Band of the Tonawandas: a tradition of service through music

On Nov. 13, 1929, members of American Legion Post 264 in Tonawanda, N.Y., called a meeting to organize a community band. The World War I veterans had no funds, uniforms or instruments to get it going. No concerts or parade appearances would be scheduled for another six months, so they had to drum up money in other ways, initially by putting on a boxing smoker that, according to Post 264 minutes from the time, “was a flop, losing money on its first try.”

The band was not about to give up. Musicians personally rented instruments, raised funds from business sponsors, had fish fries, ran some profitable smokers, chipped in 50 cents each to pay a director and personally indebted themselves for $10,000 – at the beginning of the Great Depression – to buy equipment needed for a group that would ultimately grow to some 90 musicians.

By the end of 1930, the musicians were able to convince post leadership to allocate $1,800 for new gold and blue uniforms. By then, they had given no fewer than 11 performances – none of which generated much revenue – and on Jan. 15, 1931, they played a concert for disabled veterans at the Marine Hospital in Buffalo. Regardless of start-up capital, the Band of the Tonawandas was on the march.

American Legion bands were popping up across the nation at the time as part of the organization’s movement to build community pride and unity through parks, pools, theaters, sports facilities, forums and other public developments in what was known as the “Iowa Idea” launched in 1923 by Past National Commander Hanford MacNider. Overseen by the national Americanism Commission, the concept was to create and expand “all forms of better citizenship movements… every enterprise which will further the well-being, health and happiness of the community.”

Nine decades later, the American Legion Band of the Tonawandas continues to do just that. Winners of the 100th American Legion National Convention Band Contest last August in Minneapolis, the band has won the New York State American Legion Band Competition almost continually since 1947 and has collected 21 national convention titles.

Musicians range in age from teens to octogenarians. Their careers and backgrounds include business, medicine, engineering, government, sales and education.

Booked year-round, the Band of the Tonawandas has performed for a PBS documentary tribute to march king (and historic New York City Legionnaire) John Philip Sousa. The band has also toured internationally, having received a gold medal for its performance as the U.S. representative in the International Music Festival of 1992 in Sydney, Australia. And after three consecutive titles at the Canadian National Exhibition International Band competition, to go along with six others early, the CNE awarded the Band of the Tonawandas its President’s Trophy – permanently. The band has recorded five CDs and one DVD, in honor of its 75th anniversary in 1994.

Moreover, in keeping with the spirit of the Iowa Idea, the band stands “ready to aid in any worthwhile community function to uphold the great tradition of The American Legion,” according to its promotional literature.

Clarinetist and band President David Abrahamian, a Sons of The American Legion member, has been with the band for 49 years, managing it for nearly 40.

Following a Veterans Day concert last month, he reflected on the group’s success over the years. “To keep this caliber of musicians, we play challenging music and concerts that they enjoy. At the same time, the general public enjoys it, too. It’s a win-win.”

The musicians, who are selected by audition, are not paid, despite a rigorous performance schedule. “The band means a lot to the community,” Abrahamian says. “It means a lot to the members. The members put a lot of time into this group. It’s very demanding (but)... they enjoy what they get back out of it – the musicality, the friendship from the other members – a lot of camaraderie.”

About half the musicians are also members of the American Legion Family; the requirement for national competition is no less than 20 percent. Abrahamian says the emblem of the nation’s largest veterans organization is an inspiration to them all. “It means a lot. A lot of people are connected to veterans because their family members, friends, relatives – they all know people who served. And I think the band gets gratification playing at veterans events, playing for veterans.

“People come to us for patriotic events. For instance, every year, we play a concert for the Armed Forces Day ceremony that takes place in Buffalo, and it’s quite an event. Military color guards from all over come together, and there is a nice patriotic ceremony that actually takes place for most of the week. We play in Memorial Day parades. We play the Fourth of July. We’ve done dedications for monuments. We have played for the Vietnam Moving Wall. We do things like that for the community, and the band members like doing it.”

He said the band also takes pride in its place in the centennial legacy of The American Legion “History means a lot to the group,” Abrahamian says.

To learn more, purchase CDs and see upcoming performance dates, visit on the web.