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How BandTogether has become an important part of LGBTQ culture in St. Louis

Harald Boerstler, of the St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood, plays the tuba while rehearsing selections by John Williams on March 9 at Washington University’s 560 Music Center in University City. The BandTogether ensemble, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is a volunteer music organization that provides performance opportunities to members of the LGBT+ community in a safe and relaxed setting.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Harald Boerstler, of the St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood, plays the tuba while rehearsing selections by John Williams on March 9 at Washington University’s 560 Music Center in University City. The BandTogether ensemble, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is a volunteer music organization that provides performance opportunities to members of the LGBT+ community in a safe and relaxed setting.

BandTogether has brought LGBTQ musicians and allies together in St. Louis since 1997. Now, it’s celebrating 25 years of music with an anniversary concert featuring the work of John Williams.

Artistic director Gary Reynolds created the band with the intention of welcoming anyone who wanted to join, regardless of their identity or skill level. What began as a 10-person group now has more than 100 volunteer members. The band plays concerts throughout the year and performs at the St. Louis Pride parade each summer.

Gary Reynolds, the artistic director for the BandTogether concert band, rehearses selections by John Williams on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, during a rehearsal of the BandTogether concert band at Washington University’s 560 Music Center in University City, Mo. The ensemble, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022, is volunteer music organization that provides performance opportunities to members of the LGBT+ community in a safe and relaxed setting.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Gary Reynolds rehearses selections by John Williams on March 9 during a rehearsal of the BandTogether concert band at Washington University’s 560 Music Center in University City.

Reynolds saw the need for an LGBTQ space for musicians after feeling discomfort in the community band he’d joined after college.

“I was often known as the gay sax player, rather than Gary,” Reynolds said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I was glad to be playing music, but I didn't feel I could be myself. I didn't feel like I could talk about what I did that weekend, I just didn't feel comfortable.”

After looking for an LBGTQ band in the area — similar to the Gateway Men’s Chorus — Reynolds found that these spaces existed in other cities but not in St. Louis. So he and a friend started BandTogether. They put an ad out in the paper asking for people to join.

“We set a goal of just trying to get some musicians that would like to get together and rehearse to try to perform at that June's Pride parade,” he said. “I didn't know if anyone would answer. So it was like, we couldn't have grand plans. We’d just have to keep it simple. And we had 10 people show up.”

That number grew, and two years later, now-longtime member Jerry Farris got involved. After watching a performance in which Reynolds — who is notably not a percussionist — attempted to play a bass drum solo, Farris decided the group needed his help.

“From that point on, the band seemed to grow. Every rehearsal cycle, more and more people would show up. More and more saxophone players, and a few percussion players," Farris said.

The band performed free of charge. “And in the back of my brain there was this little voice saying, ‘This business model does not work, it won't work, won't last’” Farris said. “Well, that was 23 years ago.”

Despite his skepticism, the model has indeed worked for 25 years — the band only asks for donations by setting an open tuba case in the lobby of their shows (when they first started, it was a trumpet case, Farris noted).

Listen: BandTogether's artistic director and a longtime member on the group's history

“I think we were very humble — and we still are — in the very beginning,” Reynolds said. “So we've never charged, and we're thankful for that because we're in the black, and we live within our limits.” He added that fortunately, the group has a generous community that supports it.

The band has come a long way since its beginnings. Not only that, Reynolds and Farris said, but society has become much more accepting, and the culture of the group has changed positively.

“In the early years of the organization, many were very hesitant. Like, ‘Please don't put my name in the program. When we're marching in the parade, put me in the middle so if the TV cameras are there, I'm not going to be seen,’” Reynolds said. “Now we have people come in and, you know, they've been who they were since it seems like birth. And that's a fantastic thing for us to see how that's evolved over time.”

Many of the band’s members expressed similar sentiments, saying that BandTogether is a supportive community. The members show up for each other and can be themselves around each other, said Harald Boerstler at a recent rehearsal.

“A couple of years ago, I had a bad surgery. And the family just came together, and they were all there. It's just amazing” he said. “If anyone needs help with something, everyone shows up to help. One of our members, his mom had a stroke. And so a bunch of us showed up to help build a ramp at the house. That’s just the way that people are — everyone sticks together.”

Reynolds is glad to have cultivated this type of environment over the past 25 years — and, he’s excited to be celebrating the anniversary with a performance of John Williams’ work.

“John Williams is the reason why I got into music. That's why it's special to me,” he said. “And so even in the very early years, I kept pulling out John Williams, and was like, ‘Let's do this one,’ and we were playing John Williams way before we had the ability to probably be doing so.”

The band’s anniversary concert will take place at the 560 Music Center on Saturday. Like always, it’s free of charge — the tuba case will be open for anyone who wants to support 25 years of LGBTQ musicians and allies coming together in St. Louis.

Related event

What: BandTogether 25th anniversary concert
When: 8 p.m. March 19
Where: 560 Music Center (560 Trinity Ave., St. Louis, MO 63130)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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