By Dawn Watson
Since 1957, the Sag Harbor Community Band has been playing free concerts in the village. And Dave Lee has been there almost from the very beginning.
“I used to be a drummer until the arthritis got to me. Now I’m the emcee,” says the 87-year-old, who is also the president of the band. “My mouth still works, even if my hands don’t.”
Believe it or not, the former drummer, who joined the group in 1958, isn’t the only member from back in the day who still shows up on Tuesday nights for performances in July and August, weather permitting. Charter member and former Village Clerk Joan Feehan still comes to play her clarinet as often as she can. Marie Brenner, who played clarinet until an injury sidelined her, has become the group’s official “den mother,” in charge of uniforms and refreshments. And Jim Renner, who is the vice president of the ever-evolving musical ensemble, has been playing the tuba with the band since 1958.
Of course there are many others from the early days who might not be able to play their instruments anymore but still make it to the concerts to support their former band mates. And, if history repeats itself, the music will keep playing and the musicians will continue to show up for decades more to come, according to Lee.
In addition to the Tuesday night concerts, the band is an integral part of Sag HarborFest weekend, which will be held Sag Harbor’s annual celebration September 12 through 13. The band will perform on Long Wharf, continuing a longstanding tradition.
Lee says that the success of the musical group is a tribute to the spirit of this tight-knit community. Still going strong nearly six decades after it was founded, today there are approximately 80 performers on the roster, from age 12 and up. Roughly half of them routinely come to play on the Ralph W. Springer Memorial Patio in front of the Chelberg & Battle American Legion Auxiliary Post 388 during the two-month summer concert season.
The performances draw audiences into the hundreds from week to week, reports Lee. The band plays marches, patriotic songs, show tunes, medleys, sing-alongs, classical music and novelty pieces, and the gigs are tremendous crowd pleasers, he says. Especially when the group performs Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with musket fire by the 3rd New York Regiment to fill in for the canons in the score, which it’s done now for the past two years.
“It’s quite a spectacle and also quite loud, like the fireworks on the Fourth of July but right in front of you and with a live band,” laughs Lee. “It’s a bit of Americana that doesn’t go on much anymore, except for places like here in Sag Harbor.”
The group started out with approximately 25 members, according to Tom Rickenbach, who has played trombone with the band since 1991 and served as treasurer. According to his research, much of it found in Sag Harbor Express archives, the band was founded when Antonio “Pop” Mazzeo recruited members to play during the Sag Harbor Christmas tree lighting ceremony on December 6, 1957.
Originally the musicians were in uniform, and they marched as they played, but that formal approach lapsed after a while.
“Hot and itchy,” remarks Lee of the early days.
As time marched on, there were some transitions. Now, the band is more casual, donning their trademark red and white ensembles while sitting and playing. And the musical repertoire has grown too, he says, adding that the passing of years has necessitated a few other adjustments.
“Not much has changed. Except we got older,” Lee joked.
After Mr. Mazzio passed away, his son, Tony, stepped in as conductor. When the younger Mazzio died, the baton passed to Ralph Springer, who later bequeathed a six-figure sum to a number of Sag Harbor organizations, including the Community Band, the Whaling Museum and the American Legion, upon his death. The proceeds of bequest continue to fund the band’s annual scholarship fund, which has provided approximately $100,000 for music education to local students, as well as the donation of a Steinway piano for Pierson.
For the past six seasons, Amagansett resident David Brandenburg has conducted the band. The extremely talented musician has been a tremendous asset, and one who has breathed new life into the group, says Lee.
Also the Music Director producer for the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival and the Executive Director of the Choral Society of the Hamptons, Brandenburg, a composer who has mastered the trumpet, piano and percussion, has been leading the Sag Harbor Community Band since 2010. Exploring new pieces, bringing in soloists from other areas and building on the band’s firm foundation on musical excellence has been exciting, he says.
“Where else do you get to sit in your lawn chair on a beautiful summer’s night and hear virtuoso-level musicians playing in your hometown band,” he asks. “What’s better than neighbors sharing their talents in such a way with their friends and neighbors.”
Mr. Lee says he is hard-pressed to think of anything better.
“The Sag Harbor Community Band is a local institution and one I’m very proud of,” he says. “I’ll keep on doing it until I drop dead.”