by Max Marbut
The whole thing started in 1984 when Ira Koger, a Jacksonville real estate developer and philanthropist, came to the conclusion that something that had never before been seen or heard here needed to be added to the city’s cultural fabric: the St. Johns River City Brass Band.
Now a quarter of a century later and with a slightly different name, the St. Johns River City Band has evolved in terms of musicians and music and accounts for some of Jacksonville’s most notable musical history. It remains an important element of the cultural scene not only in North Florida but statewide as well.
Willis Page, the SJRCB’s first conductor and a former conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, said of the original concept, “The band we started was a British-style brass band. We played everything from Bach to Broadway.”
A year after the band was founded, Mayor Jake Godbold spearheaded an effort to proclaim it “Jacksonville’s Official Band.” Performing exclusively in North Florida wasn’t the plan for long as the band’s reputation became more widely known. One of the highlights of the 1986 season was a trip to New York City where the SJRCB performed at Carnegie Hall with guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins.
“We gave a lot of free concerts back in those days,” said Page. “We’d bring 6,000 people to Metropolitan Park. On the 4th of July in 1986 we did three shows in one day. By the time we got to the last performance in St. Augustine the brass and woodwind players were getting tired so I’d talk to the audience between selections so the musicians could rest.”
The band also developed an early reputation for joining forces with some of the legends of jazz like Lionel Hampton and Al Hirt, who appeared with the SJRCB at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. Over the years the list of jazz legends that shared the stage with the city’s official band at the festival grew to include Rosemary Clooney and Dr. John. This year, the band backed up the Dave Brubeck Quarter at the festival.
In 1990, the SJRCB added the title “Florida’s Official Band” by action of the State Legislature and began to “hit the road” bringing music and culture to communities from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys.
The band also began a partnership in 1984 with Duval County Public Schools. In the past two years more than 10,000 students, most of them attending schools in underserved neighborhoods, have seen and heard the band. Working with the City’s Office of Special Events and Jacksonville Public Libraries more than 40,000 adults and children attend SJRCB performances each year.
“Having the St. Johns River City Band in addition to the symphony orchestra makes Jacksonville’s culture richer than most cities. It should be sustained and treasured,” said Page.
Aug. 15 in the atrium at the Aetna Building the SJRCB’s 18-member “Big Band” and vocalist Lisa Kelly will perform from 8-10 p.m. The theme is “A Night at the Copacabana.”
“We’re going to make it look like a 1940s-era nightclub,” said Diantha Grant, SJRCB executive director of the band’s major annual fundraising event. “And it will be a great evening for people who enjoy ballroom dancing. The Big Band will be playing Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra.” Grant also said a DJ will take over the show when the band takes a break.
Donna and Jim Bailey, publisher of Financial News & Daily Record, are honorary chairs of this year’s event. Anthony’s is catering the event and will serve a variety of desserts in addition to fruit and cheese. Complimentary champagne and a cash bar will also be offered.
“We want people to patronize one of Downtown’s wonderful restaurants and then come to our 25th Anniversary Ball to cap off the evening,” said Grant.
The band is offering a taste of its jazz flavors Saturday at the Riverside Arts Market where a booth will be set up to sell tickets to the anniversary event ($35 per person). Tickets are also available at www.rivercityband.com or by calling 390-1999.