Ithaca's Big Band Heritage
THE CONWAY BAND, CA. 1923-1924, FROM THE ITHACA JOURNAL, NOVEMBER 12, 1955
Cornetist and band leader Patrick “Patsy” Conway (1865-1929) came to Ithaca from Cortland in the mid-1890s and made an immediate impact on the city’s music scene. His Conway Band gained national fame during the early years of the “Big Band” era in the 1910s and 1920s. The band could be heard at Renwick Park (now Stewart Park) locally, and they toured nationally, even appearing on the General Motors Radio Hour and opening home games for the New York Giants. In the Broadway musical “The Music Man,” Conway’s name is listed with other famous band leaders, including John Philip Sousa. Conway’s influence spread even more widely in the 1920s when he began training band leaders at the Conway Band School housed at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music (now Ithaca College).
Area bands continue Patsy Conway’s fine legacy. On Saturday, October 6, 2018, the Dryden Homestead Heritage Fair Day will celebrate Big Band music by featuring three of these bands. Here is a brief description, in their own words, of the bands and an idea of what types of music they offer.
FALL CREEK BRASS BAND
The Fall Creek Brass Band
The Fall Creek Brass Band’s headwaters are found in the funky beats, groovy bass lines, and hot licks hidden in the hills in the outskirts of Tompkins County. The waters of Fall Creek flow, at times slow and meandering and at times raucous and untethered, carrying this miasma of groove to Ithaca and surrounding towns where it infects the local population with an inescapable need to dance, sing, smile, and laugh. When the party ends, the waters of Fall Creek evaporate to travel back to their hilltop homes to rejuvenate their funk juices for the next party.
Originally formed at Dryden High School a decade ago, FCBB has experienced a lot of evolution in that time. Graduation from high school dispersed the band’s original members far and wide and the band played only a handful of times in the past few years. However, a new cadre of Ithaca and Cortland funk masters have joined the band and Fall Creek has found itself reinvigorated with new life.
In their inexhaustible effort to get the world up and shaking that groove thing, the Fall Creek Brass Band plays a wide variety of dance music from traditional New Orleans tunes to funk, hip-hop, and rock and roll. Fall Creek can also be heard on their latest album, Prime Time.
The Ithaca Concert Band
The Ithaca Concert Band was founded in 1976 by a group of people who realized the community was missing an important part of its musical foundation—a community band. The band was formed with the intention of providing live, quality musical performances at places accessible to all people of Tompkins County and to offer local musicians a challenging and rewarding musical experience in an encouraging environment. To this day, the band carries on its original mission.
The Ithaca Concert Band is the area's community band—the official band of the City of Ithaca—and performs free concerts throughout the year at local auditoriums and popular outdoor venues. The Ithaca Concert Band is a popular group, drawing crowds in excess of 300 at its performances on the Ithaca Commons during the summer. The band is also popular with the area's musicians and has had over 500 people who have played with the band over the years. Believe it or not, we have people in the band now who were there when it all began.
The Ithaca Concert Band performs selections from the traditional concert band repertoire, which includes light marches and medleys. Their music celebrates Ithaca’s rich history of community bands dating back to the 1920s.
The Cortland Old Timer’s Band
The Cortland Old Timers Band was a community band that was reorganized in 1967 by John Discenza and Phil Natoli. Their goal was to provide local musicians with challenging and rewarding musical performance opportunities, and to inspire and entertain the Cortland area community with live band experiences. To this day, the band carries on with its original mission. The band continues to attract both young and seasoned musicians from the Cortland area, which abounds with musical talent and generations of community band heritage.
Today, the band boasts approximately 60 volunteer members, ages 14 to 87, who strive to enrich the Cortland-area community and future generations with their passion for live concert band performances. Their concert selections range from traditional marches, overtures, and patriotic songs, to popular Broadway, movie, and folk music selections. Audiences become connected to the band via interesting and whimsical background on the music origins, the band members and supporters, as told by the band’s announcer.
Don't miss the opportunity to enjoy all three bands (schedule to be determined) at this year’s Dryden Homestead Heritage Fair Day, which will coincide with the Ithaca Heritage “Authentically Rural Weekend”—October 5th through 7th. The entire weekend promises to be a memorable county-wide celebration of our rural heritage.
Dryden's Homestead Heritage Fair Day is made possible in part by a grant from the Tompkins County Tourism Program.
Originally written for the IthacaHeritage.com blog.
Published August 14, 2018.