Paul Bryan: 1920-2021

Yes, 1920. Paul Bryan died just after his 101st birthday.

But the triple-digit number doesn’t tell the whole story of his longevity. I don’t have an official record on when he made his last appearance as guest conductor of the Duke University Wind Symphony or when he last played euphonium, but I know the answer in both cases would be “recently.”

“PB” made the transition from professor to professor emeritus after my freshman year. That was not “recently.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who had as much of an impact after his alleged retirement as PB.

And it wasn’t as if he conducted at Duke for just a few years. He was there from 1951 to 1988, first as the director of (all) bands before focusing on the Wind Symphony.

Please pardon a brief rant here — my Duke experience taught me that marching bands and concert bands / wind symphonies are different entities. I spent a bit of time in the Duke University Marching Band (DUMB) as well, and I enjoyed it, but in a different sense that I enjoyed Wind Symphony. To overgeneralize, the Wind Symphony was a bunch of nerds who would break out into improvised counterpoint singing on the tour bus, and the Marching Band was a bunch of drunks who would straggle in to warm up for football games quite a few minutes after they were due. (Being punctual and not a drunk, I was occasionally frustrated with this, but I still loved the overall experience.) Musically, the Wind Symphony was on a different level. I was one of the better clarinet players in DUMB, but I wouldn’t have passed the Wind Symphony audition on anything involving, well, wind. (As director of bands, PB spent several years conducting both, as mentioned in this smart DUMB history, but Duke wisely let him spend his time working on music rather than marching.)

That’s one reason I’m still a bit angry that James Madison High School won’t let kids play in any concert band unless they also join a marching band that requires its members to give up most of the month of August and many fall weekends so they can compete and win a state championship. Good for them, but the point of music in schools should be to provide good musical experiences for all who want them, and again, concert bands and marching bands are different entities. At Duke, only a handful of us did both.

That means, in part, that the music the Wind Symphony plays is not the music a marching band plays. Marching band music is fun in its own right — being a good Athenian, I enjoyed playing the B-52s’ Rock Lobster. But there’s a rich repertoire of music that wouldn’t work for marching bands and really doesn’t get its due elsewhere. A lot of concert band / wind symphony music is vibrant. Beautiful. Fun!

Just listen to the music at PB’s 100th birthday celebration 13 months ago:

(I’m still mad at myself for visiting Duke the week before this event. I plan poorly.)

So one of Paul Bryan’s many contributions to music is that he helped to keep the notion of a concert band alive. This wonderful music should be heard somewhere, and I’m proud to have been part of the movement to make it heard in Duke’s lovely (even before the remodeling you’ll see in that video) Baldwin Auditorium.

The irony is that my entree into the Wind Symphony was because of one little quirk of PB’s. He liked having a string bass in a Wind Symphony.

And that’s how Paul Bryan, in a classic moment of serendipity, changed my life.

When I started at Duke, I fully intended to play in the Jazz Ensemble. For one semester, I did. Read my obituary of the great Paul Jeffrey to see how that went — basically, I knew nothing about jazz, and I decided to switch to other activities like The Chronicle, which set me on my career path.

I auditioned for the Jazz Ensemble on several instruments while Jeffrey patiently heard me out on each one. That meant I was running around the music building looking for a string bass on which to show off my half-decent but non-jazz skills.

The person I wound up asking was, you guessed it, Paul Bryan. And before I knew it, I’d agreed to join the Wind Symphony.

Or at least the “scab” Wind Symphony composed of people who were not spending their fall semesters in Vienna. Some freshmen were aware of the Vienna experience and had signed up early, but I had no idea of such things. (Among the people who went to Vienna that year, oddly enough, was one Ben Folds, not a Duke student but a pretty good percussionist, and holy crap, I just discovered that there’s video from one of the Vienna concerts online.)

I enjoyed it. When PB and the bulk of the ensemble returned from Vienna, I stuck around and spent one semester playing for him, including the Spring Break tour through Ohio and Illinois.

Because of that, I wound up dating an oboe player, which apparently made some Chronicle staffers jealous. (I found out maybe two decades later. Should’ve spoken up in, say, 1990, folks.) More importantly, with all due respect to that wonderful oboe player with whom I had a happy relationship for six months, I eventually moved to percussion and developed a lifelong love of bashing things that put me in the pit orchestra for Hoof n Horn shows and a dazzling production of Carmina Burana. I played percussion of sorts just this past weekend:

(My drum song is at the 39:20 mark. If you watch the rest of the show, please, I beg of you, skip the songs in which I attempt to sing.)

So my PB story really revolves around a brief interaction that happened solely by chance. But it did, in a meaningful way, change my life.

Now imagine how many people whose lives he affected. Go back to 1951. How many people? Hundreds? Doing some quick math in my head, he must have conducted at least 1,500 musicians. Add in his work in Durham, and it’s surely 2,000. He may have just given them a couple of semesters of a rewarding musical experience, or he may have had a powerful influence on their musical careers, as in the case of my friend Anthony Kelley, a great composer and Duke faculty member today. (I still remember my first attempt at playing the bass part on one of his compositions. I think I dropped the bow and broke out laughing, even though I had gotten farther than the tuba players. Sounded really cool when we finally got it.)

I’m nearly a year past 50 now, and I sometimes dread aging. But if music helps keep me alive and thriving for another few decades, I know I’ll have a good role model to follow.


3 thoughts on “Paul Bryan: 1920-2021

  1. Did you know that PB’s beloved bride of almost 76 years played double bass? That is how they met. PB would stand behind VB saying he could see the conductor better. As a Music Education major, it was plausible.

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