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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

40 Years of “My Way”

[Ed. note: This piece was first published yesterday on the UMass marching band alumni website. You can see it, complete with illustrations and video links, here.  I was thrilled to be asked to write what turned out to be something of an historical research paper.]

 

Every tradition has an origin story.

The problem is, most often those origins are really difficult to pin down.

In the middle of some marching season, some year, the flute section begins to march doubletime at a certain moment in the percussion cadence … or the tubas decide to march separately from the rest of the brass block and call it a “tuba tail” … or the band plays a particular stands tune at a particular time in a couple of football games in a row and suddenly it seems like it happens that way all the time, without fail.

But rarely can anyone identify the moment a tradition becomes a tradition. Even more difficult to pinpoint who had the idea in the first place.

Not in this case, though.

In celebrating “40 Years of ‘My Way’,” the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band marks four decades of a perhaps inevitable tradition that had a very specific start date … encouraged by a very specific person.

On September 16, George Parks, 57, died en route to Michigan with the band – on a long shot ‘pinnacle’ performance he somehow made happen at the 110,000-seat Big House at [the] University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – like he made everything happen for all his years at the helm.

George and the band had stopped in Ohio to give a performance and to sleep, and George saw them through the show, led them in his favorite, ‘My Way’ (whose lyrics include: ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…’). Then he stepped down from the stage and collapsed of a heart attack.”

– author Betty Londergan, in her article “The Music Man of UMass”, published on her blog, “What Gives”, September 21, 2010

A heartbreaking coincidence. …Maybe.

 

Entering the fall of 1978, in his second year as Minuteman Marching Band director, George Parks decided he needed some sort of closing song for his band’s performances. From his own college marching experience, with the band at West Chester State College, he drew a version of Paul Anka’s anthem “My Way”, written for and most famously performed by Frank Sinatra. The arrangement, written by James H. Burden (who regularly arranged music for the West Chester marching band, as well as a little group called the Penn State Blue Band), was originally performed at a moderate tempo, to the accompaniment of a gentle marching percussion backbeat. But when Parks brought it to UMass, he eliminated most of the battery parts and turned the song back into a ballad, and soon presented it to the UMass community, with the help of the band, as something of a hymn.

Since then, at the close of the majority of its performances, the Minuteman Marching Band has gathered in a tightly-packed formation and played “My Way.” The band plays a verse in a quiet brass and woodwind chorale setting; sings a verse; and finishes with a playout that is slightly faster and a whole lot louder … immediately after which the battery percussion fire up their cadence, and the band exits the venue. For it seems, as long as anyone can remember, the same thing has happened, every show. Tradition.

Or very nearly the same thing. The original lengthy, trumpet-screamer ending was given a gentle rewrite by then-graduate assistant Michael Klesch ’90 M.M. The song’s performance tempo has slowed noticeably over the years. The sung portion (in recent years) has begun to include a few extra exclamatory additions. When current director Timothy Todd Anderson recognized tradition and left the the leading of “My Way” to Associate Director Thomas P. Hannum ’84 M.M., the conducting style, the “look” of the song, understandably changed a little. And, compared with renditions from the early 1980s, the length of the trombone section’s final, iconic three-note, octave-leap figure is now drastically slower.

As “My Way” has evolved, the band’s presentation of the song remains an encore that, in just under two and a half minutes, presents audiences with all the elements of a great, entertaining band performance (short, perhaps, of a mace toss).

But it’s become much more than that. And, one suspects, this is not at all accidental.

 

It’s not just a nice melody with pretty chords.

And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain / 
My friend, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain / 
I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / But more, much more than this / I did it my way

Parks fretted, in front of students at his what turned out to be his final summer Drum Major Academy session in 2010, that the lyrics to “My Way” were maybe a little selfish. (He wasn’t alone. Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina has said that her father “always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”) But Parks wove an affecting defense for why he preferred not to think of those lyrics as emblematic of self-absorption, so much as representative of self-discovery and self-confidence. Those, after all, were characteristics which he was helping DMA students to work toward: “you can’t do this job without a LITTLE bit of ego. Just don’t let it control you”).

Further, one can make a case that some “My Way” lyrics, ones which the band has never sung, might serve to illuminate Parks’ work and relationships with the UMass band. In the mid-1980s, he created a video montage of UMMB scenes, partly to the accompaniment of the original Sinatra “My Way” recording. The lyrics, likely by no accident, lined up with certain visuals: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew / When I bit off more than I could chew”, sang Sinatra, over the sight of the UMMB, in a Washington, DC snow squall, videotaping a short clip for ABC-TV’s 1981 Presidential Inauguration coverage — the “Happy Morning America” moment (ask a mid-1980s alum for details). And “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried / I’ve had my fill, my share of losing / And now, as tears subside / I find it all so amusing”, was the backing track for scenes of mid-1980s UMMB seniors shedding tears after their last postgame show.

