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Rayleigh has had its own brass band for the best part of a century, and has undergone many name changes. These have included the Rayleigh Mission Band, Rayleigh Brass Band, Rayleigh Town Band, and Rayleigh and District Silver Band. The shortened, punchy title of Rayleigh Brass was adopted in the early 1980s. Today's group of players are enthusiastic amateur musicians who are able to put on a first class concert performance, as well as provide music for a variety of functions including school fκtes, garden parties and civic occasions. In fact, there is little the band will not consider tackling, as the band secretary, Kevin Hall, recounts. "We were contacted by one of the popular tabloids around the time of the Euro 2000 football tournament. It seems that the German supporters had rustled up a large oompah band to play all night outside the hotel where the England squad were staying. As a retaliatory strike, the newspaper thought it would be only polite to return the compliment for the German team, so they were out to hire a full English brass band." Whether it was due to the short notice given, or the desire to avoid involvement in an international incident, the band graciously declined the invitation.
The band has had an eventful history. Rayleigh Town Band is known to have been in existence shortly after the end of the First World War, but some sources suggest the band predates 1910. In the early 1920s the band performed regularly on summer evenings in Rayleigh High Street, retreating, somewhat unsurprisingly, to the local hostelries in the winter months. The players were accompanied by a local character known as Singer Nash, who would make a couple of musical offerings to the patrons, and pass a hat round to swell the band coffers. At this time the band rehearsed at Charlie Smith's builders shed in Bull Lane, and the proprietor was permitted to sit in with the bandsmen and play his clarinet. Uniforms were acquired around this time, purchased second hand from Thurrock Band. These were replaced in 1934 by new, made to measure garments. With the outbreak of the Second World War the band folded, but re-formed as a casual group shortly afterwards. The band flourished until the early 1950s, when financial problems forced the organisation to be disbanded again. Nearly a decade passed before the band's history continued. In June 1961 a meeting of the Urban District Council of Rayleigh was held "to consider the advisability of re-forming the Rayleigh Town Band". Present at this meeting was one Hedley M Grover, a multi-talented individual who was a heating engineer by profession, but also involved in musical composition and literature, as well as running the recently formed Rayleigh and District Girls' Choir. He championed the cause of the band, and at the conclusion of the meeting was appointed the new bandmaster. Mr Grover had very grand plans for the band, and even wrote a signature tune for them entitled "Rayleigh Mount". One of his projects was a Sunday Spectacular Concert held at the Kingsway Theatre Hadleigh, combining the talents of Rayleigh Town Band, Luton Girls' Choir, and the band of the Irish Guards. Unfortunately, the event drew a very small audience, and Mr Grover resigned from the band shortly afterwards. The band suffered financial troubles for a period after this event, before a local bandsman, Bob Dean was approached to take over and rebuild the band. He was responsible for attracting many new musicians to the band, and by the early 1970s fresh uniforms and instruments were being purchased for the thirty strong members. Bob Dean left for an extended holiday in New Zealand in 1975, and the principal cornet player, Peter Hammerton took over. Peter relinquished the baton two years later to be succeeded by a local secondary school music teacher, Mike Griffiths, followed by Salvation Army musician Eric Jones.
The current bandmaster is Alan Thorpe, a civil servant in the city, and a member of many musical organisations in the region. As well as conducting, Alan also arranges music for the band, and sits in as a player when there is a gap to fill in a section. "I joined the band over thirty years ago, while still at school. My first instrument was an old "peashooter" trombone that emerged completely black from storage in someone's loft, and I lovingly polished until it shone! I had my first spell conducting the band in the early 1980s for about ten years, followed by a few years' break, returning in the late 1990s. The band is able to deliver high quality and entertaining concert programmes at the same time as maintaining a very friendly and inclusive atmosphere. We don't enter contests like many bands, and seek instead to broaden the appeal of the band beyond the traditional 'brass band' image, playing a wide and challenging repertoire, at the same time trying to relate to our audience."
The band's relationship with its audience is at the heart of most of their performances, and the conduit for this is compere and former bandmaster Peter Hammerton. Peter has a long history with the band, having played a variety of instruments with them for nearly forty years. He tells me he has had only one music lesson in his life a C major scale on a trumpet. It transpires that shortly after he was de-mobbed from the Royal Air Force in 1953, Peter became interested in a young lady in the Hadleigh Forum Fellowship Club Orchestra. This resulted in two major events in his life: meeting his future wife Doreen, and his first contact with a brass instrument. He became a member of the then Rayleigh and District Silver Band in 1966, and hasn't looked back since. Affectionately labelled "that old fool on 2nd baritone", he takes great pride in his association with the band personnel, and his easy-going banter with both them and his audience is a clear indication of a man in his element.
At concert functions Peter adopts the role of compere, a role which has resulted in the publication of his own book on the subject, and an award at a local band contest. "We're a friendly band there's no back-biting in Rayleigh Brass. Bands' fortunes can go up and down, but Rayleigh seems to remain a happy constant. It's a sociable band almost like family". Of the current leadership, Peter is full of praise: "We are really lucky to have Alan as bandmaster musically he has really brought us forward as a band. Like any band we have practices which don't go completely smoothly, but Alan always pulls it off on the night."
In a forward thinking move, Rayleigh Brass has recognised the need for a constant injection of new talent into the ranks, and so to this end has formed a training band where anyone (not just youngsters) can pick up a brass instrument and experience playing in a brass band. Under the guidance of principal cornet player Bob Bearman, the training band regularly performs alongside the senior band at concerts even putting on shows of its own - and members can look forward to "graduating" from the training band when they have reached the necessary standard.
Rayleigh Brass acknowledges its role in the community, and has raised funds in the past for BBC Children in Need and local hospitals, and is always willing to consider appearing at charity fund-raising events. In the weeks preceding Christmas the band fields several groups each day at locations throughout southern Essex, playing carols for shoppers, and at social functions, as well as maintaining a busy concert schedule. Further from home, they have played on several occasions in Ypres, Belgium, culminating in a moving experience for the band and audience when they performed at the famous Menin Gate - the monument to the many thousands who lost their lives in the First World War at Flanders Fields.
The fortunes of Rayleigh Brass in its many guises have certainly had some ups and downs, but for nearly a century there has been a body of men and women playing and enjoying playing their musical instruments to bring listening pleasure to their audiences. With concert bookings on the increase, and appearances at new venues continuing, the future of Rayleigh Brass is looking very promising indeed. The future's bright the future's brass.