When Joe Lear put down his trombone in 1939, he planned to pick it up as soon as he settled down. Sure enough, 50 years later, after getting a trombone as a Christmas present, he founded the Milford Community Band –Delaware's most senior year-round community band.
"I was helping with the Milford High School Band in 1989 and I complained to the band director that I didn't have any place to play," Lear said. "He suggested that I start a community band. So I did."
Lear put an ad in the paper and eight people responded. Those "original eight" have grown to nearly 45 with musicians coming and going. The youngest member is in seventh grade and the elder statesman is Lear at 88. Four of the original eight are still on board. They are Lear, Margie Newnom, Bill Mayhew and Tony Perrone. Membership rules are simple — you have to have a horn and know how to read music.
Today, the MCB gives 80 performances per year, half of which are performed as "public service," for which no donation is received. The MCB is actually several bands in one as they form ensembles that play every form from Dixieland to Oompah.
Lear prefers Dixieland because of its risqué themes and feel.
"It's outlaw music, bootleggers' music" he said, of the sound originated in speakeasies in the late 1890s through the Roaring '20s.
The band has played many historic D.C. sites as well as most Kent/Sussex holiday festivals. Their two biggest events are their Summer and Christmas Concerts. Half of their shows are performed free-of-charge at nursing homes, hospitals and senior centers.
The Long and Winding Road
Lear was born in Texas in 1924. His musical love affair began the first time he picked up a trombone in high school.
"When the band director asked what I played, I answered 'what do you need?' He said they needed trombone players. That's when I became a trombone player," he said.
Lear paid $25 for a used trombone and started practicing.
"I must have driven my parents crazy," he said. "Later, I worked and paid for a better trombone for $150. I wore that out, too."
But then high school graduation, a world war, and life in general intervened and Lear's trombone went silent. He entered the army and had just completed basic training when World War II ended but he decided to stay in the military. After the military, he began his second career with General Foods in Dover. He retired from General Foods in 1986 and decided, at age 62, to go to college. It was around this time that he mentioned to his wife that he wouldn't mind taking up the trombone again. That Christmas, a new trombone glistened under the tree. He joined the Wesley Jazz Band and performed with them until he left to assist the Milford High School Band.
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It was here he complained to the band director and got the response that changed his life. The MCB's first gig was April 1990 at the Wesley Jazz Festival.
"I love to play because of the fellowship," Lear said. "There are very few bad people in community bands. The whole focus of community bands is to make music together."
Kay Meade, who has been playing in the band since 2000, agrees.
"I've been playing with my kids since they were teenagers," Meade said. "And you know how it is raising teenagers? Even when we weren't talking, we were still playing together."
A little help from their friends
The recession has wreaked financial havoc on many bands, but the biggest deficit may be cultural.
"When orchestras put on concerts the entire downtown community thrives," said Bruce Ridge, of the conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. The MCB is a 501 (C) (3)nonprofit organization. They receive a small grant from The Delaware Division of Arts. The rest comes from donations and ticket sales. Selling tickets has always been a challenge. They need more financial support from their fans.
In 2015, the MCB will celebrate its 25-year anniversary with a concert playing an original score written for them. Until then, they will continue to perform, mostly for free, in front of their fans.