West Michigan Music Leaders
When William and Marilla Newell came to Kalamazoo County in the 1850s and estabished their farm in Texas Township near the Van Buren County line, little could they have known about the lasting impact their future children would have on the Kalamazoo community. The Newell children—three daughters and five sons—all developed a keen and lasting interest in music. Several would study music and perform, while others would manufacture and sell the instruments of the trade. Two of the Newell sons would grow to become among Kalamazoo’s most respected musical leaders of their time, and leave an indelible impression on the youth, education and culture of the community.
George B. Newell, the third child of William and Marilla Newell, was born on the family farm on 28 March 1865. After attending public schools in Kalamazoo, George moved to Coldwater to become a music instructor at the Coldwater State School for Orphans and an orchestra leader at the local opera house.
Newell & Bronson Orchestra
In June 1889, George Newell returned to Kalamazoo where he was hired to manage the Academy of Music Orchestra, which was claimed by the Gazette to “stand on a par with any such organization in the state.”
Immediately after his marriage to Miss Elizabeth “Libby” Weller in the fall of 1889, George formed the Newell & Bronson Orchestra with fellow local musician, Chester Z. Bronson. The Newell & Bronson Orchestra soon became one of the most popular dance orchestras in Kalamazoo.
“It is pleasing to note the rapid progress being made by the orchestra at the Academy since Bronson & Newell took hold of it. These two men are both first-class musicians.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 December 1889
Newell, Millard & Thomas
Following a summertime engagement playing violin at the Arlington Hotel in Petoskey, an offer to lead the orchestra at the Powers Opera House took George and Libby to Grand Rapids where they remained for several years. During his tenure in the Furniture City, George gave music lessons (his younger brother Adelbert (born about 1875) studied under him for a time) and he worked with many of the most popular orchestras of the day, including Frank Wurzburg’s orchestra (which featured another former Kalamazooan, William Bronson), F. C. Braun’s Orchestra, and others. Newell managed a dance orchestra of his own plus a forty member military band, and worked with the popular Grand Rapids Newsboys’ Band for a time. During the summer months, George often played extended engagements at the popular resort hotels in Petoskey and Charlevoix.
When the resort season was over, George worked as a clerk in Julius Friedrich’s Music Store in Grand Rapids and once served as a delegate to the 1899 American Federation of Musicians convention. About 1900, Newell went into the band instrument manufacturing business with Frank Millard and Newell L. Thomas, establishing the firm of Newell, Millard & Thomas.
After being expelled from the musicians’ union in 1903 for employing non-union members in his orchestra, Newell left Grand Rapids and moved his instrument manufacturing firm to Detroit, where he formed a partnership with Willard Bryant (Bryant-Newell Co.). Newell’s younger brother Charles (born in 1879) worked at Bryant-Newell as a superintendent. Bryant and Newell remained partners until about 1930.
Newell’s College Band
G. B. Newell had a lifelong fondness for teaching music and working with young people. While still in partnership with Bryant, G. B. Newell returned to Kalamazoo in 1904 and again became orchestra director at the Academy of Music. Based on an idea he had while working with the Newsboys’ Band in Grand Rapids, Newell announced the formation of the 137 piece Kalamazoo Boys Band (also known as Newell’s College Band and the Kalamazoo Newsboys’ Band), reported to be “the largest and most unique institution of its sort in the world” (Gazette).
Led by Professor George Newell, the band was made up entirely of boys, ages 9 to 16, who provided their own instruments, their own uniforms and their own music. The young musicians were trained en masse according to instrument by some of Kalamazoo’s leading musicians; Sam Born, cornets; Otto Schultz, piccolos; John Vlieken, drums; Fred Curtis, clarinets; and Frank Newell, trombone, bass and baritone. The band made its debut before a standing-room-only audience at the Academy of Music on 17 March 1905 after just three months of training.
Many of Kalamazoo’s “next generation” of leading musicians passed through the ranks of Newell’s immense band, which remained active until 1908.
Newell’s Music House
George Newell remained in Kalamazoo thereafter and led several successful bands and orchestras. In 1905 Newell purchased Banks Baird’s Music House on West Main Street (formerly Wallace S. White’s Music House) and began selling musical instruments and music publications. A year later he was in partnership with J. G. Troxell as Newell & Troxell at the same location, selling pianos, stringed instruments, music and musical merchandise at that location until 1908.
Academy of Music Orchestra
In 1909, George Newell reorganized the Academy of Music Orchestra and brought in several prominent local musicians, “some of the best in this part of the state” (Gazette). Newell’s brother Frank, a highly regarded trombone soloist, joined the orchestra, as did Will Reifsnyder, cornet; Earl Putnam, clarinet; Patrick McKee, drums; Thomas Walton, bass and Otto Schultz, flute. G. B. Newell’s daughter, Hazel Belle Newell, took charge of the players while George directed the orchestra. (Putnam was a former member of Newell’s College Band, while Frank Newell, Reifsnyder, Walton and Schultz were all associated with various other local orchestras, including the early incarnations of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.)
