The Sag Harbor Community Band: Building Relationships Through Music For Five Decades

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With both sides of Sag Harbor’s Bay Street blocked off by flares and uniformed police officers, hundreds of people slowly begin to fill both lanes of the stretch of road in front of the American Legion headquarters one recent Tuesday evening, eventually spilling over and onto the sidewalk.Carrying lawn chairs, picnic blankets, food and drinks, the crowd of people, both young and old, gathers in this way every week, waiting patiently, sometimes for hours, for a free concert to begin.

Finally, at around 8 p.m., with the temperature still hovering in the upper-80s, a distinct voice can be heard over a loud speaker:

“Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the summer’s second concert of our 56th year! Our maestro, David Brandenburg, has put together a terrific playlist for tonight, starting with a standard of ragtime history, ‘That’s a Plenty.’”

With those words, Sag Harbor Community Band founder David Lee kicks off the band’s weekly free performance, a mix of medleys, show tunes and novelty pieces, and the once-restless crowd—which typically numbers in the hundreds—grows silent. And, each week, the band performs a new selection of pieces and features a new guest of honor.

Hitting on what seems to be a common theme among regular concert-goers, members of the Wolffer and Roth families of Sag Harbor, who were watching the show on July 16, said they come back week after week.

“We’ve been coming to these shows for 10 years,” Roman Roth said. “Whenever we have guests, we bring them here. We love the music, the atmosphere. It’s just something that you don’t see anywhere else, only maybe in Europe.”

The band, which stays together year-round but is only able to fit in about four hours of practice a week together, is made up of East End residents—some as young as 16, and some well into their senior years. They hail from as far west as Riverhead and as far east as Montauk.

According to Mr. Lee, a pillar of the Sag Harbor community, the ages and different hometowns of members might be a detriment when it comes to practicing together, but the eclectic mix only adds to the character of the 40-member band, allowing for the building of relationships between the different generations and across town lines.

“It is a great, big happy family,” he said. “Everyone knows each other, and checks in on each other. We play ‘Happy Birthday’ all the time for each other. It is a real friendly group.”

Mr. Lee, who many in attendance refer to as “Mr. Sag Harbor” and always seems to have an interesting story to share, explained that the group started as a marching band for parades more than a half century earlier. “[But] we got too old,” said Mr. Lee, who used to be a percussionist in the marching band before switching roles and now serving as the master of ceremonies. “We could either march or we could play—we couldn’t do both.”

He continued, “But I loved playing. I love to stay involved with people. I’ve only gotten to 85 because I’m too busy to pay attention to things like my health.”

Beyond keeping Mr. Lee alive and well, the band is now part of the fabric of the Sag Harbor community. For example, the band maintains a four-year $1,500 scholarship for graduating high school seniors who pursue music education, and has given away more than $100,000 through the years. The scholarship fund recently donated a Steinway piano to the Pierson High School auditorium as well.

And never one to leave out an interesting tidbit, Mr. Lee—who said his favorite song to hear the band play is the “Colonel Bogey March” because, “I can remember playing it 70 years ago in the British Army”—loves to share how the scholarship fund came about.

“One day, way back when I owned Cove Jewelers on Main Street, myself, John Steinbeck and Ralph Springer were talking about our future, and if we had a will,” he said. “Ralph said he didn’t have one, and I said, ‘You idiot—do you want Uncle Sam taking it all? Leave a percentage of everything you own to the community band.’

“Steinbeck said, ‘That’s a damn good idea, David,’” Mr. Lee continued. “Eventually, after Ralph’s wife left him over a million dollars, and he died before he could enjoy it, it turns out he left over $300,000 to the band. All because of a chance conversation!”

In honor of Mr. Springer’s donation, Mr. Lee asked the American Legion, who he notes is the band’s landlord and has never asked for any sort of rent or reimbursement, to rename the patio area where the band performs their concerts the Ralph W. Springer Memorial Patio.

About four years ago, the band hired a new conductor, Mr. Brandenburg, a former music director of the Yale Jazz Ensemble for 11 years, and an Amagansett resident who is also in charge of the music for the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Lee described Mr. Brandenburg as the future and savior of the band, and many in attendance acknowledged the uptick in attendance and quality of music after his arrival.

While he loves the music and considers the repertoire that the band plays “to be truly beautiful,” Mr. Brandenburg explained that his favorite part of the experience is the way community can be built through music.

“We have various members of the band who wouldn’t normally hang out, being brought together by their love of playing music,” he said. “Then they go out and they play for their neighbors and friends, and even some tourists, which builds relationships between the band and residents. Then, over their love of hearing great music, those in the crowd become a tighter community.

“It is awesome,” he added, “just sharing talents and good times to build strong community ties.”

Mr. Lee seemed satisfied with what he created more than five decades ago with some of his friends.

“I’m immensely happy with what we do,” Mr. Lee said. “It brings tremendous satisfaction to us, which is why we do it, and to others, who stop me on the street and call me telling me how much they enjoyed our performance, and so and so played a great solo. I just love the connections a community band can create.”

As last Tuesday’s performance was coming to an end, well after the sun fully set and the novelty of an old-time tradition began to wear off on tired children and grandchildren, Mr. Lee again took to the microphone and beckoned those in attendance to rise for the national anthem.

He then says what many in the crowd have heard time and time again, summer after summer: “We’ll see you all next week. Thank you.”

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