Making music with friends—The All-American Alumni Band

Making music with friends—The All-American Alumni Band

by Douglas Yeo

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Whether it was singing in my elementary or high school choir, singing in church and Sunday school,  playing trombone in the school band since I was nine years old in fourth grade, singing or playing the trombone around the piano at home with my mother at the keyboard, listening to the radio or records, cassettes, compact discs, or streaming, or my long career as a professional trombonist, music and I have been close friends for a very long time.

After graduation from Wheaton College in 1976, I became a “professional” musician. First as a free-lance player in New York City—where I subbed in several Broadway shows (The King and I and Sweeney Todd), played some concerts with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra, subbed in several big bands (Dave Chesky Band, Gerry Mulligan Band), was a member of the Goldman Band—then as band director at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, New Jersey, and then as bass trombonist with the Baltimore Symphony (1981-1985) and Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985-2012). Since I retired from the BSO, I’ve been a full-time college professor (Arizona State University, 2012-2016), a part-time college professor (Wheaton College, 2019-present), I’ve written and published several books and many articles, and I continue to give recitals, give guest masterclasses and make guest solo appearances, and play in professional musical groups.

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That’s me playing trombone in March 1965; I was nine years old, in fourth grade. My youngest brother Curtis, who was two years old at the time, is strumming my guitar

But, after these more than 45 years in the professional music world, I’ve never lost my connection to the world of music where most of the music making in the world takes place. Think about this. The world. The WORLD. Think about all of the professional music making you know of. Symphony orchestras, and the stars of jazz, pop, rock, SKA, you name the style—the myriad forms of popular music. Put them all together. Then think about the WORLD. Children singing and playing instruments in school and at home (like my brother, Curtis, and me, playing guitar and trombone in the photo above), families singing in church and other houses of worship, your dad singing in the shower. Indigenous people in remote places singing and using instruments in ceremonies.  Town bands and orchestras and choirs. Add it up. And when it comes right down to it, when you consider all of the music making in the whole WORLD, non-professional music making probably comes in at something like 99.9999999+% of all of the music making going on. It’s not the professionals who keep music alive in the world. It’s everybody else. Because everybody—every one of the 8 billion people on earth—makes music. And only a very, very, very small number of those music makers are professional musicians.

And I love this spirit of non-professional music making. When people make music simply because they love it, because it makes them feel good when they play or sing, because they love being with friends who play with them and not because it’s a job, or they’re going to it in order to get paid cash money, it’s different than playing with professionals. Of course, professional musicians are highly accomplished, and they contribute greatly to the artistic health of society. But the non-professional groups and individuals with which I’ve been associated over the years, whether when I’ve conducted high school honor bands, or when I was music director of the all-volunteer (and unpaid) New England Brass Band (1998-2008), always give me special joy. Because the spirit of those kinds of groups is different than the spirit in professional groups, no matter how great they are. And I like that spirit of the 99.9999999+% of all music makers in the world.

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That spirit was very much in evidence last week when I took part in five days of rehearsals and performances with friends both old and new who are members of the All-American Alumni Band. Readers of The Last Trombone will remember that in November 2021, I wrote about my experience as a member of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band when I was a senior in high school in 1972-1973 (representing New Jersey).

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The 1972-1973 McDonald’s All-American High School Band, Tournament of Roses Parade, January 1, 1973, Pasadena, California. I am in the front line of the band, third from left (marching on the double white line).

From 1967 to 1992, McDonald’s Corporation selected two high school seniors from each state (later they added students from Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands). Each year, the band took part in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City, and over the years, the McDonald’s All-American Band also marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California (as I did), played concerts in Carnegie Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, made television appearances, and performed in a host of venues. In 2019, several alumni of the McDonald’s All-American Band got together and formed the All-American Alumni Band. After an initial gathering and concert in St. Louis in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic scuttled further events. That is until last week, when 55 former members of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band met near Columbus, Ohio, as the All-American Alumni Band, to play a concert and march in a Memorial Day Parade. I am so glad I took part in this.

The All-American Alumni Band (visit the band’s website at www.AllAmericanAlumniBand.org to learn more about the band) came together to rehearse at First Baptist Church in Grove City, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. The band’s Board of Directors, who we affectionally refer to as the “Mc8,” had done a great deal of work to ensure a first-class event. Band members from around the country—from Massachusetts to California, from Minnesota to Louisiana—arrived, instruments in hand and ready to play. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. How would this group of musicians—some of whom went on to careers as professional musicians, others who were or are music educators, and others who, today, play their instruments only occasionally—come together? Would we sound good? How would we get along? 

