Global Talent: Brass Band of Battle Creek attracts musicians from around the world

Brothers and fellow podiatrists Bill and Jim Gray receive rock star treatment when they attend performances in other countries.

However, they still remain largely unknown in the United States for their work to establish a world-class brass band named for their native Battle Creek.

On Dec. 2, the Brass Band of Battle Creek (BBBC) will perform at Byron Center High School to raise money for the school’s music program. The next day, the band travels to Battle Creek to perform its annual holiday concert at W.K. Kellogg Auditorium.

The concerts will feature 31 of the world’s premier brass musicians from all over the world. They teach at such prestigious institutions as the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music, and also perform at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Broadway theaters.

Still, Bill Gray said the vast majority of Americans think the BBBC is a community band featuring local talent, due to the name. And to be fair, the precursor to BBBC was exactly that.

Early on, the Grays were president and vice president of the Marshall Community Band. They always had a difficult time finding musicians who played reed instruments, such as the clarinet.

“We would pay people to play,” Bill Gray said.

Over a 12-year period, the brothers built up the Marshall band into a 60-musician group that included some of the best in Southwest Michigan. Through a series of serendipitous encounters that followed, the Grays were introduced to preeminent brass musicians who played instruments such as the euphonium and tuba.

While trying to plan a tribute to Great Britain with the local band, Jim Gray spoke with the conductor of the Ohio State University Marching Band who talked him into putting on a brass band seminar in 1989 at Kellogg Community College. This also got Jim Gray to begin thinking about converting the Marshall band into a brass band.

“We argued back and forth,” Bill Gray said. “I said, ‘We’re pretty busy physicians and where the hell will we find the time to do this?’ I was the one who said it was stupid.”

But after the Grays sought support from and were turned down by 52 foundations, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation came through with funding to support the seminar. Among the musicians was the principal trumpet player in the U.S. Navy Band.

A concert publicized on local radio stations followed the seminar and about 900 people showed up. This is when the brothers figured they were onto something.

The Grays invited Steven Mead, a world-renowned euphonium player from Britain, to play at another concert and Mead began inviting other musicians to join him for future concerts. Within two years of meeting Mead, the BBBC became a band of the “who’s who” of brass players from all over the world, said Jennifer Rupp, executive director of the BBBC.

“Over the years, the Brass Band has become known not only for the caliber of musicians, but also for the caliber of music and the conductors we bring in,” Rupp said. “They are all in one place making this amazing music together.”

The BBBC puts on two shows each year in Battle Creek – one around the holidays and one in the spring. The musicians are sent the selected music two weeks before every concert. They rehearse as a group inside the Kellogg Auditorium two days before each concert, for six hours per day.

“It can be a very challenging dynamic to take the best of the best and put them in one place,” Rupp said. “But they are there for the experience of knowing collectively what they can do together and what they produce for the audience.”

Rupp also admits that adapting programs and “being cognizant of what the audience wants” can be a challenge for every arts organization. This is what prompted the BBBC to perform a selection of music by the rock band Chicago during last year’s spring sold-out concert. The musicians were all wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with a white Chicago logo underneath their concert apparel. They left the stage to remove the traditional concert apparel, reappearing in the T-shirts to cheers and applause from the audience.

Rupp said brass bands don’t usually play contemporary musical arrangements.

“Our musicians like to play music that can challenge them a little bit,” she said. “It’s fun for the musicians to come and play for an audience that feeds off of their energy.”

This is especially true when they perform in Battle Creek in front of audience members, some of whom have been attending their concerts for 25 years.

“At the very beginning of all of this, we had a cult following,” Rupp said. “For the first 10 years, we had waiting lists for the performances. As the novelty has worn off, we have had to look at new ways to bring in new audiences.

“This band is the best-kept secret in the Midwest.”