 

Perhaps the largest part of the “My Way” tradition have been the connections that the song helps to foster. The connection between the UMMB and its audiences – home football audiences know that “My Way” is coming, and don’t leave the stadium until they hear it; and audiences that are newer to the UMass band experience quickly discover that … marching bands sometimes sing.

The connection among UMMB members – metaphorically and actually – as they gather even closer to one another and sing together.

The connection between the “baby band” and its alumni – a great many of whom have taken part in that same UMMB tradition – have played and sung that same arrangement; and now stand and sing and sway arm-in-arm, just as they did in their college years. With each other and with the current membership – in a relatively-new decade-old tradition – all together on the field at Homecoming.

And the connection between the UMMB and the high school bands who have the chance to watch a UMass show – when the “My Way” performance tells them that “band is a place for everyone” – and that it can be a refuge, a haven of great support and affection. And that it’s okay to show those feelings, in public.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to just the Pioneer Valley.

[Natasha Stollmack’s] most memorable high school experiences revolve around the Blue Devil marching band. ‘Attending Drum Major Academy at the Univ. of Massachusetts over the summer was a life-changing experience. DMA is a camp geared towards student leaders in band programs, and it was led by UMass’ incredible marching band director George N. Parks.’

Ms. Stollmack and [her] fellow drum majors quickly took a liking to Mr. Parks during the week they worked together at the camp. The group promised to keep in touch with him throughout their competitive season. … With warm memories of the relationship they developed with the legendary college marching band leader still fresh in their minds, the Huntington quartet was jolted during the opening weeks of school.

“’In mid-September, [Huntington director Brian] Stellato called us all down in the morning and shared with us the awful news of his passing,’ Ms. Stollmack said … ‘We were all shocked and devastated. We treated the rest of the season sort of as a tribute to him. I arranged a surprise performance of the song ‘My Way,’ which is the piece that UMass’ marching band shows always end with. The kids played it at the home show and it brought Mr. Stellato and the four of us to tears. It was one of my proudest moments of the season, seeing us all come together like that, most of the kids not even knowing who this man was. But they did it ‘with pride.’ That phrase that we use now is ‘because of Parks’. At the Carrier Dome, we had the most amazing performance in all of my years in the program. The four of us could barely keep our composure up on the podiums! I couldn’t have dreamed of a better group than this one. I love them all so much.’”

from an article posted on the Huntington (NY) Public Schools’ website, March 2011

And the “My Way” formula has found success in at least one other college-band environment.

In 1995, UMMB Hall of Famer Heidi Sarver ’86, ’88 M.M. was named director of the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band. Almost immediately, she began looking for a similar melody to utilize – to foster similar connectional impact to “My Way” – with her new band. Not long into that fall marching season, she came upon John Lennon’s “In My Life.” This author crafted an arrangement that followed the “My Way” play-sing-play structure, and condensed the original lyrics into a single verse. That arrangement is now in its 24th season of use by the Blue Hen Marching Band.

 

Two decades earlier, George Parks had brought “My Way” to UMass, in all likelihood, with a very good idea of what the song and its performances might become. He might not have predicted how important it would turn out to be, the very first time it was “performed” after his passing in 2010.

THURSDAY [September 16, 2010; gymnasium, Cuyahoga Falls HS, Ohio]


“People first sat on their sleeping bags, most with a hand over their mouth and a look of horror in their eyes. … Eventually people made their way towards each other and sobbed as they held each other close. … The band formed a huge circle over 380 people in the gym and started to hum ‘My Way.’ The hums became choking words as the singing got louder:

“’And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain
 / My friends, I’ll say it clear / I’ll state my case of which I’m certain
 / I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled each and every highway
 / And more, much more than this / I did it my way’

The lyrics of our beloved band song we perform at every game suddenly took on a whole new meaning as the band acknowledged the fact that this was the last song Mr. Parks ever conducted.

“… Many phone calls were made and the decision was made that we would continue on to Michigan. It was Mr. Parks’ dream to perform in Michigan Stadium with the UMMB and the Michigan marching band and that was what we were going to do.”

from “A Performance We Will Never Forget,” by Alyssa Berkowitz ’12, Monday, September 20, 2010

Over the course of forty years, George Parks’ way has become the way of the Minuteman Band.

