Let the Music Play
Thirty years later, Houston Pride Band plays on.
By Nancy Ford
Photo by Dalton DeHart
It must have been exciting to be gay in Houston in the late ’70s. Beyond the handful of gay bars spread throughout Montrose and downtown, Houston’s GLBT community was beginning to find itself. The Town Meeting I gathering, held in 1978 at the AstroArena drew more than 4,500 people, and had spawned organizations including the Montrose Counseling Center, the Montrose Activity Center, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, the Hispanic Caucus, and the Montrose Sports Association.
With all this activity, all the buzz, all the newly obtained political attention, our community needed background music.
The Montrose Marching Band was originally born under the direction of Clint Moncrief “to have fun, play music, and entertain the community,” according to the Houston Pride Band’s website. And there’s nothing wrong with fun. But soon band members became restless, more focused, yearning for something bigger. Soon they began planning to travel to Washington, D.C., for the 1979 March on Washington.
“When they came back to town after the march, they disbanded,” HPB conductor emeritus, Andy Mills, recalls. “So I thought, ‘Well, let’s start the band up again.’
“But let’s not call it a marching band,” Mills adds, laughing, “because they didn’t want to march.”
Mills brought more to the organization than just his love for music and will to share it with others. A music major at Ohio State University from 1956 through 1960, after graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he was conductor and concert pianist for the Navy Band through 1964.
Following his stint in the military, Mills traveled to Germany and studied conducting with Herbert von Karajan. (A bit of Googling reveals that von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years, the New York Times describing him as “probably the world’s best-known conductor and one of the most powerful figures in classical music.”)
Mills says finding a rehearsal hall for the fledgling band of musicians was no easy task.
“We rehearsed in one of the Montrose bars; I forget which one,” he says. When that setting proved not conducive to serious rehearsal, Mills moved the operation—sheet music, instruments, equipment, everything—to a location that later became another Montrose institution.
“I rented what is now the Bering Care Center. That was our building for several years,” Mills says.
Mills says one of his most memorable experiences with the Houston Pride Band, then known as Montrose Marching Band, came in 1982 with the New York, New York concert at the Tower Theatre (now Hollywood Video Store in Montrose). “My sister, Diane, came to the concert. She was the only member of my family who saw me conduct,” Mills recalls.
As many as 75 musicians played regularly with the band in those early years under Mills’ direction. But in 1985, Mills put down his baton when his partner, Dennis Dunwoody, was diagnosed with AIDS, passing away in 1988.
“I had to quit work and stay home and quit everything,” he says, his voice laced with more acceptance than regret.
The band continued without Mills under the direction of Bob Morgan and then Jerry Bach, performing sold-out concerts during Gay Pride Week and the ubiquitous emergency fundraising benefits.
“Most of what was happening in the community in the ’80s centered around HIV and AIDS; a lot of the band’s activities revolved around appearances at fundraisers,” HPB’s current vice president, Debbie Hunt, recalls. Hunt has served as the band’s chief percussionist for 13 years. Her partner in life and business, Connie Moore (Moore & Hunt Attorneys), has been a band member since 1988.
Soon the band’s membership reflected the epidemic that was decimating Houston’s larger gay community. At its lowest point, membership dipped to barely a dozen people.
“When we look at our roster of deceased members, 80 percent of them died during that period of time,” Hunt says.
As the band changed conductors as well as with the times, so did its name. In the late ’80s, the Montrose Marching Band became the Lone Star Symphonic Band.
“We were trying to broaden the base to draw more people in, to say we’re not just people who live in the Montrose but all over the area,” Hunt explains.
The Lone Star Symphonic Band moniker lasted until 1994. When the band regrouped in 1995, it became the Houston Pride Band, as it is still known today.
In appropriate commemoration of the band’s 30-year anniversary, Andy Mills is picking that baton back up. He is scheduled to conduct the band’s current roster of 35ish members in a gala concert, set for June 27 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall.
“I’ll be conducting ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘The Crossley March,’ two pieces I used to conduct,” Mills says, recognizing that small musical seed he helped plant blossom into the strong community organization that it is today.
“I’m very, very proud of Jason [Stephens, the band’s current artistic director], because the band is growing again, and I’m really delighted to see it,” he continues. “I feel like they’re all my children, the ones who have been there, and still are there. I’m very attached to them in my heart.”
This 30th-anniversary concert benefits the Montrose Counseling Center. “It’s the umbrella organization that takes care of so many of our other organizations [like HATCH youth group, SPRY, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, and, soon, Houston’s GLBT Community Center],” Hunt says.
Each of the band’s 30th-anniversary concert series this season has benefited a different community organization, including HATCH and PFLAG. “When we raise funds to meet our operating expenses through our performances, and suddenly we started giving away those profits to other organizations, that was a scary step, but it has been so rewarding for us,” Hunt says. “It’s also helped us get support from the community to meet our needs in other ways.”
The 30th-anniversary concert also features selections played by the 30th Anniversary Reunion Band, a group of the band’s retired musicians.
“If there’s still somebody out there who’s played with us before who wants to come back in and play, they need to get their butts in the chairs at rehearsal!” Hunt says.
The band rehearses each Wednesday night, 7:30 p.m., at Resurrection MCC.
Over the years, its membership in the larger International Lesbian and Gay Band Association, an amalgam of GLBT bands and orchestras, has given HPB the opportunity to spread its musical wings beyond the confines of The Bayou City.
“We’ve been able to play at all of the Gay Games, we’ve played at both of the Clinton inaugurations, we’ve played at the marches on Washington. And this fall, a number of us will be marching in the New York City Halloween Parade,” Hunt says with obvious pride.
Expect to witness that same pride the evening of June 28—30 years’ worth of it—when the Houston Pride Band participates in Houston’s 30th GLBT Pride Parade.
Concert info: The musicians of the Houston Pride Band commemorate the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding with a concert on June 27 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: www.houstonprideband.org.
Strike Up the Band!
Band Fags! by Frank Anthony Polito — a literary romp from puberty through high school, with footnotes in the future — is filled with familiar situations. It’s about blowing on a trumpet in band practice and practicing on a skin flute with buddies; about first kisses and first loves. Give Band Fags! a read — whether you are in high school or long gone, this tale will march out a band of memories. Yes, Polito, this happy-days band member finds your 1980s account of teenage friendship, coming out, and other pre-adult musings a fun and quick read, especially for a big book of 448 pages. From Kensington Books (www.kensingtonbooks.com). — Jim Boone