Current Issue

May14, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 13

The sounds of Reunions

From jazz to rock, music provides the beat

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the May14, 2008, issue


Bill Webster ’73 is recruiting alumni musicians for a May 30 Battle of the Bands.
Courtesy bill webster ’73
Bill Webster ’73 is recruiting alumni musicians for a May 30 Battle of the Bands.

For its 50th reunion the Class of 1958 is bringing New Orleans to New Jersey, hosting about 70 New Orleanian musicians from six bands for what reunion co-chairman David Greenberg ’58 calls “a show the likes of which Princeton has never seen.”

The idea has been in the works since the months following Hurricane Katrina, when Greenberg, who lives in New Orleans, began thinking of ways that his class might lend a hand to the city’s struggling musicians. He started looking for bands that managed to stay together after the storm and asked them if they might be able to clear a weekend in late May of 2008.

The bands that signed on cover a range of styles, from the turn-of-the-century jazz of the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra to the early rock ’n’ roll of the Severins Band. Others playing at the ’58 tent include Loose Marbles, a popular group of young street musicians that frequently sets up shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter, and the Treme Brass Band, which will lead a traditional jazz funeral procession from the University Chapel after the class’s memorial service.

Class members also will host a May 31 forum called “New Orleans: What’s Past Is Prologue,” in which musicians will share their stories, interact with alumni, and play a few tunes. The program, open to all reuners, will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the 50th-reunion headquarters (Blair-Campbell-Joline Courtyard).
“It’s a chance to get to know [the musicians] as artists and as people,” Greenberg said. “They’ve been through hell, and it’s not over down there.”

Bill Webster ’73 and his band
, Webster’s Unabridged, got hooked on Reunions as students and kept coming back for gigs after graduation, bringing their rock ’n’ roll tunes to Princeton for 10 straight years. But each time, Webster said, “it got harder and harder to pull the band back together.” Eventually, the streak was, well, abridged.

This year, as organizer of the first Alumni Battle of the Bands, Webster is making it easier for alumni bands to reunite. He’s providing instruments and sound equipment for all musicians, and he also has arranged to have professionals in reserve for bands that might be missing a drummer, bassist, or keyboardist. Webster hopes to have at least five bands on the bill, including undergraduates. The show will begin at 1 p.m. May 30 on the Frist Campus Center’s South Lawn. (Interested groups can contact Webster at 310-245-5942.)

Webster’s Unabridged plans to be among those returning to the stage, and if this year goes well, the Battle of the Bands could become an annual event. But don’t be fooled by the name: Webster insisted it will be a laid-back affair. “If you want to do one or two songs, that’s cool,” he said. “If you want to do a whole set, that’s good, too. We’re wingin’ it.”

Sandy Maxwell ’39 plays piano for classmates Jim Benham, Johnny Bell, Don Heard, Bud Wilson, and Jack Gefaell at Reunions 1946.
Allan Grant/Life magazine
Sandy Maxwell ’39 plays piano for classmates Jim Benham, Johnny Bell, Don Heard, Bud Wilson, and Jack Gefaell at Reunions 1946.

At Reunions in the 1950s, nearly every tent had its own jazz band. Tom Artin ’60 *68, a professional trombonist and the son of a Princeton math professor, remembers listening to some of New York’s top groups and the clusters of talented alumni who played along. “Growing up in town as a jazz nerd, as I was, it was paradise,” he said.

If that jazz paradise had elected a mayor, pianist Sandy Maxwell ’39 would have been the leading candidate. The lifelong Princeton resident was an undergraduate during the University’s golden age of jazz, when he wrote tunes for the Triangle Club. He later forged friendships with young jazz musicians in the 1950s, arranging jam sessions in town with friend and fellow musician Doug MacNamee ’32. And for more than six decades, Maxwell entertained audiences at Reunions, providing a common thread in Princeton’s jazz history.

“He was Mr. Princeton, as far as jazz was concerned,” said Ed Polcer ’58, a Brooklyn-based cornetist. “Sandy represented a real continuity of this type of music being played at Reunions.”

Maxwell died in February, two months after celebrating his 90th birthday. He had played Reunions gigs to the end, including a concert at the Class of 1942’s 65th last year. At his memorial service, members of Maxwell’s band said goodbye with their rendition of “Memories of You,” the classic Eubie Blake tune — a fitting tribute for the man who filled Reunions tents with the sounds of the Great American Songbook.

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CURRENT ISSUE: May14, 2008