At time of national mourning, St. Louis LGBT band marches forward | St. Louis Public Radio

At time of national mourning, St. Louis LGBT band marches forward

Jun 22, 2016

A St. Louis LGBT band will mark a milestone this Sunday, a happy commemoration at a time of mourning.

After the June 12 mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, Pride St. Louis is beefing up security for this year’s parade and weekend-long PrideFest. But members of BandTogether are marching forward in spirit and with their feet, as they commemorate the group's 20th anniversary in this year’s Pride Parade.

BandTogether founder Gary Reynolds said they'll march up Market Street in celebration, not fear.

“The show will, and must, go on,” Reynolds said, in an email.

Tired of being the 'gay sax player’

Reynolds decided to start the group in 1997, a time when intimate gay relationships were not only whispered about — they were illegal, something confirmed by a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Shelley Stewart plays trombone with BandTogether members at a rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The young saxophonist had no idea the little concert band with a diverse playlist he formed after college would ever grow so large —145 members in all — or last two decades. Reynolds was playing in another local band at the time but just didn’t feel at home there.

“I felt that no one really knew me, that no one knew my name, that instead I was known as ‘the gay sax player,’” Reynolds said. “And that really frustrated me because I just wanted to be a musician.”

BandTogether members march down South Broadway during rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

He put a small ad in the local gay newspaper and eventually found nine other musicians for the group’s first Pride Parade. They performed “Here Comes the King,” better known as the Budweiser jingle, a number they’ll play again in this year’s Pride Parade. They’ll also perform a song by Demi Lovato, called “Confident.”

“The title really sums up where we are 20 years later based on how we felt going into that very first Pride Parade, so it’s kind of a little shades of both eras,” Reynolds said.

Brian Havelka jokes with friends during a BandTogether rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

‘We’re just a bunch of musicians’

In the band’s early years, it was difficult to get people to march, an act that declared to the world they were gay.

“We’d have a lot of people that would say, ‘I’m not doing the parade because I’m a teacher or I’m not ‘out’ at work.” Reynolds said. “[They’d say] ‘And, what if Channel 5 is there or whatever TV network’s there and sees me and outs me?’”

Longtime BandTogether member Jerry Ferris understands that kind of fear. For the 75-year-old percussionist and retired chemist, the group has been a haven away from his closeted work life.

BandTogether members rehearse outside the Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Saint Louis.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“I would have to go stag to every company function because my ‘quote-unquote’ date just wasn’t available on that night,’” Ferris said. “I avoided company parties, period.”

Trombone player Kelsey Johnston, 29, has a very different story. Her coworkers threw a shower when she and her wife got married last year. Johnston also celebrated the milestone with BandTogether friends, including another trombone player who was the first link in a growing chain.

“We met a French horn player who happened to play on a kickball team,” Johnston said. “I can confidently say every single friend I have in St. Louis I can trace back to joining this band.”

Friends greet each other at a recent BandTogether rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Johnston found out just how supportive her BandTogether family is during her first solo in St. Louis Blues, when she dropped her slide. She recovered within seconds, but even so, band director Gary Reynolds signaled the band to play the piece again, so she could perform her full solo.

“I definitely had to endure comments about strapping duct tape to my trombone,” she said. “But it’s all in good fun. Everyone kind of knows that when you’re here, it’s about hanging out.”

Any musician who’s over 18, reads music and has their own instrument is welcome to join BandTogether – no audition necessary. The group is seeking to become more racially diverse, and includes a dozen straight musicians.

BandTogether members march along South Broadway during rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

“That’s fantastic because now it’s become something I always wanted it to be which is we’re just a bunch of musicians who just love what we do,” Reynolds said. “We create an environment where everyone can be whatever you want, and that’s a non-issue.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL