Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 12, 2016

Clay Center on my mind

"Clay Center City Band Centennial Celebration."

That was written in my agenda for July 27. Our friend Jay Mellies, who plays tenor saxophone in the band, had told husband Art and me about it back in the spring. It had sounded like fun at the time. Our friend Charlotte Rundell of nearby Morganville also encouraged us to attend.

But I was having serious misgivings as the day approached. Art, our girls and I had just returned from Europe the week before, and I was still recovering. My enthusiasm wasn't helped by temperatures in the 90s with high humidity. Then, the day of the performance, I developed a bit of a stomach ache late in the afternoon.

Still, when Art said he had to make a delivery to a Clay Center customer that day, I thought I might as well ride along. He said we'd only stay as long as I wanted to remain.

After dropping off the parts, we drove to Dexter Park, where the band was to play. Cars lined all the streets surrounding the park. But we found a spot on a side street and arrived at the band shell just a bit before the 8 p.m. starting time.

We were surprised at the number of people gathered on bleachers, lawn chairs and blankets. I did a quick guess while engineer Art did some counting and we both estimated the crowd to be at about 1,000 - pretty good for a town that has a population of a little more than 4,000.

We looked about for some place to sit, but coming as late as we had, I expected to stand. Then, just before the music began, Charlotte joined us.

After a few announcements, the 55 band members, ranging in age from 14 to 85, played "The Star-Spangled Banner" and then moved on with great enthusiasm to "Oklahoma," "Yellow Bird," a John Williams Trilogy and other numbers.

I took a few photos and then worked my way closer to the band to take a few more shots. Always the historian, I noted the sign on the shell indicated it was originally constructed as a Works Progress Administration project in 1934 and restored in 1996.

But I also noticed there were a few empty seats in the bleachers just a few rows from the front. I quickly walked back to tell Art and Charlotte.

We slid onto the seats just before 89-year-old Doc Severinsen, trumpet player and former "Tonight Show" band leader, arrived. He has visited Clay Center many times since 1964, participating in various music clinics and performing with the band. He was featured in "Georgia on My Mind" accompanied by singer Vanessa Thompson Thomas, who grew up in Clay Center and whom Doc discovered in 2010.

Art said he was amazed at how well Severinsen could still hold the notes.

"Many trumpet players never can hold them," he added. "... I have seen both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in person, so I think I have a basis to judge what was being performed."

Although Severinsen was the featured performer and received a standing ovation, organizers of the event made it clear that the band's centennial was the focus of the evening. Composer James Barnes, professor emeritus of music at the University of Kansas, was commissioned by the band to compose an overture, "Dexter Park Celebration." The park's namesake was Alonzo Dexter, one of the town's founders.

Barnes, who was once leader of bands at KU, conducted the piece. He followed with his slow arrangement of "Home on the Range," commenting that he had needed a sad piece to play after most KU football games.

The night was also a celebration of C.L. Snodgrass' 48 years as conductor of the city band. His father Wayne directed the band for the 27 years previous to that. His mother Pauline, a former vocal music and piano teacher, was honored on her 99th birthday at a 2010 band performance. That year, Severinsen also played to pay tribute to the Snodgrass family's musical legacy.

The family's musical genes appear to have been passed on as C.L.'s 8-year-old grandson Charlie played the piano for "Georgia on My Mind" to accompany Severinsen and Thomas.

Jay had begun playing with the band in junior high school, and then off and on over the years when he was back in the area. He remembers his mother driving him from Morganville to Clay Center every Monday night to practice on the third floor of city hall, lugging a heavy case with his saxophone up three flights of stairs.

He said there were "lots of old timers" and he learned a lot under the baton of Wayne Snodgrass.

The band discontinued year-round Monday night rehearsals in the mid-1970s and moved from city hall to the high school's band room. The practices are from 6:15 to 7:30 on the nights of their concerts, which are at 8 on Wednesdays in June and July. The band also performs at the annual Memorial Day service.

When the last number on the program had been played, we were told there was a little surprise waiting for us. Severinsen leaned toward the band and whispered, but loud enough for us to hear, "Now don't hold back." And with that, he led the band in a rousing rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever." Near the end, fireworks lit the darkening sky - a surprise treat for those who attended.

Somehow during the show, my stomach had settled, my fatigue had left me and the temperature was more than bearable. I completely enjoyed the evening filled with Clay Center on my mind.

Top: Audience waiting for the show to begin; middle: Severinsen, Thomas and Snodgrass' grandson collaborating on "Georgia on My Mind," while Snodgrass leads the band; bottom-left: fireworks near the show's end; bottom-right: Snodgrass leading the Clay Center City Band in the Dexter Park band shell.

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