Tribute to Dr. Gordon W. Bowie
Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Home
January 14, 2012
By John King
President, Montgomery Village Community Band
It’s wonderful to see so many people here to celebrate Gordon’s life. I’m John King, president of the Montgomery Village Community Band, a 70-member all-volunteer ensemble that rehearses Wednesday nights in Montgomery Village and performs concerts throughout the area. Gordon directed the band for the last 13 years.
Every week, Wednesday night was very special because of Gordon. Band members came to rehearsal because of Gordon. Going to rehearsal each week was like getting a musical education. Dr. Bowie would explain in understandable terms, like the music professor he was, how to play certain phrases, and why. Ask Gordon something about a composer, style, or musical annotation, and he would invariably know the answer -- like a walking music encyclopedia.
Some smart-aleck in the band once asked Gordon if he knew the words to a song none of us had heard of – and then Gordon sang the opening verse to that song.
Another time, a band member asked about the origin of the title of a piece we were working on. Without any hesitation, Gordon said, “that was the name of the composer’s mother-in-law”!
And on another occasion, Gordon stopped rehearsal of a medley of 1920s popular songs to stress the importance of proper phrasing, whereupon he sang one of the songs to demonstrate.
Gordon didn’t just give us a musical education on Wednesdays. He leaves behind a treasure trove of articles about playing music that he wrote for the band’s newsletter and website. And in 2007, Dr. Bowie completed many years of work when he published “R. B. Hall and his Bands”, the first definitive biography of the life of R. B. Hall, a march composer whose work we performed numerous times and will continue to perform.
Gordon knew how to play all the wind and percussion instruments, and would occasionally recommend an alternate fingering on a bassoon or a more effective drumming technique. A few times, he played a trombone or harmonica solo with the band playing along. And boy, could he play!
He had a great sense of humor, even when he didn’t intend on being funny. Once, he critiqued the band's concert performance at the following rehearsal by saying "You guys did a terrific job on Sunday.” After a pause, though, he added "except for..,” and then he told us what we didn’t do well.
But Gordon was all about the music. As far as the Community Band was concerned, nothing came before music, except for maybe family. Not the World Series, not even a vacation. One time, a band member informed Gordon that he would miss the next three weeks of rehearsal prior to a concert because he was going on a long-planned European vacation with his wife. That was unacceptable to Gordon, and he asked the band member if he could reschedule his trip.
In addition to working with the community band, Gordon would enjoy assembling a small group of players from the band a couple of times a year to play traditional German band music at events. It was a lot of fun to play with Gordon, who played trombone in the German band, but he had the same high expectations of everyone that he did in the community band. In the German band, he expected the players to be excellent sight-readers. If a player missed one of the many repeats in the German band music, they would get horribly lost, and Gordon would not be sympathetic.
But of course it was the concerts performed by the entire community band that Gordon focused on and prepared the band for. He skillfully programmed each concert, selecting the right pieces to suit each venue and audience.
The band had the great pleasure of playing many of Gordon’s marches in concert. Gordon had the gift of being able to write marches that reflected particular themes or events, like the U. S. S. Maine march, commissioned for performance at the christening of a Trident submarine of the same name, and Carlisle, a march commissioned to be the official march of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
Gordon also supported band members who were composers and arrangers. He programmed many of these compositions and arrangements into our concerts, was always complementary of the music, and offered helpful advice to these band members.
Gordon was also somewhat of a showman and knew how to keep our audiences entertained and captivated. He would regale the audience with fascinating stories and details about the music we were performing, and then end many concerts with a rousing rendition of God Bless America, where in the last verse, Gordon would turn toward the audience, encouraging them to join in, while conducting and singing in dramatic fashion.
Gordon was always able to get the best out of the band at concerts. He utilized his musical knowledge, leadership, and a bag of tricks to achieve the desired results.
Gordon leaves behind a great musical legacy with the band – we have his compositions, writings, teachings, and our memories to hold on to and apply to our music-making – all things to constantly remind us of how special he was and how he impacted our lives.
Gordon was very courageous and our musical hero. He somehow managed to come to rehearsal every week while battling an aggressive cancer, and then led us to great performances at our concerts. He never lost his enthusiasm for the band and the music, and was able to maintain his sense of humor.
In fact, he led the band right up until his final days, and by the grace of God, conducted at the annual holiday concert – perhaps his favorite community band event. It was a performance we were all proud of.
Well, I think it’s safe to say, Gordon was our beloved leader, and we will miss him.