Although many people may be familiar with the musical “The Music Man,” probably far fewer realize that Hillsville had a music man of its own.
In “The Music Man,” Harold Hill poses as a band director, and sells instruments and uniforms to naïve townsfolk before slipping away with their cash. However, Hillsville’s music man was not a con man like Hill, but a man who built from scratch one of the finest bands in the state, if not the Southeast.
James D. Calabrese, the man who infused students and adults with a love of band music during his six-year stay in Hillsville, died on April 17 in Statesville at the age of 82.
“He really cared about teaching students about music. He would say, ‘a kid who carried a band instrument didn’t carry a gun,’” said Marianna Webb Turner, who was a member of Calabrese’s first class.
Calabrese, who had been hired as Hillsville High School’s first band instructor for the 1955-56 school year, began working with students in the summer of 1955.
“He met with parents and we tried out instruments we were interested in. He let us chose what instrument we wanted to play,” said Turner, who choose the clarinet. “He would take each section at a time and teach us the scales. He really started from scratch, some could read music and some couldn’t.”
Once the school year started, Calabrese introduced the students to marching.
“During band period, we would march up and down Main Street. We flat took over Main Street. Cars would move out of our way. Plus, it was building interest among the citizens,” said Turner.
“We kept the community heartbeat throbbing,” said Lewis Vass, who served as the band’s drum major from 1958-61. “They would see us every day marching down the street. I think it was important for the band and the community.”
That first Hillsville High School band, which numbered just 62 members, made its debut at a football game between Hillsville and Roanoke Catholic High School. By 1957, when the band marched in the Vinton Dogwood Festival, it had grown to 85 members.
That year the students wore black shirts and pants, with an orange sash, when performing. Every other band at the Dogwood Festival had uniforms.
“As far as uniforms, we were embarrassed. Other bands laughed at us,” remembered Turner. “But Mr. Calabrese promised us that next year we’d have uniforms. He’s the one who encouraged the band boosters to go with the black-and-white cadet uniforms.”
In 1959, the band did what few people would have thought possible three years earlier, it claimed first place in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., besting 57 other bands from across the country.
It started snowing in Washington and by the time the band reached Luray Caverns about two hours later, “the snow was ankle-to-knee deep,” recalled Turner. “As we got closer home, the snow increased, but we were met at the county line and had a police escort into town. There was a banner across the street welcoming us home.”
Vass credited the success of the band to Calabrese’s “knack for leadership.”
“The things that stood out about him were his leadership abilities, his dedication to his work, his love of music and his way of leading children,” said Vass. “When he told you he needed you to do a certain thing, you didn’t talk back, you wanted to do it. I haven’t met a lot of people with that ability.”
By that time, the band program had grown tremendously. Not only did the high school band total 120 members, but there was a 65-member junior high band, as well as 102 band students at Hillsville Elementary School, 30 at Fancy Gap Elementary School and 28 at Gladesboro Elementary School. In all, 315 students were involved.
“We went to all the festivals there were to go to,” said Vass. “I don’t think there was any place we performed where we didn’t take first place.”
The band appeared in other major events, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester and the Lions International Parade in Chicago in 1960, but by the end of the 1960-61 school year, band members were saying goodbye to Calabrese, who was looking for new challenges.
Calabrese went on became a member of the Take Note jazz band, and performed with the Tommy Dorsey Band, the Lawrence Welk Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Southern Fried Jazz Band, as well as Liberace, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Bob Hope and Patti Page. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Abingdon Jazz Festival.
Turner reconnected with Calabrese years later, and was amazed at his memory of his time at Hillsville High School.
“You could mention a kid’s name, and (Calabrese) could describe him and remember what instrument he played,” said Turner. “He was still interested in the area.”