Newell’s Orchestra & Band
In 1911, George Newell was playing violin and directing Ehrman’s Orchestra, which included John Ehrman, piano; Garrett Van Eck, clarionet(sic); Leo Lounsberry(sic), cornet; Bert Zanders, slide trombone and Leon Davis, drums; all of whom were once members of Newell’s College Band.
After his divorce in 1916, G. B. Newell spent his later years with his brother in Kalamazoo and with his daughter in Grand Rapids. Once said to be among the most popular and most successful musical directors in the United States (Bowen), George Newell organized thirty or more bands during the course of his career and made a significant mark on West Michigan musical history. George Newell passed away in Kalamazoo at the home he shared with his brother Frank on 7 April 1933. He was 68.
The sixth child of William and Marilla Newell was Frank A. Newell, born on the Newell family farm in Texas Township on 9 June 1872. Some two decades later and by then a master musician, Frank was working as a carriage trimmer in Kalamazoo and playing bass in the Academy of Music Orchestra, Sam Folz’ Minstrel Orchestra, and Wallace S. White’s Second Infantry Band. In 1894, Frank joined an elite group of fellow local musicians in the first incarnation of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
Scudder & Newell
On 20 October 1897, Frank Newell married Miss Helen G. Scudder of Kalamazoo and went into the grocery business with Helen’s father, Eben Scudder, as Scudder & Newell at 720 N. Burdick Street. Frank and Helen often spent their summers in Charlevoix, where Frank played in the orchestra (most likely with his brother George) at the Charlevoix Inn.
Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra
“Rosenbaum’s orchestra gave one most pleasing selection, entitled ‘Coon Band Contest,’ in which Frank Newell, on the trombone, showed himself to be an artist and a master of the instrument.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette-News, 26 June 1901
“The orchestra will be ably assisted by Frank A. Newell, one of the best trombone soloists in the middle west.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 January 1907
By 1899, Frank Newell had joined Fischer’s famous orchestra as its celebrated slide trombonist, and was traveling with that organization on its many tours of the Midwest and beyond, including extended engagements at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, and at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Between tours, Frank offered instruction in trombone and double bass from his home on North Edwards Street.
At times Frank would break from Fischer’s outfit to perform with Goddie Rosenbaum’s Orchestra, Kalamazoo’s celebrated Chamber of Commerce Band (which occasionally included his brother Charles, a noted clarinet soloist), Edward L. Weinn’s popular orchestra, and the Lake View Casino Orchestra.
With a child on the way and undoubtedly needing a reprieve from Fischer’s relentless touring schedule, Frank Newell resigned his position with Fischer’s Orchestra in October 1909 and took up playing with Herman Salomon’s Orchestra, an immensely popular but far more localized dance orchestra. During the 1920s, Frank joined Ed Snuggs’ orchestra for summertime evening concerts, where his baritone solos were a popular feature. (Snuggs was yet another College Band alum.)
Frank Street School Committee
Just like his brother, George, Frank Newell had a deep appreciation for community culture and education. During the spring of 1919, Frank Newell chaired a committee of residents who were advocating the construction of a new school building in the Frank Street school district. Describing the enthusiasm of residents toward the project to the school board, Newell called it “one of the biggest and best meetings ever assembled.” Three years later, the new Frank Street School was opened as Lincoln School in honor of President Lincoln. During the dedication ceremonies on 14 November 1922, Frank Newell was a guest speaker and Newell’s Orchestra gave a concert in the new school auditorium to mark the occasion.
Musicians Protective Association
Though a grocer by trade and once a two term city alderman, being a professional musician seemed to be Frank Newell’s calling. His trombone solos were often highlighted during the massive summer band concerts in Bronson Park, and his tireless work on behalf of the local musicians’ union was often commended. Along with fellow bandsman C. Z. Bronson, Frank helped establish the Musicians Protective Association (Local 228), the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. Frank was a trustee when the organization was launched in 1902, and served on the executive board for eleven years. He was a local delegate to the national convention for nine years, vice president for two years, and union president for eleven years. In 1936, Frank was named a life member.
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
“A council appropriation for the establishment and maintenance of a Kalamazoo Symphony orchestra will be considered by the finance committee... The matter was brought up in a petition from the Musicians Protective association of this city. Following the reading of the petition, Frank A. Newell spoke at some length urging the consideration of the matter... as a means of providing uplifting, wholesome concerts for the citizens of the city, and ‘rescuing music from the depths where it had been dragged by the cheap theaters.’”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 April 1914
Throughout his lifetime, Frank Newell was actively involved in the various stages leading up to the establishment of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Frank was a member of the Academy of Music Orchestra in 1891 and played a prominent role in establishing Kalamazoo’s first Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1894. Frank joined many of his fellow local musicians in the Grand May Festival Orchestra of 1901, and served as vice president and performing member when the second Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra formed in 1914, an organization that he and Chester Z. Bronson worked diligently to promote.
Frank was a member of C. Z. Bronson’s Fuller Symphony Orchestra in 1920 and was a member when the current Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1921. He performed with the KSO until his retirement about 1936.
Frank was the last survivor of the Newell children when he passed away at his home on 28 July 1941 at the age of 69.