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The All-American Alumni Band in rehearsal at First Baptist Church, Grove City, Ohio. Russel Mikkelson, conductor. Photo by John Parker (drum major, 1974, 1975, 1976, representing Pennsylvania).

It didn’t take long to find out. The spirit of the All-American Alumni Band was beautiful. Truly beautiful. Nobody pushed and shoved to play a first part. Everyone was encouraging toward everyone else. Professionals sat next to amateurs. Nobody showed off. Nobody preened. What happened was beautiful and very simple in a profound way: We made music together because we loved making music together.

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Douglas Yeo with Russel Mikkelson, Director of Bands at Ohio State University and conductor of the All-American Alumni Band, May 2022. It is not lost on me that Russ is wearing an Ohio State Wind Symphony sweatshirt and I am wearing a University of Illinois Marching Illini shirt and we are standing next to each other with smiles on our faces. That’s not the usual posture when people from different schools in the Big 10 Conference get together!

The Mc8 had engaged the right conductor to lead us. Dr. Russel Mikkelson is director of bands at Ohio State University. Russ is recognized as one of the finest collegiate band conductors in the world and if any of us were a little worried that he might present a heavy handed “maestro” vibe to the group, we found out quickly that he was with us. Russ conducts a community band, and he knew exactly how to lead our group. He understood why we came together and what we hoped to accomplish. And in five three-hour long rehearsals, he transformed our group of diverse players into a fine ensemble.

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My All-American Alumni Band sash, badge, pins, and lanyard.

Our Mc8 had devised a uniform for each of us to wear for our concert and parade. An All-American Alumni Band polo shirt was common to both our concert and our parade, and for the parade, we added a baseball hat and a sash that had the year and the name of the state we represented when we were members of the McDonald’s All-American Band. It was a fun look, and combined with our name badges, pins, and lanyard—the lanyard was provided to band members thanks to Donna O’Bryant, clarinet, 1980 (representing New Mexico)—we felt like we belonged to something truly special.

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Douglas Yeo and Wycliffe Gordon, Worthington (OH) Town Green, May 29, 2022, .

One of the great joys of the weekend was the many connections I had with people in the band. Some of them I expected. Such as sitting in the trombone section with my good friend, jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Wycliffe and I have been friends since 1999 when the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—of which Wycliffe was a member at the time—played a joint concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since then, we’ve enjoyed getting together many times—we often refer to each other as our “brother from another mother”—and when I heard he was going to be the featured soloist with the All-American Alumni Band, I was thrilled. And this: Wycliffe was a member of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band in 1984 (representing Georgia). Not only that, Wycliffe’s wife, April Brumfield (trumpet), was also in the McDonald’s All-American High School Band in 1984 (representing Kentucky). That’s where they met. Seriously!

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Beth Cullen Johnson and Douglas Yeo, Worthington (OH) Town Green, May 29, 2022. We’re standing in front of a banner for one of the All-American Alumni Band’s sponsors, Holowicki’s McDonald’s Restaurants of Central Ohio. Photo by Ed Crockett.

But there were more unexpected connections. Beth Cullen Johnson (flute) came for the reunion. She had been in the McDonald’s All-American Band the same year as me, 1972 (representing Minnesota). We had a lot to talk about as we remembered our time together in New York City and Pasadena.

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The trombone section of the 1972-1973 McDonalds All American Band, Los Angeles (CA), January 1973. Photo by Beth Cullen Johnson.

Beth even brought along a photo she took of our trombone section outside of a McDonald’s restaurant in Los Angeles (above). That’s me in the back row, second from the right, crouching down for the camera. Beth also attended Wheaton College in 1973–1974, a year before I transferred to Wheaton College from Indiana University. We knew a lot of the same students and teachers from that time and our conversations last week were very rich.

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Douglas Yeo and Mary Haller, Worthington (OH) Town Green, May 29, 2022.

Mary Haller was there, too. Mary is a flute player who was in the McDonald’s All-American High School Band in 1978 (representing Michigan). Mary had worked at the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a few years when I was a member of the orchestra. I remembered her working in the BSO’s public relations and youth activities offices and we had a lot to talk about as we reminisced about the orchestra, and particularly about our interactions with conductor Leonard Bernstein.

