The Lenoir High School Band

I grew up in Lenoir, North Carolina, a small town in the foothills region of that state.  In many ways, Lenoir is a lot like other small towns, but one area where the community stands out is the arts.  Lenoir and the surrounding county has a rich musical heritage, particularly in high school band programs.  For many years the Lenoir High School Band was recognized as one of the premier programs in the country.  And although Lenoir High School closed its doors long before I was a teenager, the various high school band programs which came along afterward were able to reap the benefits of a supportive musical community. You don’t have to take my word for it, however.  Check out this excerpt from an article by Joseph Robinson, a Lenoir native (and Lenoir High School alum) and retired Principal Oboe of the New York Philharmonic.

From my era alone, the Lenoir High School Band produced the tuba player of the Minnesota Orchestra, the principal bassoonist of the Dallas Symphony, a successful New York free- lance flutist, and the first oboist of the New York Philharmonic. Another “wave” 10 years later yielded the composer in residence of the St. Louis Symphony, a percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, a prominent North Carolina trumpeter, and a professor of clarinet at the University of North Carolina. There were dozens of others before and after—the stalwarts of the band who had more than enough talent for careers in music. Many of them remain in Lenoir, still recalling their band experiences as the most challenging and fulfilling of ! their lives. [This article first appeared in Wilson Quarterly, August 1995.]

The entire article is worth reading, and explains quite a bit more about the history of the band and the legacy which it left to music programs in the area. I remember reading horn parts in high school which were stamped with the Lenoir High School Band logo, and feeling proud and also a bit awed at being allowed to participate, even indirectly,  in such a hallowed tradition.  There is a downside to Mr. Robinson’s article, and he discusses the slow decline and eventual deterioration of the old Lenoir High School Band building – a three story complex designed specifically for the school’s instrumental music program.  However, since his article was written there has been a resurgence of interest in the old band facilities, and a campaign is currently underway to renovate the building and use it as the home for the James C. Harper School of Performing Arts, a community music school named after the Lenoir High School Band’s founder.  I know there are many other great band programs with their own legacies and traditions throughout this country, and it is more important now than ever to recognize the vitality, culture, and quality of life that these programs bring to even the smallest of communities.  If we don’t fight to keep these programs strong during difficult economic times, they may disappear completely, leaving a gaping hole in their respective towns.

Alright, enough with the gloom and doom talk.  If you’d like to hear a bit of what the Lenoir High School Band sounded like, see the clips below.  They have been transferred from an LP that my old high school band director gave me. The recording is from the Lenoir High School Band’s performance – under the direction of Captain James C. Harper –  at the 1958 North Carolina State Band Contest.  The first clip is a Sousa march, Daughters of Texas, and the second is a transcription of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (not sure who the arranger was).

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Dear James,

I found your blog after a strange but fortuitous search on the internet today in which I also discovered Joe Robinson’s article. I am also a native of Lenoir, also too young to have attended Lenoir High School, but I remember trotting through its halls when I was a young child and remember all too clearly the reverence I felt when approaching that hallowed band building and hearing the LHS marching Bearcat band play during my uncles’ football games. I remember also the intense betrayal I felt when, as I sat in the lunchroom at East Harper School, we learned that the county had elected to close Lenoir High School, consigning me (both sadly and not so sadly) to the musical program at William Lenoir Middle School and Hibriten High School. While the batons of Ed Whitener and Camilla Graeber could not have been more inspirational and magical to me, I nonetheless harbored contempt against the Caldwell County Board of Education for many a year that I and my musically gifted peers were denied the opportunity to participate in that legendary institution that was the Lenoir High School Band.

I remember seeing Captain Harper in my youth and thinking that he had to have been the most important human being on the planet. The decorum and the militaristic preening that he required of the band members, the austere power that he represented, the kindly face all made me commit fervently to music and begin to comprehend it as something through which I could ascend beyond Lenoir, which I had begun to conceptualize (in the wake of the demise of the furniture market and the closing of LHS) as a place of atrophy and mediocrity.

I am in complete agreement with you about supporting the arts in times of economic crisis. What saddens me about the Harper School of Music is that the facility is located at College Avenue Baptist Church instead of in the former Lenoir High School Band building. I believe ardently that the city should invest a good bit of money into preserving that rich bit of our town’s history. Perhaps in time it shall.

Thanks very much for your thoughts, Dr. Davis. I am also a William Lenoir and Hibriten alum, and although they weren’t Lenoir High School, I certainly feel that those programs inherited, at least in part, some of the traditions of the old LHS Band.

Hey, that’s not too far from where I am in Asheville. I had no idea you grew up out here. I’ve been out to Lenoir on recruiting trips a few times before with my former colleague, John Entzi (but probably long after you graduated). John seems to know everyone in that part of the state, so you may have met him before.

If you’re ever out in western NC we should meet up for some beverages and talk shop!

