The Rolls Royce of brass bands

The Good Life

One of the aspects of life in Cayman is that, although the place is small, you find out about stuff that expands your horizons: like the story of the Brass Band of Battle Creek, or BBBC, which came to Cayman for Heroes Day celebrations last weekend.

How they came into being, for instance…back in 1989, two brothers, Bill and Jim Gray, successful doctors and amateur musicians, decided to start a marching band/British brass-band in their home town of Battle Creek, but soon ran into a major problem that bands in Cayman would relate to Рa lack of competent dedicated musicians for the genre.

Usually that means the end of band, but (here’s one of the keys) the Grays were dedicated to their passion, so off they went to an international euphonium concert where they boldly set about inviting these world class players to come blow their horn in small town Battle Creek – total population, like Cayman, 60,000. ‘To our surprise,’ said Bill Gray, ‘these guys, the finest musicians in the world, were interested, and when we got a definite ‘yes’ from Steven Maud, the top euphonium player in the world, a lot of other players agreed to come. He was the catalyst.’

This approach, which sort of ‘evolved’, said Bill Gray, has resulted in something truly unique in the music industry – a band made up entirely of world-class solo musicians, or ones from other ensembles, who come together, when their schedules permit, to play concerts in this small town, as Jim Gray put it, ‘in the middle of nowhere’ to sold-out audiences.

The BBBC concept, with its high-grade musical talent, has grown to the point where the band is now recognised by no less an authority than the British Bandsman magazine as ‘the Rolls Royce of brass bands’ worldwide.

These days the band’s roster includes a who’s who of international musical talent. American trumpet legend Doc Severinsen, who has twice performed with the band, calls it ‘one of the most accomplished groups I’ve ever worked with in my entire career.” BBBC members come from American and European orchestras, colleges and universities, and US military bands and include some of the finest musicians in the world: Tim Morrison, former principal trumpet for the Boston Pops; Jens Lindemann, former member of the Canadian Brass; Woodrow English, trumpet soloist for National Symphony Orchestra and Washington Opera; Wycliffe Gordon, former trombonist for the Wynton Marsalis Septet; Dennis Wilson former trombonist with the Count Basie Band; and drummer Dave Ratajczak, who played the part of Gene Krupa in the re-creation of Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ in Carnegie Hall.

The concept is almost like a select studio band assembled for a recording, but the success of the venture is based on two key factors – these are among the best players in the world, and they’re following the formula of playing popular fare; egos are put aside. The band’s concerts feature a range of music (marches; jazz; concert; show tunes; pop; country), played on brass and percussion (no strings or reeds), but the approach chosen by Bill and Jim Gray is critical.

‘From day one,’ said Jim Gray, ‘we set a firm policy that we were not playing to impress musicians; we were playing to entertain the public, and the musicians who joined us bought into that. Mind you, we have to achieve the balance of giving our players challenging music, material they like, but the emphasis is always on keeping the audiences entertained.’ Not seen frequently outside the US, the group has now been invited here twice by the Ministry of Culture to perform at Heroes Day celebrations, capturing audiences with the verve and polish of their playing.

As with so many successes in artistic and creative ventures, this one was not planned; it just evolved, driven by the passion of two amateur musicians to make music live where conventional thinking would say ‘don’t go there.’

However, the Grays’ evaluation – ‘things just happened and we went along with it’ – modestly ignores the pivotal role the two brothers played in their determination to make the band happen, and in the discipline to maintain the ‘entertain-the-audience’ mantra among this array of high-powered talent. The precepts behind the BBBC, clearly at work in the creation of musical entertainment, are akin to the ones underlying any successful business: know your customer, identify your product, and make it the best you can.

On a somewhat separate note, for those of us who frequently complain about the level of the arts here, listen to Bill Gray: ‘Battle Creek and Cayman have about the same population, but the arts scene here is 10 times, even 20 times better than it is in Battle Creek.’ High praise, that, for this little rock.

Dave Martin’s Good Life columns appears on Fridays in the Caymanian Compass.

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