And the (Vineyard Haven) band plays on

A little town ensemble celebrates 150 years of playing together.

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Sevenscore and 10 years ago a group of Islanders formed a band. That original group of 18 brass musicians has evolved into the current Vineyard Haven Band, which will honor its 150-year anniversary on Thursday, August 9, by hosting a free gala concert and reception at the Tabernacle, featuring — appropriately enough — a reading of the Gettysburg Address.

It’s appropriate because the band was formed in 1868 by a group of returning Civil War veterans, hailing from both the Union and Confederate armies. In the spirit of peace and a display of unity, the original 18-man band, founded as the Vineyard Haven Silver Cornet Brass Band, first came together to play at the West Tisbury Agricultural Fair.

Like the fair itself, the Vineyard Haven Band is a piece of living Island history. It is believed to be the second oldest continuously performing concert band in the U.S. One of its highlights came in 1874, when the band was invited to play for President Ulysses S. Grant during a Vineyard visit.

Made up of musicians drawn from a pool of locals, summer residents, and visitors, the band continues to play every Sunday during July and August, alternating between performances at Owen Park in Vineyard Haven and Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. The band’s repertoire of American tunes ranges from patriotic marches to jazz-era standards to Broadway tunes, and even a few contemporary favorites.

The weekly concerts are very much a part of the summer Island tradition. People gather on the lawn — groups of friends, children, parents, and grandparents, dogs and their owners — and spread out blankets and refreshments to enjoy a simple, free, old-fashioned evening of entertainment. Audience participation has become a part of the Ocean Park concerts, with an informal march, led by Jabberwocky campers, circling the gazebo in accompaniment to the music.

The Vineyard Haven Band also performs on special occasions, including at the annual Fourth of July parade, and their music has become an integral part of two of the Island’s premiere events — Illumination Night and the Oak Bluffs fireworks.

Of the people, by the people, for the people

The Vineyard Haven Band welcomes all musicians, with no restrictions or audition process. “We’re a very democratic group,” says percussionist Jeri Larson, who is a member of the gala organizing committee. “Anybody who can read music and come to a rehearsal is welcome. We have kids in middle and high school, up to members in their 80s — professionals and amateur musicians.”

The longest-standing member of the band is John Schilling, who has been involved for more than 50 years. Currently there are a number of school students who participate, including a few as young as 12 and 13. “It offers a great chance for young musicians to keep up their musicianship in the summer, and they learn so much from members who are more advanced,” says Larson. “That intergenerational aspect of the band is one of the nicest things.”

Although women were only welcomed into the band in the 1960s, today the group is fairly evenly split along gender lines, and the group is led by a female conductor — Julie Schilling, who has been a member of the band for almost as long as her husband John.

The anniversary concert will be held at the Tabernacle in the Oak Bluffs Campground. Built in 1879, the landmark venue isn’t quite as old as the band, but is a similar tie to the Island’s past. The program will include a playlist of songs from throughout the band’s history — from the 19th century (“Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Maple Leaf Rag”) to the early 20th century (“Barnum and Bailey” march, “Minnie the Moocher”) to a couple of tunes that some audience members may remember from from their own pasts (“Hoop-De-Doo Polka,” “Moon River”).

The two-minute Gettysburg Address — originally delivered by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War as a call for unity — will be read by John Washbrook, a former child TV star (“My Friend Flicka”) and trained Shakespearean actor. After the concert, refreshments will be served under a tent next to the Tabernacle.

Ms. Larson hopes that the event will serve not only to honor the band and to raise awareness of the group and its storied history, but will also inspire new members to join — whether for one or two performances, or as part of the next generation of dedicated members.

Vineyard Haven Band’s free gala concert and reception will take place at the Tabernacle in the Oak Bluffs Campground, Thursday, August 9, at 7:30. All are welcome. Former members are encouraged to attend, as participants or audience members.

To play in the gala, or to join the band for any or all of the season’s concerts, contact Jeri Larson at jeriwlarson@gmail.com.