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October 18, 2018 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plays Nicely With Others

A week and a half ago, or thereabouts, would have been Dean Martin’s 95th birthday.

Martin was an icon of American entertainment from the late 1940s well into the 1970s, as a singer, a film star, a television variety show host and a comedian. In addition, he was linked comedically and musically with (and stood as tall as) Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. He passed away in 1995, and I’m not sure whether he casts much of a shadow in American entertainment at this moment, at least in the view of those who currently shape American entertainment. Other than the occasional infomercial plugging the DVD collection of his Celebrity Roast television series episodes (which could be hugely politically-incorrect, but could also be really funny), I don’t know whether he’s on anyone’s mind on a regular basis. In his day, he was nicknamed “The King of Cool”, but I doubt those presently in charge of determining Cool would agree now.

The thing that strikes me about Dean Martin, knowing what I know about him and after a tiny bit of research (for confirmation), is that in spite of being a 1950s and 1960s stage, movie and TV star (speaking of jobs you can’t do without a little bit of ego), he knew how to be a team member, too.

He’s best remembered for being part of two teams in his career: Martin and Lewis, and the Rat Pack.

Now, as a kid, of course I knew who Frank Sinatra was. (Any time the Yankees beat the Sox at Yankee Stadium, I knew.) I knew who Sammy Davis Jr. was (from seeing him on the Mike Douglas Show, of course!). Joel Grey, … no idea, really, which was more my problem than his. But I had only a very vague idea who or what the Rat Pack was … even after a series of 1980s movies established a group of twenty-something actors and actresses as the Brat Pack and briefly revived recognition of the nickname. In my mind, even though as a kid I was a devoted fan of the Marx Brothers and other entertainers who worked in the days before most filmed entertainment was presented in color … the Rat Pack was a group of singers in grainy 1960s black-and-white photographs. … Until I chanced to visit Las Vegas a few years ago.

As I strolled down the Vegas Strip – clearly not fast enough! – I was engaged by a street vendor who wanted to know whether I’d be interested in attending a presentation about time shares?, with no obligation!, and an exciting prize at the end of it!. I know, I know. Scam. But a prize to follow. Probably a cookie and a brochure about when the next presentation would be. Sure, what the heck. For all I knew I might have been taking my life in my hands.

When I arrived at a relatively reputable-looking conference room later that day, indeed, I was presented with lots of great reasons why investing in a time-share would make my life complete. I paid attention. I weighed the pros and cons. With absolutely no intention of nodding yes. I was probably not the only person in the room who was putting on a really good show for a sales guy who was basically making a living here. Be polite. No need to be abusive or scornful. But I endeavored to put on a pretty good show.

My reward for expending that hour of my life (that I would never get back)? A pretty good show.

In the little reward envelope were a pair of tickets to a stage show at the Sahara Hotel, called “The Rat Pack is Back. It was a re-creation of one of the Pack’s typical 1961 performances, featuring about the swingin’-est 16-piece big band I’d heard maybe ever, and four celebrity impersonators who created the onstage characters of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joel Grey. And they did it to perfection – no one looks exactly like Sinatra, but after about 30 seconds no one was paying attention to that because the fellow who was the evening’s Ol’ Blue Eyes sounded just … like … him! While singing; while speaking; while joking; while smoking (oh, my, yes – this was 1961, and cigarette smoke was a constant – perhaps you’ve seen “Mad Men”). And the other three gents had their acts down cold, as well.

Their four characters were performers who doubtless had monstrous egos (talk about an example of “you can’t do this job unless you’ve got at least a little bit of ego”) … nonetheless playing nicely with each other. Or faking it. But the longer you watch ancient video of the Pack on stage, the more sense you get (I do, at least) that they didn’t have to fake it. If occasional upstaging went on, well, here were four monstrous talents, and undoubtedly competitive souls too. But each of them seemed to have a just-wide-enough sphere of awareness to recognize the talents around him, and appreciate them, even if a joke came at his own expense. Biographies may give the lie to this; but on stage, they all seemed to be having a great time, and if the audience was having a great time watching them have a great time, all the better.

How often would that happen now?

Yes, you very often have tunes put out with the artist listed as “John Smith, featuring Fred Smith”. Occasionally you will see a performer bring out a “special guest” for a duet. But not for a whole show. Or a string of shows. Or a whole run in a given venue. I can’t think of very many performers in current American Entertainment who would be able to do that sort of thing, what the Pack did, without an approved script and a very tightly-negotiated contract. I even wonder if there are many well-known and hugely-popular celebrities who would be versatile or talented enough to pull off a Rat Pack-esque show on One Special Evening, never mind night after night for weeks and months and years in a row.