Dave

Sounds great Dave! We usually get back home at the holidays, and for a couple of weeks in the summer. Yes, I have met John Entzi, although I don’t remember exactly when. Did he teach at NC State at some point as well?

I am also from Lenoir, NC, and I remember well the Lenoir High School Band history and influence it had on the community. One of their band directors came to start the music program at Hibriten High School, Lenoir NC. I am glad to see the legacy live on in Lenoir at Hibriten where there has been 35 superior rating, 18 conscecutive (most in the highest level of difficulty). The legacy of music is alive and well in Lenoir, NC. The proof is that we all found this web site and are writing to tell of our pride in our home town.

Thanks very much for your comment, Dr. Isaac. I am a graduate of Hibriten High School, and during my years there the music program was alive and well, and in my opinion continues to uphold the excellent musical tradition established by the Lenoir High School Band.

You have touched on something that has been a fascination of mine for several years. As a fellow grad of Hibriten (that remembers you as a freshman horn player with great potential, which it appears you have nourished), I have wanted to just walk in that building. I want to see it restored and used. I would also like to see it celebrate the legacy of that band that I am listening to as I type this, many of the artifacts sitting across town. I look at it every time I drive by in a state of decay and just think to myself, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” Maybe your blog will spur some greater interest in it that will help the idea along.

I’ve been reading these impassioned comments here and think that it might be one amazing and incredible venture for one of us (or all of us) to distill them into the form of a letter to the editor to be sent to the Lenoir News-Topic. Jonathan, James, and (my cousin Neal), collectively, we have constructed one very compelling narrative that underscores the tragedy of the fate of the Lenoir High School Band and that amazing building; perhaps if we conspire together to write such an editorial, it will light fires in appropriate places to convince the city and the county to devote more resources towards LHSB preservation.

What say ye?

Dr. Jamie Davis

What a treat to find these comments about the Lenoir High School Band. I had the pure joy of being a member of the Lenoir High School Band in the early 1960’s in the Claude Baker years. Two years ago and some 40 or so years later, I decided to pick up the alto saxophone again. I now play in the New Horizon’s Band in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My love and passion for playing this instrument has returned. Everyday that I play I thank Directors Captain Harper, Bernard Hirsch and John Miller for teaching us that striving for greatness was a group and an individual responsibility. While most of us did not become professional musicians, having known the joy of making fine music was a gift for a lifetime.

Thank you Sheila. Somewhere in the 60s and 70s, the emphasis was about moving to the suburbs, consolidating school districts, and building malls instead of refurbishing main street. Now, it is interesting to see value placed on historical preservation, yet, not enough. Although, it was nice to see that Lenoir, NC now has a historic district downtown. And in 2008, the town pulled together to win the All-American City Award. I hear their delegation took a sampling of Lenoir’s finest young musicians who wowed the crowd.

I am planning a reunion of Hibriten Band members on the weekend of Oct. 1, 2011. We are going to meet on Saturday Sept. 30 to form intergenerational teams for community service, and then we’re going to have a musical concert of anyone who wants to play, sing, perform at College Avenue Church on the afternoon of October 1st. I am hoping that we can get many of the Lenoir High and Hibriten High and West Caldwell former band members together that weekend for what I’d like to call “Loving Lenoir 2011” weekend.

Thank-you for keeping the LHS Band remembered. I was a member of the band 1965-1969. I started in junior high at Davenport. Played clarinet. I was fortunate to have lived in Lenoir and played in the band. To me it was a magical time. I learned to appreciate music, all types of music. I myself did not have the talent to pursue a career in music. I truly feel blessed to have been a part of such history. Reading your blog and seeing Cap’n Harper’s face again brought back many memories.

Check out the Facebook page I created with pictures through the years of the LHS Band. Mac Frazier, French Horn 1971-74.

Hello, I am producing a story for public television about Lenoir and its wonderful arts tradition, with a focus on new sculptures. Several people we interviewed mentioned the high school music tradition. I would like to be able to use a small clip of the music you have here on this site from the band in 1958. Can you share? Thanks for any information.
Donna Campbell
dc@minnowmedia.net

Donna:

I wish I would have seen this post earlier. We have an annual “Loving Lenoir” concert each October and many of the Lenoir musical greats come home to play in this concert each year. I hope you’ll have a chance to showcase “Loving Lenoir” weekends (reunions, community service for Lenoir, and ending with the finale concert each year to highlight the musical legacy).

Neal Isaac

Those of us who love Lenoir, NC and its musical legacy are planning on coming back to town weekend of Oct 11-13, 2013 for the 3rd annual LOVING LENOIR 2013! A weekend filled with community service, reunions, alumni band members sitting in the stands with teen players, fundraisers for the music programs, and ending it all with a Finale concert at 2 p.m. at College Avenue Bapt. Church. Let me know if you’d like to be invited, involved, part of the 100-voice alumni choir, etc. JeffreyIsaac@att.net is my email address or follow the events on LOVING LENOIR 2013 (Facebook). If you want to be invited, just “Friend ME” on facebook.

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