5 Star Stories: Christian Brothers, oldest high school band in America celebrate 150th anniversary

Published: Mar. 8, 2022 at 11:13 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis has topped the charts for decades with its legacy of musical firsts. And this 5 Star Story features yet another.

The Bluff City is home to the oldest high school band in America, which is preparing to embark on a celebration 150 years in the making.

The Christian Brothers High School Gold Concert Band practices every day, but right now, the members are also preparing for the trip of a lifetime. According to band director Patrick Bolton, the trip, starting March 12 -17, will kick off the sesquicentennial anniversary celebration.

“And this Washington, D.C. trip is something that we’ve been planning for a long time. We’re gonna land in D.C. We got a gig planned for next to John Phillip Sousa’s grave right when we walk off the plane, so we’re excited about that,” said Bolton.

There are also plans for the C.B.H.S. band to play at the Lincoln Memorial, Union Station, and possibly the Capitol building among other sites. Band president and euphonist Chapel Rainer is thrilled.

“It’s the fact that we get to play and it’s very good music and at a very high level and also we get to go on different trips like that, it’s a great experience,” said Rainer.

The band’s anniversary tour is also a march down memory lane, visiting sites relevant to its long history starting with a concert at a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where the school and band’s Christian Brothers founder was baptized.

“The band was founded in 1872 by Brother Maurelian who was the founder of C.B.H.S. back then we called it C.B.C., which was Christian Brothers College, which was a school for young kids, all the way to degree-granting levels,” said Bolton.

Brother Maurelian served as the band’s first director. There were only about 20 members then and according to the current band director most of the instruments were likely bought from a Sears catalog.

“I think Bro. Maurelian bought these instruments, put them in the kids’ hands and we went to town,” said Bolton.

As the years waxed on, so too did C.B.H.S.’s band adding more instruments, members and band directors. Bolton himself a former C.B.H.S. band member, is only the 10th band director at that school and has been for 22 years.

“We’re playing music all the time from our area, from our history,” added Bolton who named music written and performed by W.C. Handy as some of his favorites.

The Gold Band also plans to play at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia while on their 2022 tour.

“The reason why is because Bro. Maurelian loved showing off the Liberty Bell. It would tour through the area and we got pictures of him and the students standing next to the Liberty Bell all the time,” said Bolton.

After that, he said band members will head down to Baltimore, Maryland.

“We’re gonna play at the oldest Christian Brothers school in America, Calvert Hall, we’re gonna do a joint concert with those guys,” said Bolton. “And we’re also visiting the church where Brother Maurelian was introduced to the Christian Brothers for the first time. And it’s like if these events didn’t happen then we wouldn’t be here right now.”

A part of Bro. Maurelian will also travel with the band on the anniversary tour in the form of an old wooden box that he used as his luggage.

“He traveled the world with this box and we’re gonna bring it with us to Washington, D.C and visit the places that he started -- started us out at,” said Bolton.

Bolton learned that the moniker “oldest high school band in America,” dates back to sometime between the late 1940s and early 1970s.

In 1973, the Memphis mayor and Tennessee’s governor made separate proclamations officially bestowing the title on the band during the ensemble’s centennial anniversary. Bolton said the band’s history also coincides with so many historic events in Memphis.

“Our first gig was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that was in the spring. And we started at St. Patrick’s church down there next to Beale Street and we paraded down Beale Street way back in...that would be 1870 and 3,” he said.

He pointed to an inscription at the base of the Court Square fountain in downtown Memphis after the band played for its dedication in 1876. The band was also on hand for the dedication of the first bridge across the Mississippi River.

“When they put the bridge across the Mississippi for the first time, the Frisco railroad bridge, we played for that underneath it on a riverboat,” said Bolton.

As for the C.B.H.S. band’s next 150 years, Bolton hopes the school’s musicians continue to learn the lessons he learned as a clarinetist in that same ensemble.

“Because it taught me how to work hard and it showed me the rewards of working hard, as well,” he explained.

Incidentally, C.B.H.S. actually has four different bands: The Historic Band, which is a small band modeled after the original one created by Brother Maurelian that also wears uniforms similar to that first band; The Purple Band which teaches students to play musical instruments; The Walnut Groove Jazz Band, plays jazz music; and The Gold Concert Band.

Although C.B.H.S. bands still participate in community events and parades, the school ended its marching band program in the 1980s.

The band’s 150th Anniversary Tour is March 12-17. There are also plans for more activities in Memphis throughout the year.

For more information about the Christian Brothers High School Band and Patrick Bolton’s book about it, “The Christian Brothers Band: The First 75 Years 1872-1947″ visit www.cbhsband.org

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