, all these people who are too busy to play in the community bands during fall, winter and spring."

I will share humorous and meaningful band stories in Parts 3 and 4 of this series about the Ashland City Band.

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