I begin this blog entry, my first in several months, at nine in the morning, following the passing of George N. Parks, just last night. I know very little at this point about his death: only that it came way too soon in a vibrant and enthusiastic life. I am in a haze of disbelief.
George Parks was in his thirty-third year as director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band: a job he began at age 24.
My awareness of George began about eleven years before I ever actually met him. Not having been involved in competition marching band at my school, I began following my cousin’s band from Portsmouth, NH, and would attend her shows periodically. I attended the New England Scholastic Band Association finals in 1982 where I saw, for the first time, the UMass Marching Band, led by what appeared to be a teenager with fiery red hair running up and down the sidelines with a bullhorn, psyching up not only his enormous band, but also those about to experience their performance. The band came forth off the line with such an impressive sound and spectacle. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Such power.
My next encounter with George was on his home turf, when as a freshman, I travelled with my UNH Marching Band out to Amherst for our game against UMass. Their band was still huge, the man was still seemingly insane with energy and enthusiasm, and the experience was no less marvelous than when I was in high school, despite the snow and bitter cold driven through the stadium by a howling gale. It was on this occasion that I was first treated to the dignity and grace that he possessed and insisted on from his band. They were gracious hosts. They seemed genuinely glad that another band was there to share the occasion. They watched and enjoyed our show, and saw to it that we enjoyed theirs. They hosted a wonderful social gathering that night after the game. They made us feel welcome. They made us feel as though we were part of the family. Such class.
Power and Class. This was, and still is, the nickname of the band. “The Power and Class of New England.” Marching Bands, particularly college ones, often times have a subtitle like that. If they come across as presumptuous, it is more likely the case that they give themselves these names so that they might aspire to deserve such a label. Ohio State’s band refers to itself as the “Best Damned Band In The Land”. The University of Maine throws a blanket over the whole state by calling themselves “The Pride of Maine.” The UNH Band assumed the moniker of “The Beast of the East” some time after I was in it. When I was working at Boston University, we referred to ourselves as “The Pride of Commonwealth Avenue”, partially because it had a sort of a poetic and somewhat more humble approach to a nickname, but also because it took perhaps a little dig at Boston College down the street. “The Power and Class of New England” had always occurred to me to be one of the more lofty names a band could take upon itself. If you are within the six state area of New England, you are most likely within a cheap cab ride of at least one excellent post-secondary institution at all times, and many of them have marching bands, and many of those are very good. It presumes a lot for UMass to distinguish itself from the others by pointing out its power and class. Perhaps the Pride of Maine, The Beast of the East, and the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue are such, but there is little doubt that UMass deserves their title. For this, in my opinion, George N. Parks is almost wholly responsible.
Upon my assuming the leadership of the band at Boston University in 1992, George was at all times a substantial supporter of our efforts to grow and improve. He was a tremendous help and support as the BU Band moved into its post-football era. As I grew to know him, I enjoyed many very fulfilling and soul-feeding conversations. I always seemed to spend some good time with him during the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago each December, and I grew more and more proud of my association with him.
It is unquestionably a devastation to lose George, with seemingly so much more that he could and wanted to give. But as my heart hurts at the thought of how many will be deprived of an opportunity to make music with him, I am compelled to remember that his influence is hardly limited to the thousands and thousands of students (almost all of whom he could call by name, I’m told) who encountered him directly though his work at UMass, his Drum Major Academy, or the countless festivals he conducted and clinics he gave. He not only inspired musicians, he inspired scores of teachers. I can’t stop thinking of more and more of my colleagues whose lives were touched profoundly by George, and as a result these people touch the lives of their students in kind. I think of the pride that my students have had in themselves led by a DMA educated drum major. I think of all of the teachers in neighboring towns who brought the spirit and drive of their beloved UMass band into their own groups, band or otherwise.
I begin my conclusion about seven hours after I began the introduction. A deeper sadness has set in, and I need some time to process all of this, but I will. I’ve seen George work. I’ve heard him talk. I’ve felt his drive, his optimism. If I know him at all like I think I do, I know that he will never let a little thing like his untimely death keep him from pushing us all to make music, and to love doing it. He’s set us up pretty well for that. Let’s all help him out with that: music teacher and non-music teacher alike.
My thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his friends, his students past and present, and all those who mourn his passing. Rest, George. You will be missed dearly.
Eyes, with pride.