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Douglas Yeo and Kim Scharnberg, Worthington (OH) Memorial Day Parade, May 30, 2022.

There was also Kim Scharnberg, President of the All-American Alumni Band. Kim, a trombonist who was in the McDonald’s All-American Band in 1977 (representing Iowa) is a noted composer and arranger and I had played many of his arrangements when I was a member of the Boston Symphony/Boston Pops. We sat next to each other in the All-American Alumni Band trombone section and we talked ourselves hoarse over the weekend.

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Douglas Yeo and René Shapiro, May 29, 2022, Worthington (OH) Town Green.

I also reconnected with René Shapiro, trumpet, who was in the McDonald’s All-American Band in 1989 (representing California). I first met René when he came to New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1990 as a freshman. He subsequently played periodically with the Boston Symphony as a substitute and extra player and since 2005, he has been assistant principal trumpet in the Baltimore Symphony. Our connections to Boston were very rich and it was such a pleasure to march and play next to him in the parade. He was a fantastic anchor to our trumpet section.

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Douglas Yeo and Mary Ann Swiatek, May 27, 2022.

There were many other connections as well, but the one that completely surprised me was a true “blast from the past.” At the band’s first rehearsal, each of us gave a brief introduction of ourselves. I mentioned that I had been a high school band director many years ago and when I was done speaking, a clarinet player in the front of the band turned around, pointed at me, and exclaimed, “And he was my band director!” You could have knocked me over with a feather. Mary Ann Swiatek was a freshman at St. Thomas Aquinas HS in Edison, New Jersey, in the fall of 1980. That was my last year teaching at STA; I joined the Baltimore Symphony the following year. I remembered Mary Ann, who was a very talented clarinetist (I seated her first chair, first clarinet during her freshman year). But when I left STA—in an era before cell phones, the Internet, email, or social media—I didn’t follow the progress of my former students. I had no idea that Mary Ann had been selected for the McDonald’s All-American Band in 1983 (representing New Jersery), or that she earned a PhD and is now a psychologist in private practice in Pennsylvania. No. Idea. Now I know, and I’m very happy that I learned all of this. I’m so proud of Mary Ann. It was so nice to spend time with her and talk about our shared time together so long ago, and then make music together with the All-American Alumni Band.

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Wycliffe Gordon masterclass with the Worthington (OH) High School Jazz Band, May 29, 2022. Photo by John Parker.

Part of the mission of the All-American Alumni Band is to “passionately foster and nurture the art of instrumental music through partnership, education, and performance.” To this end, the band forged a partnership between the Worthington (OH) High School Jazz Band and Wycliffe. With several members of the All-American Alumni Band in attendance, Wycliffe conducted a masterclass for these young high school players. The jazz band also performed a set of tunes before the All-American Alumni Band played our concert on Sunday evening (May 29) and Wycliffe joined them for a solo as well. It was inspiring to hear this jazz band of talented players share the stage with us and meet with many of them after the concert. 

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The Town Green in Worthington (OH). The Thomas Worthington High School Jazz Band is visible at the right of the photo and the All-American Alumni Band is getting ready to perform. May 29, 2022.

Our concert was on the Town Green in Worthington, Ohio, the day before Memorial Day. It was just the right kind of program for this kind of event including America the Beautiful, an Armed Forces Salute, music by Chick Corea, Leonard Bernstein, and, of course, John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.

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Douglas Yeo and Wycliffe Gordon performing Michael Davis’ Trombone Institute of Technology. Town Green, Worthington (OH), May 29, 2022. Photo by Angelia Trevathan.

Wycliffe was the featured soloist in several of his own pieces, and he and I played a duet, Michael Davis’ Trombone Institute of Technology. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative, and it was very clear that the band’s performance made a positive impact. And isn’t that ultimately what we want to do as musicians: make an impact on our audiences while sharing our talents and love of music with them?

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Dr. Russel Mikkelson conducting the All-American Alumni Band, Town Green, Worthington (OH), May 29, 2022.

The next day, Memorial Day, the All-American Alumni Band marched in the Worthington Memorial Day parade.

