Berlin Jazz - 25 years of providing America's music to the area



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St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts Director Joan Chamberlain introduces Berlin Jazz at their November concert at the Center Photo by Debra Thornblad. (click for larger version)
December 05, 2012
BERLIN - Berlin Jazz celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. There have been many bands over Berlin's history, but members of Berlin Jazz believe this milestone makes them the longest continuously playing band in that history.

Berlin Jazz began out of the wishes of a former Berlin High School band member, who was then in college, to have some summer opportunities to play.

Shane Blais, who went on to become a career musician with the U.S. Army, contacted Berlin High School music director Gary Rothe about that and Rothe began recruiting others interested until he had enough for a full ensemble.

Although the band officially began that summer of 1987, the seeds for it were planted three years earlier. For many years, there was a community band in Berlin. Money it raised benefited the Berlin High School Band.

In 1984 a raffle was held to benefit the high school band. Dr. Guy Beauboeuf won the $1,000 prize. A former community band member, he donated the money to Gary Rothe who invested it in music to start a jazz library.

To date, the library contains over 150 selections and money raised for playing today continues to allow it to grow. The members of Berlin Jazz are all volunteers who donate their time to practice and play. All of them have other careers, including: a plumber, office manager, administrator, veterinarian, home schooling mom, financial planner, pharmacist, physician, information technologist, clothing manufacturer, and high school music educators.

Why are they willing to do that? They practice every Wednesday night.

Steve McCosh, secretary for the group, said it's because they love the music and it gives them an opportunity to keep in practice with their instrument. It's a social occasion as well, a chance to talk to people with like interests.

Over the years the band has played at many local events. In its first year it played for the Androscoggin Valley Hospital Auxiliary's benefit "Putting on the Ritz."

For several years it opened the Summer Arts Festival in Berlin (similar to Gorham's Concerts on the Common now) in Home Bank (now the unemployment office) Park, located behind it.

The year 1991 was a particularly busy year for the band. It kicked off the summer concert series, played at both nursing homes in town, played at a benefit for Special Olympics, played at a benefit for the While Mountains Regional High School scholarship fund and sponsored a special performance of the Count Basie Orchestra.

In 1994 it played at the Shelburne Town Hall for that town's 225th anniversary. In November 2000 they played for the first time at St. Kieran's Arts Center, which would become their new home in 2005 when Berlin High School teacher Rothe left to take another teaching position. They continue to do an annual concert there every November as a thank you for allowing the band to use the space to practice and store their equipment.

It has played for many years at Randolph's community picnic and was featured on its calendar in 2008. Other regular performances have included the North Country Moose Festival in Canaan, Vermont and the summer gazebo concerts in Bethlehem.

Members have come and gone over the years, but McCosh said it retains six original members: Stephen and Leslie Morrissette, Bruce and Faith Kimball, Monique Lavertu and Steve McCosh. Lavertu is the group's president, Leslie Morrissette, treasurer and McCosh, secretary.

Sadly it has lost four members to death. They are: Barry Field (2003), Jennifer Solar-Whalen (2004), Robert Berone (2008) and Herman Pageau (2011).

Current members, some traveling a distance to participate, are: Piano: Melinda Enman/Milan; Guitar: Dave Arsenault/Gorham; Bass Guitar; Paul LaPlante/Berlin; Drums: April Masiero/Berlin; Saxophones: Bruce Kimball/W. Dummer, Faith Kimball/W. Dummer, Clint King/Berlin, Monique Lavertu/Berlin, and Leslie Morrissette/Gorham; Trombones: Dave Glover/Whitefield, Kenyon King/Chatham, Steve McCosh/Berlin and Bill Spencer/Littleton; Trumpets: Christian Labnon/Gorham, Dave Lebaron/Whitefield, John McDowell/Randolph, Steve Morrissette/Gorham and Julie Shubert/Bethel, Maine.

This year the band added a vocalist, Rachel Carlson, who is also the chorus teacher at Berlin Middle and High Schools. McCosh said if the band could get both male and female vocalists it would add vocal group charts to its library. It is also looking for someone interested in operating its sound system.

In recent years there have been less "gigs" for the band. Everything, of course, waxes and wanes and this appears to be a period of waning for jazz in general. McCosh said jazz is currently more popular in Asia and Europe than here and he thinks that is too bad and hopes it will turn around soon.

"Jazz is the only truly American form of music. It was born in Louisiana and is something America can call its own," he said. "I'm hoping someday it will come full circle and ballroom dancing will come back again."

"We're starving for gigs," McCosh said. "It will be hard to continue to keep members interested without them."

The band's continued success will also involve getting younger people involved, and a community band like Berlin Jazz depends on musicians already trained to their instruments. We all know what has happened to money for arts in schools recently.

McCosh, who graduated from Berlin High School, said when he was in school, Berlin High School had a pep band, a marching band and a concert band.

"For some high school students, including myself, music was just as important to us as sports was to others," he said.

One of the things the band is thinking about, to get more community interest in music, is to start a Community Band. Berlin once had one and other towns, like Whitefield, have them now. A community band would involve more and different instruments, like percussion, flutes and clarinets, and they would play different music, like show tunes and Broadway hits.

"We are hoping new people coming in and people here now who play these instruments and are looking or an opportunity to play, will be interested," McCosh said.

McCosh believes there is plenty of opportunity to expand all things music in town. For example, the Glen Avenue gazebo is sorely underutilized, he said.

Anyone interested in any aspect of supporting Berlin Jazz or a new community band can contact Berlin Jazz at Berlin_jazz@msn.com.

McCosh is starting to gather information on the history of Berlin bands. He is hoping to write a book on it after he retires. From what he has to date, Berlin has had bands from at least 1892, when the first band organized by Brown Company employees was formed. It was the Normana Band and gave an address on Norway Street.

There were many bands from the turn of the century to the 1950's/60's, including: the Riverside Orchestra, Oleson Band, Freddie King Band, Berlin Brass bank, Italian Concert Band, Cascade Mill Mandolin Club, Burgess Band, Brown Company Band, Berlin Fyfe and Bugle Corps, Glendale Orchestra, Granite Orchestra. Berlin Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestra and the YMCA's Boys Band, to name a few.

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