The trip instigated by Bandmaster Graham Pillivant and Bass Trombonist Steve Willis together with their respective wives Tina and Julie seemed a distant dream when discussed in early 2004. Steve and Julie with their daughter, Devon named after our county, were native Texans living and working in Tiverton.
Leaving Tiverton, in the early hours of a wet Thursday morning, the party of 51 players and families travelled by coach to Gatwick for a mid-day flight to Minneapolis, and then transferred for an internal flight to Dallas, one of the world’s busiest airports.
Once arriving at Dallas airport all the instruments and luggage had to be collected and loaded into a borrowed van, and a fleet of eight people carriers took care of all the remaining bags and passengers. Having sent copies of driving licenses ahead of the visit, the band had been advised that the vehicles were "right next to Dallas FW airport". ‘Right next to’ turned out to be about 12 miles away – the first indication of ‘everything is bigger in Texas’. Then began the long and tiring drive to Marshall, with only a few directional errors by a couple of the cars, put right by two way radio communication, they were well on their way to their hotel, finally arriving at 3.00am local time, some 30 hours after leaving a sleepy Tiverton.
On arrival at the hotel it was hoped that the first day of their trip would be a quiet one, this was not to be, as a lunch time concert had been arranged for music students at the local high school.
The band obliged and were warmly appreciated by all students and teachers alike. The band played in an auditorium which could hold the entire school of 1800 pupils and a stage big enough to accommodate their 150-piece band. The pupils and staff were exuberant in praise of the band’s performance and were desperate to show them around the music facilities afterwards. A few of the band were then honoured to be some of the first people to try one of the schools new sousaphones, part of a set of six, which had been delivered the previous day. This was a brilliant start to the visit.
In the evening it was into the cars to visit a Rodeo in a nearby town. Organisers had been told about the bands visit and throughout the evening were shown on a big overhead screen, much to the delight of all the local cowboys and girls who made the band feel welcome.
The next day saw some of the band relaxing and enjoying the hotel facilities, indoor pool, Jacuzzi and lovely gardens, some went shopping and a few travelled to a motorcycle show in nearby Jefferson. This is one of the largest motorcycle shows in America raising funds for children suffering from burn injuries. It is estimated that there were in excess of 8,000 motorcycles on display.
Late afternoon saw the band leaving for the biggest concert of the tour, organised as part of the Marshall Arts Council season of concerts, at the Spiritual Life Centre in Marshall. With a seating capacity of 1500 it was going to be another big auditorium with amazing acoustics.
The band was welcomed by the Mayor’s representative and presented with a proclamation stating that in the town of Marshall, Texas U.S.A Saturday 21st October 2006 was to be Tiverton Town Band & Bel-Canto Day. The band were also presented with a Texas flag and certificate from the House Of Representatives in Austin, Texas. The flag actually having been flown in the state capital on 18 October. In response Tiverton Town Band presented the town of Marshall with a plaque from Tiverton Town Council.
Following the presentations the band continued the concert with a rousing march. Items included in the concert alternated from traditional English brass pieces to Amazing Grace and a Salsa. ‘Hootenanny’ was the piece that concluded each concert, as it seemed to be the American’s favourites. The band’s guests for this concert were Tiverton singing duo Bel-Canto, a new act
consisting of American girl Julie Willis and Tiverton’s Katy Baker. Both girls are professionally trained opera singers and were greatly appreciated as part of the concert. Their programme included songs from the shows such as "Anything you can do", "A nightingale sang in Berkley square", "You’ve got a friend in me", and opera classics including ‘Sull aria’, ‘Baccoralle’, and the famous "Duetto Buffo di Due Due Gatti" by Rossini. The audience showed their appreciation for the band and Bel-Canto with a standing ovation.
Attending a church service on Sunday, the band was amazed to discover that, even though attendance is in slight decline, around 90% of Texans still attend church regularly, although overall in the USA this figure is apparently nearer 65%. The churches around Marshall certainly enjoy a strong support from the local population and students attending the local university. After returning to the hotel it was off to the pool and relax in preparation for the next concert that evening. With an audience of over 400 people the band put on a good performance of lighter music suitable for the surroundings, much to everyone’s delight. A buffet meal was supplied by the church members, for both entertainers and audience after the event.
Monday was another day to play, this time in a real bandstand at Otstott Park in Jefferson, a historic old west town. Otstott Park is a privately owned piece of the town with the bandstand specifically for the use of townspeople to relax and enjoy performances.