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Linda Steele (wife of Bill Steele, alto saxophone, 1968, representing Alabama), and Angelia Trevathan (wife of Carl Trevathan, trombone, 1976, representing Kentucky) holding the All-American Alumni Band’s banner before the Worthington (OH) Memorial Day Parade, May 30, 2022. Photo by Carl Trevathan.

Marching in the parade was a thrill I had not had in a very, very long time.

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The All American Alumni Band, Worthington (OH) Memorial Day Parade, May 30, 2022.  Photo by Maria Leigh  Hobbs, wife of John Hobbs (alto saxophone, 1978, representing Florida).

The last time I marched in a parade was on New Year’s Day at the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, when I was a member of the McDonald’s All-American Band. That was forty-nine and one-half years ago. My guess is the same could be said for most members of our All-American Alumni Band. Marching in a parade is not something we do every day in adulthood. Truthfully, the band isn’t getting any younger. Since McDonald’s Corporation suspended the All-American Band program in 1992, no new alumni have been minted. The age of our members is no secret—we were all seniors in high school during the year emblazoned on our sash. I’m 67 years old (I was in the band in 1972) but I wasn’t the oldest player in the All-American Alumni Band. We had one member, Bill Steele, who was in the McDonald’s All-American Band in 1968. René was the youngest; he was in the band in 1989. You do the math. Our band members were between around  50 and 71 years old. I wondered how our group would hold up. We might not be “old geezers” (well, maybe I am. . .) but there’s no way around the fact that none of us are quite as spry as we were in our youth. Still, it was such a joy to take part in the parade with these friends. We played Centennial March; it was written by our own Kim Scharnberg for the occasion. Sporting our uniforms with  American flag pins buttoned to our sashes, we stepped off in style.

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The All American Alumni Band, Worthington (OH) Memorial Day Parade, May 30, 2022.

And a host of memories came flooding back. Just like it happened in 1972 when I stepped off with the McDonald’s All-American Band for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, I heard people in the crowd exclaiming to their children, “Look! That woman’s from Minnesota! And he’s from New Jersey! And one from California!” Children got a geography lesson as we marched by, and the multi-generational crowd enthusiastically cheered us throughout the parade route. What they saw was a band of people who love music, who love making music together, and who came together thanks to a remarkable opportunity each member shared as a member of the McDonald’s All American High School Band. What a reunion.

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Carl Trevathan and Wycliffe Gordon, Town Green, Worthington (OH), May 29, 2022. Photo by Angelia Trevathan.

When the parade was over, our bus took us back to our hotel and it was time to say goodbye. Hugs and a few tears, yes. So many people worked so hard to make our Memorial Day 2022 reunion possible. Our Mc8 was at the center of all of this. And we had help from many spouses of band members—they were affectionately dubbed our “roadies”—who helped out in a host of ways. Band members also pitched in whenever there was something to do—put up and take down the rehearsal and concert setup, pack up and unpack the truck, prepare a pizza party after the final rehearsal, and so much more. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a special shoutout to trombonist Carl Trevathan (1976, representing Kentucky). Carl is a founding member of the All-American Alumni Band’s board of directors and he did so much to organize and make the weekend possible. I know I speak for every member of the band when I say, “THANK YOU, CARL!”

Memorial Day 2022 is over. But we will be back. The band is playing another concert this year in St. Louis over Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, I won’t be there because I am committed to take part in a special event at Duke University with the New Caritas Orchestra at the same time, part of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. But I will be back with my friends in the All-American Alumni Band, no doubt about it. I had a such a great time, and it was a wonderful reminder of how “professional musicians” don’t have the corner on the market of engaging music making.

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The All-American Alumni Band after its final rehearsal at First Baptist Church, Grove City (OH), May 29, 2022. Photo by Thalassa Morton Naylor (clarinet, 1977, representing Colorado).

And if you are reading this and you are an alumnus of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, we’d love to have you join us. Visit the All-American Alumni Band’s Website at www.AllAmericanAlumniBand.org, or our Facebook page (which is only open to former members of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band), www.facebook.com/groups/AllAmericanAlumniBand. Please consider being among us at our next gathering, and the next one, and the next one. Take it from me, you will have a great time. And if you’re not a former member of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band but want to come hear one of our upcoming performances (a listing of upcoming events is on the website), we’d love to see you, and you’ll have a great time, too.

Music can do that.

[Header image of the All-American Alumni Band marching in the Worthington (OH) Memorial Day Parade, May 30, 2022, by Maria Leigh Hobbs.]