Asheville Archives: Live music hits the streets, 1919

DRAWING CROWDS: There are no known images of the Berry Municipal Band. The group would have performed at Pack Square, between the Vance Monument and the fountain, throughout the summer of 1919, drawing an audience similar to this 1923 crowd. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

At the start of 1919, America and its allies were still celebrating the end of World War I, which concluded on Nov. 11, 1918. But with no foe left to fight, the new year also allowed citizens to refocus their attention on local matters. In Asheville, this meant combating the city’s gravest threat against its thriving tourism economy: complacency.

“Asheville is slowly awaking to the need of entertainment for visitors,” declared the Jan. 13, 1919, edition of The Asheville Citizen. “We cannot sit down any longer and twirl our fingers with the futile conclusion that ‘people will come to Asheville anyway’ for its air and water.”

For many the solution seemed simple, if not self-evident: The city needed its own municipal band. “Asheville should have had a first class military band as a municipal asset years ago,” wrote resident Emil Medicus, in a Jan. 8, 1919, letter to the editor. In addition to being “the biggest, best and most economical advertisement that any city can have,” Medicus believed such an ensemble would “[gladden] the hearts of the toilers when the day’s work was done.”

By Jan. 14, the Board of Trade’s band committee created a proposed budget for such a project. The estimated cost would be $8,000. Four days later, the paper declared “the outlook for a first-class municipal band in Asheville grows brighter daily.”

But by late February, The Asheville Citizen’s optimism had eroded. While the impending tourist season promised to be “one of the best in the history of this section,” the paper was discouraged by the lack of financial support the proposed project had received. “There has been endless discussion and some very encouraging promises,” the paper wrote, “but the most necessary item of all — the necessary funds, have appeared in but small measure.”

Support would grow, however, with monetary contributions ultimately surpassing the committee’s proposed budget by $6,000. And though the project’s original plan was to enlist local talent and “returning soldier-musicians,” the city instead went with the J. Warren Berry band, previously of Jacksonville, Fla. The contract required the band to play four hours of music each day, with shows primarily held downtown, along with a weekly performance in West Asheville.

On May 25, the Berry Municipal Band (as the group was also sometimes called) performed its first set inside the city auditorium. The paper reported an estimated 500 people were turned away due to overcrowding. Later shows were played on a stage specifically built for the summer series in Pack Square, situated between the Vance Monument and water fountain. The band would also offer special performances for soldiers in recovery at the Oteen hospital, as well as Kenilworth Inn.

The group’s popularity continued to grow throughout the summer months. On July 31, The Asheville Citizen reported: “The conditions of congestion on Pack square during the band concerts are already serious and threaten to become grave[.]” Recommendations from concerned citizen included closing off the square to vehicle traffic. But as the paper noted, “The automoblisists seemed to resent the suggestion that anyone else’s rights were deserving of consideration[.]”

On Sept. 13, 1919, the Berry Municipal Band played its final show in Asheville. The following day’s paper recapped the event, which included an address by Mayor Galatin Roberts, who praised the band’s “faithful and efficient work … during their sixteen-week engagement[.]” The mayor went on to wish the band “abundant success,” and predicted residents would “have the pleasure of having Berry’s band in Asheville at some future time.”

Later that month, the band committee announced plans for the following year’s summer series. It would feature local talent rather than the Berry Municipal Band. The new group would be led by J.N. Denardo. Rehearsals, the paper continued, would commence shortly.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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