BOB BARR: He taught more than music (12.7.08)
George Corradino is 80, as old as some of the musical charts his orchestra plays. His musicians are educators, bankers and real estate salesmen who feel young again when they pick up a horn.
They are the Bob Barr Community Band — a group originally organized to perform beside the grave of a bandleader who made working class kids feel good about music and themselves.
Monday night, they mark the 20th anniversary of their original concert. It’s appropriate that this event is at the Jordan High Auditorium for it was at this school where Bob Barr first performed his magic more than 60 years ago.
Retired TV news anchor Dick McMichael will serve as emcee Monday, just as he did at the band’s inaugural concert in 1988. McMichael’s connection to this music began long before that event. His relationship dates back to 1952, when he was a high-stepping drum major leading the Jordan band.
We know the friction and jealously between high schools today. It's played out at athletic events, in the battle for notoriety and in testy letters written to the newspaper. These attitudes are found here and in other communities.
But when Bob Barr started with the Jordan High band in 1946, feelings cut deeper. There were only two white high schools in the city limits — Columbus and Jordan. Their neighborhoods butted heads but the lines between the two student bodies were defined and observed.
Conductor Robert M. Barr
Columbus High was the school of privilege. Students were sons and daughters of the local ruling class. They acted like they had money even if they didn’t and they wore their sense of entitlement as proudly as they did letter jackets with the big block C.
They were commonly known as the Blue Jews. Most of the Jewish kids in town did go to Columbus High, but the term was a slam at wealth more than religion. Old-timers from both high schools remember that nickname well.
Jordan High students were the Lint Heads — a finger wagged at their heritage as the children of textile workers in cotton mills that were mostly owned or managed by the parents of Columbus High grads. Some students worked third shift themselves before coming to school.
Differences sliced deeper than haughty nicknames. It was assumed that CHS got the breaks and JHS got the leftovers. Jordan grads went to work. Columbus graduates went to college. Why should it matter? Jordan was a technical school designed to teach a trade. How ironic it was that Graduate’s biggest hope was to become a police officer or a fireman — maybe even chief.
That was what Bob Barr found in 1946 when he got an early discharge from the Army and left his job directing the chorus at Fort Benning. The angular Oklahoma tuba player inherited a band of 17 members that had no uniforms and few instruments. The horns they did have had been retrieved from the Army Band or from Salvation Army musicians. The previous conductor was a shop teacher.
As his program grew, Barr began teaching his musicians to play. Then he taught pride and confidence. When they put on their band uniforms they were as good as anyone — even Columbus High.
Their dreams culminated in 1952 in New York where they were named the nation’s outstanding high school band. Decades later, in 1999, I developed a memorable series of articles called 100 People to Remember. For the last 100 days of the century, I wrote about people worth remembering.
One of the 100 was Bob Barr.
Some BBCB musicians played with Barr at Jordan High.
Bob Barr conducted the revived Columbus Symphony and founded the Columbus Youth Symphony. He instigated the expansion of the music and band programs in Muscogee County. George Corradino was one of the outstanding musicians recruited to join that program.
Barr's contributions didn't end there. Ask members of his band.
I talked to some of them — including McMichael. Some remembered the train ride back into town after the contest and how Barr grabbed a copy Columbus newspaper on a stop in Atlanta. An article previewed a surprise party being planned for the Jordan band when they arrived in the wee hours.
Outside of town, musicians put on their 100 percent wool uniforms and uncased their instruments. When the Man o’ War pulled into the station, the crowd outside was shocked when the band, in step, marched through the doors of the train.
Down 12th Street from the station, the Jordan band, 110 members strong, played its signature song — St. Louis Blues — as it had never played it before.
Barr died in 1988, and at his request, a brass choir from his old Jordan band played at graveside services. From that reunion, the Bob Barr Community Band emerged.
Jim Fletcher, a former band member at Jordan, gave the eulogy.
"He taught us by implication that life is a performance," said Fletcher, now a retired high school teacher in Columbus. "He was a hard taskmaster, a demanding perfectionist, and we were his instrument."
When I asked Dick McMichael if he would play the drums at Monday night’s concert, he said he would do the audience a favor and just talk. “I’m really rusty, and frankly, I never really was really good at it,” he says.
In their day, they didn’t know that. They also didn’t know they were a band that bridged a gap between two schools and two student bodies. But for just a moment, they were the best band in the land.