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Arts / Culture

Keeping Tradition of Circus Music Alive Is Focus of Retirees’ Windjammers Group

Bruce Keck, 82, plays tuba at a Windjammers concert in St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota, January 12, 2020.
Bruce Keck, 82, plays tuba at a Windjammers concert in St. Armand's Circle in Sarasota, January 12, 2020. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

More than a hundred, mostly retired, part-time musicians from around the country gathered last week in Sarasota to revive what some fear is a dying art – live circus music. These elder musicians hope to pass the mantle to a younger generation of performers.

A bright and breezy Sunday afternoon marked the start of a busy week for 130 musicians who flew into Sarasota from around the country. They played circus favorites from the last century during a free outdoor concert at St. Armand’s Circle, where the 33rd annual Circus Ring of Fame induction ceremony was held.

Watching them play, retired aerialist Michelle Quiros smiled as she recalled her performing days. Twirling high in the air, with a live band playing beneath, is “the best feeling in the world,” she said.

Band members play in Sarasota
The band plays a free concert ahead of the 33rd annual Circus Ring of Fame induction ceremony. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

In the band’s back row was 82-year-old Bruce Keck, a retired librarian who plays the tuba. Every year, he travels from Tennessee to Sarasota, to jam for a week.

"Well, I remember the circus as a kid. The circus band intrigued me along with the acts. Also, how the horses kept time with the band,” he said.

He wondered why the band director was facing away from the musicians, watching the horses. Then he figured it out.

“It was the bandmaster who followed the horse!”

Discovering the secret didn't take away the magic. Keck joined this group of circus music aficionados about 30 years ago.

“Some of the music is written for the acts. And some of it is adapted,” he said.

The music matches the performers, whether ring masters, aerialists or tigers, he explained.

“You bring them on with a gallop, and off with a gallop which is a fast, two-beat.  

Men play trombones at outdoor concert
The Windjammers had about 700 members at its peak. Now it's down to about 400.

“Now the trapeze is always a three quarter time. And something very, very robust for the cats.”

Today, circus music is mostly pre-recorded. But back in the day, the circus band traveled along with the circus. They were called windjammers.

"Windjammers is circus slang for their musicians because they jammed wind through their horns all day long from morning-- from the parades to the center ring performances to playing for the concerts," said piccolo player Nada Montgomery.

Band plays as three aeralists twirl in air
Windjammers play for the Sailor Circus. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Band members may play dozens of pieces in a single performance.

"It's a real challenge. Let me tell you the first time I played for the circus, I was like, wow,” she said with a laugh.

Her husband, Mike Montgomery, is the band secretary. A couple dozen musicians formed the group, Windjammers Unlimited, in 1971. It grew to 700 members at its peak, and now has about 400 around the country. A few are professional musicians, but most are part-time, he said.

Girl on tightrope
Teenagers learn the circus arts from retired performers. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

“Our whole mission is to have a good time and play this, what we'll call antique music,” said Montgomery.

“A lot of school band directors are unaware of this music even though a lot of it’s in the public domain now, so you can use it royalty-free. And that's the other thing we've done. We've got a very large library of public domain music that we preserved electronically. And we're trying to kind of wave the flag to say, 'Hey, this stuff is still here.' And it's fun music to play.”

Former band director Frank Cosenza, 62, is one of the youngest members of Windjammers.

“Schools should be playing some of these marches for the students to get familiar with, because they're really nice tunes, well-written and part of our history,” he said, as band members practice a tune called Baby Boo march, meant to accompany elephants.

Old men play clarinet
Clarinet players at the Sailor Circus. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Times have changed. Elephants are rarely seen in circuses anymore, after protests from animal rights groups.

Now these circus musicians play for children. Teenagers, to be exact.

The grand finale to the Windjammers’annual conference is a live performance to the tight rope walkers and trapeze artists in the Sailor Circus Academy, made up of high school students who learn their arts from retired circus performers.

Fifteen-year old Sarah Catalano is a clown, whose act involves monkeying around near a giant, malfunctioning jack-in-the-box, as the band plays Pop Goes The Weasel. It was her first time performing to a live band.

Girl dressed as clown performs near band
Sarah Catalano performs as a clown at the Sailor Circus. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

“They had the rag at the beginning and I could walk around and do my funky walk, wave at the audience, be all happy, then there’s the jack-in-the-box and they did the big, like, cymbal crash when I fell over and I was like, yeah! It’s really fun.”

Brass players in Windjammers
Band members share a love of the circus, and the skills to play live alongside acrobats, jugglers, clowns and trapeze artists. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

And that’s why the circus band members play: for the chance to keep that youthful love of the circus alive.