Some referred to Larry Curtis as Long Beach’s “Music Man” which, no doubt, came from a place of respect and affection but probably wasn’t all that fair. After all, Harold Hill, the main character of Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, is a con man who dupes people into believing he can teach them to play as a band.
Larry Curtis, on the other hand, was a man whose skill, reputation and kindness not only attracted top musical talent to his Long Beach Municipal Band but made him something of a template for what a music teacher should be; “Uncle Larry” becoming, as one former student put it, “the model for so many band directors in Southern California.”
Curtis died June 13 at his Lake Forest home from the effects of gall bladder cancer, something he’d been diagnosed with a little more than a month before his passing. He was 82.
Though his name may not be immediately recognizable, if you found yourself at an outdoor, summer band concert in Long Beach or attended one of the city’s elementary, middle or high schools, there’s a very good chance Larry Curtis made your life better, if only for a little while.
As the conductor of the Municipal Band for the past 27 years, he was responsible for countless performances in parks as well as schools. And anytime you saw a Curtis band perform, you were likely struck by the sheer excellence and precision of the outfit. That’s because though “Municipal Band” has a quaint vibe reminiscent of, well, “The Music Man” the fact was that Curtis’ standing in the Southern California music scene was such that he could attract some of the area’s top talent. People wanted to play with Larry Curtis.
“His knowledge of the music and his expectations of what he wanted were high and beyond reproach,” said Steve Graves, a student of Curtis’ at Cal State Long Beach who went on to play under his baton as well as alongside him; Curtis was an exceptional percussionist. “As a result [bands he worked with] were renowned worldwide, touring much of Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia in as much of demonstrations of what the American model of a [band] was capable of, as they were musical performances.”
Curtis’ Municipal Band—now, in its 109th season, the oldest such band in the nation—could not only expertly attack standard brass band fare as John Phillip Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” as it did in the clip below from a 2018 Marine Stadium Par performance—Curtis sporting the big smile and impressive head of white hair mentioned by friends in remembrances and obituaries—but also bust out some jazz, ragtime, John Williams or Prince, as when they knocked out “Kiss” at a performance earlier this year.
Not only did people want to play with Curtis, but many came to Cal State Long Beach to learn from him. For 25 years, he was the director of bands at Cal State Long Beach. Graves said the single most important factor in him deciding to attend CSULB was the opportunity to learn from Curtis.
“There were so many band directors and amazing musicians I knew of who came from [CSULB],” he said. “While we weren’t aware of it at first, walking into his rehearsals was really more of a daily clinic on how to really get the most of the music from an ensemble.”
Graves would go on to become a music teacher himself in Orange County.
“As I prepared to enter the world of education, not only did I have that musical background to prepare me, but his conducting lessons were also invaluable,” said Graves, music director at Lexington Junior High in Cypress. “As an educator, one always had in the back of their mind the lessons learned, and I think many of us still strive to maintain those standards and please ‘Uncle Larry.'”
That would no doubt be music to the man’s ears.
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