Not that I wouldn’t be interested if someone genuinely tried to put something like this together. I just don’t know that the people currently in charge of deciding what constitutes mass-media entertainment – marketable American entertainment – have the imagination to conceive of such a thing.

So instead, we direct your attention to the mighty YouTube.

June 18, 2012 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One CC of Cordrazine

Until recently, when I would click on the “Publish” button that commits my words “permanently” to this space, the screen was filled with ideas for another great blog article topic. The fine folks at WordPress were basically offering up writing prompts, not unlike the kind of essay-question starter kits one might find in the midst of a standardized Language Arts test. So this is my response to one of their more interesting prompts, namely:

What historical event would you attend if you were able to time-travel?

With the understanding that time travel could possibly lead to strange realities like meeting your own grandfather and accidentally killing him…

If we could travel into the past, it’s mind-boggling what would be possible. For one thing, history would become an experimental science, which it certainly isn’t today. The possible insights into our own past and nature and origins would be dazzling. For another, we would be facing the deep paradoxes of interfering with the scheme of causality that has led to our own time and ourselves. I have no idea whether it’s possible, but it’s certainly worth exploring.” –Carl Sagan, 1999 interview

Or at the very least, with the understanding that time travel might make life grammatically difficult…

…I quit trying to phrase it, realizing that if time travel ever became widespread, English grammar was going to have to add a whole new set of tenses to describe reflexive situations – conjugations that would make the French literary tenses and the Latin historical tenses look simple.” –Robert A. Heinlein, The Door into Summer

…I decided to think about this question.  It only asks which historical event I would attend, not which one I would change. If the goal were change for the better (setting aside from the fact that I might return to a present that was (is?) (see?!!) at least somewhat different, and possibly completely different, since it makes my head hurt), I might choose moments like the birth of Adolf Hitler, or the moment when TV writers dreamed up the concept of “My Mother the Car”.

Perhaps I might reflexively have chosen to show up at Mission Control during the first mission to the Moon – cool! Or … the day when Edith Keeler crossed the street in front of that truck

(Nerd.)

But, considering the relatively throwaway remark that I made, in the midst of a recent interesting conversation with a friend … here are some ideas. Interesting if I showed up at …

 

[] The first rehearsal of “West Side Story”. When the cast first got the music and lyrics, or perhaps when they first started work on the choreography. “Lenny… we trust you, and we loved ‘On The Town’, but… explain this to us again?…”

[] The WLW radio station studio in Cincinnati during the late 1920s, as Henry Fillmore‘s Syrian Temple Shrine Band performed one of its weekly broadcasts. A concert band with a weekly radio show. Now there’s an idea.

[] The writing meetings for “The Muppet Show”. Any season, any episode. Or possibly the writing meetings for “This Is Spinal Tap”.

[] The first time Groucho Marx ever performed the song “Go West, Young Man”.

[] The first time Charlie Parker ever played in public.

[] The band rehearsal where John Philip Sousa first brought out the sousaphone.

[] Any performance of the Brat Pack. (The first, last and only time I’ve been in Las Vegas, I got to go to a show called “The Brat Pack Is Back”, featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joel Grey impersonators. The actors were so good, the snappy patter (early-1960s politically-incorrect though it was) was so funny, and the band was so on, I can only wonder what the original genuine articles were like.)

[] DCI finals in 1987, as the Garfield Cadets addressed Aaron Copland. Thom Hannum, for the win.

[] The Harry Connick Jr. concert at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in late 1991 – because I was there, and I’d like to see it all again. I would risk meeting myself (although I would be forced to ask myself what I was thinking when considering wardrobe choices).

[] John Williams’ first rehearsal with the Boston Pops. “Hi everyone. Pleased to be here. We’re going to do hard music now.”

[] Any live performance by Louis Armstrong. (Speaking of Pops.) It just seemed like it was probably a pack of fun to watch and listen, and/or to be onstage.

[] I know it’s got nothing to do with music, but … just one taping of the Laugh-In Joke Wall.

 

If you could time travel through a trumpet, would you find today and tomorrow too loud?”  Jarod Kintz, A Letter to Andre Breton, Originally Composed on a Leaf of Lettuce With an Ink-dipped Carrot

December 30, 2011 Posted by | band, drum corps, entertainment, Famous Persons, humor, marching band, media, music, radio, television, Thom Hannum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments