A Brief History of the Birmingham School Bands


Most folks in Michigan’s Birmingham-Bloomfield area do not realize, nor consider, that the Birmingham Concert Band is not only the only “Town Band” in the greater township area, but is the first such town band in Birmingham. Until, with the support of the public school district, BCB was formed, Birmingham had relied on the school bands for half a century as the source of music for civic events, parades and ceremonies. Before the advent of music in the schools, the only band near Birmingham was the Franklin Cornet Band, shown here in an 1886 photograph from the Eccentric, now in the collection of the Franklin Historical Society.

Like so many around the country, the Franklin Band was part of a phenomena of returning Civil War soldiers, who had experienced such bands in the service, returning and establishing local town bands. A few Birmingham residents played in the Franklin Band, as it was the only such organization nearby. One of these is cornetist Birmingham Dentist John Rainey, back row at right, who practiced dentistry out of a small accessory building behind his home on the Southwest corner of Park and Oakland where the Park Street parking deck stands today. Dr. Ed Deer, a later Birmingham musician, recalled that Rainey’s fillings were always recognizable in his older patients by the finger-print Rainey had left in them pressing the silver amalgam in place without gloves. Ed Deer played in the reconstituted Franklin band (the original ceased in 1895) as well as the schools when growing up in Birmingham in the 1920s. Another is, back row third-from-left flute, player Edward Smith Sr., who operated the former Slade Lumber and Coal yard along modern day Woodward north of Maple on the East side (formerly Hunter Avenue). His grandson, historian Hart Smith, contributed much of the early knowledge and identifications for this paper.

Among the Franklin residents in the band who were also Birmingham fixtures were two Brooks brothers, whose family farm was at Telegraph and Twelve Mile on the Southeast corner. One was George Brooks, and the other Joseph Brooks or possibly James Brooks as identified by the eccentric many years later. The later’s home still stands on 12 Mile just East of the shopping center. His son Harry was a pilot, and while tinkering with an airplane in the front yard of the home on 12 mile, was approached by Henry Ford who happened to pass by. He became a test pilot for the Ford tri-motors and was ultimately killed in an offshore crash of a Ford Fliver while attempting a long distance record from Dearborn to Miami. Toothpicks inserted in the fuel cap vents to prevent condensation while parked overnight (following a landing 200 miles short, but setting a 1200 mile record and bending the propeller on landing) were not removed prior to take-off and the resultant vacuum starved the engine of fuel while in flight. His packed memorial service was held in the Birmingham Theater and Hart Smith recalls that his picture was near the top of the main steps inside the Chester Street entrance of Baldwin High, from which he graduated.

The full list of those in the picture is in this extract from the Eccentric below.

In the days before school music programs, those wishing to learn to play an instrument had only a few options. One was to attempt to do so themselves, reading how-to pamphlets and mail-order training manuals. Keyboard instruments were commonly taught out of homes, as occasionally was violin and voice in the Victorian era also. Otherwise, it was a matter of learning in the church, or after they became common, in town bands. Instrument makers often looked to sell to towns rather than individuals and town bands often were single-source in terms of the instruments played. For someone just learning, an instrument was an expensive proposition. And while catalogs offered a variety of imported cheap (and poor quality) instruments, a loaned instrument from the local band was the most economical option. Even the legendary cornetist Herbert L. Clarke learned to play on band-owned cornets.

Around 1900, the Birmingham schools reacted to the loss of the Franklin Band by briefly sponsoring a group of mostly adults and a few students who made up a civic orchestra. The effort persisted for a number of years, but with sporadic and less than notable results.

Birmingham was then among the first regionally to establish an instrumental music program in the schools. This program was established in the fall of 1927 when Birmingham hired a graduate of the University School of Music in Ann Arbor, Arnold A.W. Berndt as the first teacher. Berndt’s beginnings in music were like the rest of his generation, his first instruction coming from his parents and the small German Reformed church in their farm and lime-quarry town of Genoa Ohio, outside of Toledo.

In the photo of the St. John’s choir from the collection of OhioMemory.org above, Berndt’s mother Lydia Niehaus Berndt is at the far left, and his father Willhelm, who emigrated from Stettin East Prussia (now Szechin Poland) in 1881 is in the back row, third in from the right. Arnold Berndt began playing cornet very young, and is pictured with the town band circa 1910, at which time he would have been 8 years old, holding a King Long Model cornet. It is notable that many other instruments in the picture are also Kings, a brand Berndt favored and which was manufactured in nearby Cleveland starting around 1900.

Arnold Berndt graduated from the University School of Music before it was, through the efforts of Earle V. Moore for whom the music building is named, incorporated into the University of Michigan. Among his classmates were the Falcone brothers. Leonard became Director of Bands at Michigan Agricultural College, while his older brother Nick Falcone replaced their teacher, Wilfred Wilson, in Ann Ardor.  Wilson was a close friend, and frequent host of, John Phillip Sousa, with whom he is pictured below on campus. Sousa wrote Pride of the Wolverines as a thank-you to Wilson for his many stays at his home.

Arnold Berndt’s original Michigan Teacher’s license, which bears among others the notable Joe Maddy’s signature, is below.

The instrumental music program in Birmingham began with a group of 16 students at the high school and expanded within a year to grades 4-12 with both band and orchestra. The first band photo, taken in front of the entrance to Baldwin in 1928 is below. This and the Genoa band photo were always on Arnold Berndt’s desk at school, and then on his dresser at home after he retired.

Below is the 1930 band. A 2014 Birmingham Museum exhibit included copies of 2 trumpets pictured. Arnold Berndt is at the right holding Bozo’s leash, and Ed Deer holds a trombone at 2nd from left.

With the Birmingham music program beginning only shortly before the Great Depression, there was little money available to grow the program or to provide instruments. Students struggled to raise money for uniforms and for second hand or the new, less expensive, student line instruments. Band parents, and particularly Mr. Thomas R. Navin and his wife Blanche came forward to keep music in the Birmingham schools. The Navin’s considerable financial support significantly helped the program grow and develop a reputation that brought guest conductors and clinicians to Birmingham such as Joe Maddy, the founder of Interlochen, composer and Bandmaster Edwin Franko Goldman, and others. A 1935 concert program with Maddy as guest conductor and Mrs. Navin as boosters Chairman is below.

Civic contribution was seen as a duty of the high school bands from the first days of the Birmingham program. Playing in parades and for civic events taught citizenship and repaid public support. Below are photos from the Birmingham Memorial Day Parade 1929, the first parade participation by the bands.

By 1940, the band had grown too large to be photographed in front of the high school door and instead had to assemble across the plaza out front where they also practiced marching.

In the Spring of 1941 they returned to the building as a backdrop. WorldWar II would shortly reduce the size of the band as students enlisted early, leaving school to fight in the war.

Many well-known Birmingham figures were a part of the music program. Author Kate Gilmore played French horn in the late 1940s at Baldwin. Below, in the left-hand 1941 picture are Roger Commings at left, he was the brother of Clarence Cummings, known to Birmingham residents as Milky the Clown, and on the right, Alford Peabody, of the pioneer Birmingham family. The right-hand photo shows Jack Moss.

 Birmingham bands were also notable in their own right, with the Birmingham music curriculum being copied by districts across the United States. Birmingham bands have been a part of the MSBOA band festivals since the very first in 1938, and the 1941 Baldwin band was the first to be recorded at MSBOA festivals.

By 1943, the band was noticeably smaller in their photograph below.

In the fall of 1943, the band joined 60,000 residents at a parade as the military paid tribute to Oakland County’s war production effort.

The band also still took part in holiday parades, such as in this Memorial Day photo by Ken Burnett

By 1947, the Birmingham program had been one of the founding organizations in the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association in 1934 (originally called the South-east Michigan Band and Orchestra Association) and had been the first to be recorded competing at an MSBOA festival as Berndt mixed his love of electronics and technology with his avocation, using his own ensemble for proof-of-concept. Recording of festival performances became standard within a decade of the first recording in 1941. On the 20th anniversary of the program, the many achievements of the first two decades were recognized by the city and the schools.

The Anniversary year year-book tribute is above The last concert program of the 19th year is below.

Following the war, Birmingham would hire additional instrumental music teachers as the schools grew through the baby-boom years. Among those teachers were Burt Bronson, who composed the Groves HS fight song and Harold “Spike” Jones, who went on to be an administrator in the district. A 1938 concert program with Harold Jones, then a student, as featured cornet soloist is below.

Harold Jones served in the Navy as a cornetist and powder monkey aboard the battleship USS Iowa. His brother Lt. Ken Jones, Baldwin class of 1937 and a chemical engineer, received the Distinguished Flying Cross as a bomber co-pilot in the Army Air Corps.

Large numbers of Birmingham alumni, many from the band, served in combat in World War II, and many with such distinction including Capt. Walter Jensen who flew in combat over China (showing his mother his flying jacket in the Eccentric photograph below).

Not all of the band alumni who left to serve in the armed forces returned from World War II. Band members served in every combat theater from France, to Italy, to China, to North Africa, to the South Pacific where a former band member died when the carrier USS Wasp was sunk by kamikaze attack.

The band had consisted of nearly 60 members when the war depleted its ranks. Following the war, by 1948 the band had only recovered to 37 students. The 1947-48 Birmingham Baldwin High School Band is pictured below.

Having started with only 16 musicians, the band did not shy away from continuing to perform in concerts and for parades. Festival judge and friend of Birmingham Leonard Falcone, the long-time director at Michigan State, would periodically stop by and give private tutorials to the band. By 1949, the band was once again receiving first divisions at festivals and growing.

The association between Leonard Falcone and Arnold Berndt extended into a productive association between Michigan State and Birmingham. Many Birmingham students took part in the Music at Michigan State summer programs Falcone hosted such as the one shown below in the early 1950s.

The Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, of which Falcone was an early supporter, and which hosts the Tuba and Euphonium competition annually held in his honor, replaced the Music at Michigan State program

Falcone provided the Birmingham program with access to the resources that only a major University could boast, and the two director’s exchanged ideas and remained collaborators throughout their lives. The families even vacationed together, such as at the Lake cottage of the aforementioned Jones family.

Birmingham students at Michigan State were often featured in the Birmingham Eccentric.

Pictured here is the band on Memorial Day circa 1948, parading to city hall and sounding Taps near the war memorial, which had been moved out of the intersection and onto the lawn by this time.

By the 1950s, as the student population expanded, pressure to replace Baldwin grew. The facilities were dated, the infrastructure was in need of replacement and the building was too small.

The band performs on the gym floor above left, no longer able to perform on the old stage behind them. The all-district concerts had routinely used both such as in 1938 at right. The band actively campaigned for a new high school as the entire district was mobilized to turn-out the vote for a millage to build Birmingham High School at the corner of Evergreen and Lincoln across from the Lincoln Hills Golf Course. Stories of broken floors, stuck windows, leaking radiators, and classroom overcrowding were placed in the Eccentric, and speakers urged the public to support the bond effort for a new building at virtually every public event.

In 1951, construction began on the new building with School Board Treasurer Wylie Groves, who had been instrumental in the effort. The Eccentric, as always, covered the story in detail including the band.

The first band photo in front of what would become Seaholm HS was taken in 1953.

In 1959 Birmingham High School would be renamed for Earnest W. Seaholm, the School Board President, and the new building which opened on 13 mile road in Beverly Hills would be named for Wylie Groves in recognition of the key roles played by each in making possible the new buildings.

Wylie Groves’ nephew Michael, a graduate of the Birmingham High School class of 1954 only missed attending class in the school named for his uncle by a few years. He would go on to earn distinction in the United States Army and was a Captain in the First Brigade, Third Infantry, The Old Guard at Ft. Myer in Arlington Virginia in 1963. He became a legend in Washington DC ceremonial circles that continues to this day – as a cautionary tale.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas, Capt. Groves was assigned to command the honor guard details for the mourning and internment proceedings over the period of November twenty-third through November twenty-fifth. It is said that he remained awake and on duty virtually this entire time. Much of that time was spent enduring the physical and emotional strain of standing with the casket guard. Eight days later, while at dinner with his family, Capt. Mike Groves died of cardiac failure at age 27 and was interred at Arlington a short distance from President Kennedy. On May 19, 2012, Arnold Berndt’s grandson represented the past Birmingham music program sounding Taps at Capt. Groves’ grave as part of a celebration of the sesquicentennial of Taps and its designation as the national song of remembrance.

In 1957, the program, and the curriculum developed for it which had spread nation-wide with the assistance of the American School Band Director’s Association, was considered influential enough in the school music movement for the head of the department, Arnold Berndt, to be featured in the “They are Making America Musical” of the School Musician Magazine.

In 30 years, the Birmingham bands had become a role model for programs elsewhere, and continued to serve the community both as a means of assuring students could develop creative and innovative abilities in addition to the three R’s as well as fulfilling the civic function of a town band, which as of 1957, Birmingham still lacked.

For the bulk of the twentieth century, the bands themselves received excellent media coverage from the Birmingham Eccentric as well as other media outlets.

Volumes of newspaper clippings related to the Birmingham bands can be found in the collections of the Birmingham Historical Museum and Park.

With the addition of the second high school, shown as it appeared in 1978, Birmingham needed a second high school band director. The first director of the Groves Band was Burt Bronson, an accomplished tuba player and educator. As of 2009, Bronson was still playing in Florida, helping to record circus band music for circusmusic.org. He was followed by Gene Hanson, a Birmingham and Michigan State graduate, who, as a percussionist continued to play professionally throughout his career - including performing with Leonard Smith’s Detroit Concert Band for many years. He taught band at Groves from the 1960s into the 1980s. A graduation program listing Hanson is below.


Arnold Berndt continued at Seaholm until his retirement from teaching in 1961. He served as head of the department, and then in 1961 the position of Music Administrator was created, which he filled for a few more years before retiring fully and limiting his teaching to a large number of private trumpet students, whom he taught at his home. His photo from an Eccentric article in the 1980s is below.

In 1977, Fifty years of instrumental music in the Birmingham schools was celebrated with concerts, a dinner, and the compilation of scrapbooks of mementos, recollections, and letters from 5 decades of program graduates, which now reside at the Birmingham Historical Museum and Park. Below is the plaque created for the occasion.

Shortly after this, Arnold Berndt was honored by the American School Band Director’s Association with its lifetime achievement designation, the Edwin Franko Goldman Award. He appears at the microphone below at left. At the table to the right of him and in the next picture are Paul Yoder, prolific arranger for elementary bands and school music pioneer in Japan, Mrs. Revelli, Dr. William D. Revelli, long time director of bands at the University of Michigan for whom Revelli hall is named, and Dale C. Harris, founder of A.S.B.D.A. and principal organizer of the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association.

While the successes of the early years were recognized, the program continued under teachers such as Hanson, Kutcher, and others. It was around this time that the schools sponsored the first years of the Birmingham Concert Band, which originally met at Seaholm HS. While Birmingham finally had a civic ensemble, it was still only with the support of the schools that it came into being, over a century after most other communities had created their first bands.

In 2002, the Birmingham Historical Museum presented an exhibit honoring 75 years of instrumental music in Birmingham, and drew upon their collection again in 2014, making the school program a significant portion of an overall exhibit on music in Birmingham across all the years and all genres

The tradition of excellence and community service demonstrated by the first school bands in Birmingham continues to the present day. In the Twenty-first century, bands from Birmingham have performed abroad and at home to general acclaim. Pictured below, the Groves band plays at the dedication of the new Military Service Monument in Beverly Hills in 2014.

The future holds promise of the same.

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