It was like stepping onto a western film set. Steamboat gothic architecture, a Sheriff’s office and a General Store that looked much the same as it probably did 150 years ago. (You could even sit at the counter and get coffee or root beer). We were given a guided tour of the Excelsior Hotel, which has been running continuously since 1851 with many original furnishings. The guest book reads like a ‘who’s who’ of past presidents, film stars and other famous visitors. They are very proud of their rare portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant who stayed there when he was President following the civil war.
After the concert the band went to a local club "Auntie Skinners" where they were treated to some excellent hospitality whilst tasting local dishes.
Tuesday saw the band leaving early to visit Shreveport, Louisiana for a concert at Centenary college of Louisiana. The organisers of this concert had arranged for a coach to collect the band and their equipment from the hotel and transport them across the border into Louisiana.
After setting the equipment on stage it was off to lunch, supplied by the university, before returning for a concert to music students and friends.
Once the concert had finished it was back on the coach for a tour of the city. Gambling is allowed in Louisiana (not in Texas), and the guide took the band to the Horseshoe Casino, not to gamble, but to see what $1,000,000 looks like. This was done by positioning 10,000 $100 bills on a wall and covering with glass. The wall was 100 feet long and 11 feet high, and it took 25 days to complete.
The band finished the day with an evening meal at the home of Louisiana’s ex-governor Buddy Roemer and hosted by his sister Mrs Melinda Barratt. The setting for the meal was at their home, a cotton plantation and farm, quite an eye opener for some.
Wednesday was planned as a free day, to tour the local countryside and surrounding towns. Unfortunately the weather was not so kind so ten pin bowling was arranged in the afternoon.
The group visited a Mexican restaurant in the evening where they were treated to some remarkable cooking
Thursday was another free day and people were able to do as they pleased. Some decided to go exploring the countryside and nearby lakes, some deciding to do some shopping, visiting a nearby cowboy clothes and accessories shop, then at Longview Mall. A few went to the local Harley Davidson dealer. In the evening, most of the band visited the local steak and burger bar, its claim being the best hamburger restaurant in Texas.
Friday was the last day for the group to have time to make any last minute purchases before changing and then traveling into Marshall for a concert at a private school. The programme showed the children various instruments within the band, with a couple of soloist performances. Such was the enjoyment that whilst the band were packing away and having refreshments, children were writing letters about the experience and passing them to Andrew Harris, the band’s Musical Director.
The final evening saw the band invited to a good old Texan barbeque. Most of the band wore the clothes they had purchased at the cowboy store, as the theme of the evening was for all visitors to ‘Cowboy it up!’ The band performed a short concert at the beginning of the evening. The drum kit for previous concerts had been borrowed and a makeshift kit was installed for this concert. Nothing is a problem for the Texans. The resident Texans supplied wheelie bins and saucepan lids which stood in good stead. The band then made a few presentations to people, from both sides of the Atlantic, who had helped make this visit possible. After the barbeque it was then back to the hotel to pack and prepare for the long journey back to Dallas airport and the flights home.
Saturday morning the van was loaded and people carriers filled and it was off down the freeway and into the airport. Then the news that everyone was dreading "flight delay of two hours to Detroit due to bad weather". After an hour it was decided that the flight could go ahead but it meant that the group had only 20 minutes to collect all their bits and pieces and transfer onto the flight to Gatwick. This was all done like clockwork and the group finally arrived back in England at 9.30am on Sunday 29th October.
This is not the end of the story. A week later the band have received two formal invitations from Marshall and Jefferson to make a return visit. The Texans are keen to start organising and preparing venues for this trip.
The band would like to thank the following people and companies for their assistance in making this trip possible.
Julie and Steven Willis, Ruth and Paul Fugler, Graham and Tina Pillivant, All guest players
Marshall Arts Council, Marshall Chamber of Commerce, Marshall High School Band . Jefferson Museum Trust
The Heathcoat Trust, Viscount Amory Trust
Blake’s Coaches, Thomas Cook, Tiverton Rugby Club, Lamb Hill Garage, Tiverton Town Band Supporters Group, All others we may have forgotten.
Extracts from messages and letters sent to the band :
"We just wanted you all to know that the concert you presented last night at East Texas Baptist University was so breath taking. My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed your entire concert and we mustn't leave out how wonderfully and entertaining Julie and Katie were." John and Frances Pedison, Marshall TX
"Thank you will never cover the feelings and thoughts of those of us who had the fantastic honor of hearing your music in our Otstott Park. We hope that you will return to Jefferson again in the future. Thank you for a great evening of music." David Sinclair, Jefferson
Watch this space… we're going back !