The Pomona College Band, one of the oldest college bands in the country, was founded in 1909 by three students to provide music for football, basketball and baseball games, track meets and college events. During its first year the band members also joined with musicians from the neighboring town to present a formal concert which featured classical favorites and concluded with Sousa’s El Capitan March.
In the fall of 1912 the new Instructor in Rhetoric, Harold R. Bruce, a 22-year-old graduate of Beloit College, was asked by President Blaisdell to take over the running of the band. He increased the membership to 25 men and the ensemble was featured in the Pageant that celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the College in June 1913. Bruce’s plan was to have the band “play throughout the year for athletic events, all important college affairs, and to give concerts not only in Claremont but also in neighboring towns.” However, after two years Professor Bruce left the college and, following service in World War I, went on to a distinguished academic career at Dartmouth College. Upon his retirement in 1958 he returned to Claremont and played his baritone horn in the band until shortly before his death in October 1970.
After Professor Bruce’s departure in 1914 the history of the band becomes harder to trace. It certainly played for football games in 1914 and 1915, under the leadership of Harold Burt ’16, and played the Processional March for the 1917 Commencement. There was an ROTC band during World War I, but little is known about the next few years. In 1923 an ROTC band was again organized under the direction of Ralph R. Uniacke, the newly hired violin teacher and orchestra conductor. This band also provided music for football games, often under a student conductor, but there was no formal concert band. The college announced the hiring of a woodwind and brass specialist in 1928, in part to remedy this problem, but apparently nothing came of it.
Things changed in 1934 when the cello instructor, Herbert E. Gray, took over the conducting of the orchestra and, with the help of cornet player Carl Arnold ’38, finally succeeded in forming a band of men and women that played a formal concert featuring marches and light classical numbers on April 1, 1935 and then played for Commencement in June of the same year. In fall 1935 there was a 30-piece marching band, and there were plans to play another concert in spring 1936. If this happened, the evidence has disappeared.
In fall 1936 William G. (“Doc”) Blanchard was hired with the primary responsibility of conducting the band. He was a proponent of the Symphonic Band Movement which focused on transcriptions of significant orchestral repertoire. A gifted orchestrator himself, Blanchard provided much of the repertoire for the group, including transcriptions of Ravel’s Bolero and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. He also programmed arrangements by many of his students.
The band under Blanchard marched at the football games in the fall semester and performed as a symphonic band for the rest of the year. Beginning with 36 players in spring 1938, the symphonic band grew to 56 players in spring 1940. In February 1939 and again in February 1940 Blanchard organized the Pomona College Invitational Symphonic Band Conferences, bringing to campus nearly 100 players from 19 California colleges and universities to perform under the direction of Edwin Franko Goldman and Herbert L. Clarke. However, with the coming of World War II the number of players at Pomona declined, and when the classes of 1943 and 1944 graduated early in February 1943, the band ceased to function.
At the end of the War, Blanchard was appointed College Organist, having acted in that capacity since Prof. Joseph Clokey’s departure in 1939, and felt unable to resume the direction of the band. The ensemble was conducted successively by John Elmore ’49, Carl Arnold ’38 and Laurel Simpson ’47. The latter may have presented concerts in the spring semesters of 1948-1951 but only the programs from 1949 and 1950 have survived.
William F. Russell arrived at Pomona in fall of 1951 to direct the Pomona College Choir and Glee Clubs. Since he had conducted an Army Division Band during the War, he was also given charge of the Pomona College Band. Russell continued the tradition of having a marching band to play for the football games in the fall semester – Pomona was a local small-college football power in these years – and a concert band in the spring semester whenever there was sufficient instrumentation. He also often drew upon members of the band to accompany the Pomona College Choir in the annual Christmas Concerts and on other occasions.
The football band ceased marching in 1957 and functioned thereafter as a pep band. In 1957 it had 34 members, the largest since the War, and by 1968 it numbered almost 40. The fortunes of the concert band varied. In some years it presented a formal concert, but in others it either disbanded after initial rehearsals or presented only an informal reading of a program for invited friends. The concert band in spring 1960 had 50 members and was the largest since the War. Numbers declined in the late 60s and early 70s, but in the late 70s there was renewed interest and Prof. Russell retired in 1983 after leading a concert with 47 players. Under Russell the concert band played a mixture of band classics – both original works and orchestral transcriptions – recent compositions and “novelty” numbers. He also featured new compositions and arrangements by students and faculty members.
Russell was succeeded by his former student Graydon Beeks ’69, who had returned to play in the band two years previously. He decided to offer the concert band both semesters while continuing to field a pep band for the football season. This latter group, designated the Fighting Sagehen Band, functioned successfully for the next ten years until a lack of student interest ended its existence.
The concert band soon began to attract more students from the other Claremont Colleges (e.g. Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer), and a move to early evening rehearsals allowed more participation by faculty and townspeople. As before, membership numbers have fluctuated, but generally remain in the high 40s. In fall 2010 the regular membership reached a post-War high of 59, enabling the band to play Darius Milhaud’s West Point Suite which requires 10 separate trumpet parts.
The concert band under Beeks’ direction plays a mixture of band classics, lesser-known works that are worth reviving, and new compositions, many by students or faculty members. Each program is played twice, and often features student or faculty soloists. The Music Department has allocated money to hire local professional players to cover any important gaps in instrumentation.