Al Wilgrube

Making merry

Ranging in age from 69 to 99 years old, The Merry Music Makers gather each week in Langley to pursue their passion for song

Every Tuesday morning Saint Joseph’s Catholic Parish in Langley travels back in time.

That’s when hits from long ago —Sentimental Journey, What a Wonderful World and Thanks for the Memories — fill the hall, entertaining visitors in line for a free lunch from the parish’s soup kitchen.

Set up in a circle in a room just off the main hall are a pianist, a bass guitarist, a mandolinist, a drummer, a clarinetist and two saxophonists ranging in age from 69 to 99 years old.

The Merry Music Makers — Bill Low, 99, Art Petite, 95, Al Wildgrube, 93, Marg Halcro, 92, Anne Balzer, 83, Hazel Coupland, 78 and Joe Sullivan, 69 — get together each week and play their favourite songs from the 1930s and ’40s for the simple joy of making music.

“It was the music on their lips when they were young,” said Sullivan, the drummer. “We just have a lot of fun.”

Although they may not always remember everyone’s last name, they never forget a note, playing many of the melodies from memory, rather than sheet music.

“Music keeps you young,” said Petite, a saxophonist with the group. Petite, who lives in Cloverdale, learned to play during his army days while stationed in South Africa with Allied American troops during the Second World War.

“I always try to think of the composers when I’m playing,” he said.

“I try to get into their mind, to put a bit of feeling into it. And every composer is different.”

Since the group formed in 1994, new members have joined and have transformed it into a sort of house band for the parish, playing at many of their events and fundraisers.

The pianist, Halcro, who lives in Fernridge, has been with the group since the beginning. She learned to play the piano when she was three and a half years old, nearly 90 years ago.

“My favourite song is Tammy (from the 1957 movie Tammy And The Bachelor),” she said in a sing-song voice.

“I got my picture taken with Debbie Reynolds’ star when I was in California last week.  After that I woke up one morning and that song was in my head, so I sat down and I played it and it is my favourite song now. I always like songs from movies.”

Low, also a saxophonist, was the leader of the group until about three years ago when health concerns kept him from playing. Now living in North Vancouver, he still comes out on occasion to play with his old group.

He couldn’t remember what year he started playing music, but the moment he placed his lips to the reed his mind became as sharp as ever, playing every piece perfectly.

“I have no favourites,” he said, when asked what songs he likes to play. “There are a lot of good songs from over the years.”

With a lifetime of music experience behind them, the group of seven musicians play many of their favourite standards the exact same way they would have played them decades ago.

Wildgrube began playing music around 1929, he said. Running his own band for years, the last group he played with, Red Velvet, entertained audiences in hotels throughout Vancouver. The gift of music runs deep in his family. His grandfather and many other relatives played with musical legend John Philip Sousa, a composer famous for his marches.

“I have a whole wall full of music from when I had my own band. But nobody plays anymore,” he said, disheartened.

That’s why having the band at the Parish is important to its members. It offers a chance for the seniors to continue to practice their passion for music and perform in a group.

Coupland, who just learned to play bass guitar 10 years ago, has also been playing music her entire life. In addition to playing the guitar she also plays piano and clarinet, which she learned as a child in Saskatchewan.

“When I was a child our family had a band, and when I was eight we played for dances. Because my dad had a band he made sure all of us kids learned how to play,” she said.

Balzer, the mandolinist, has also played music all her life. Just as her father taught her the mandolin, she has now passed her musical talents down to her children, who have served as concert masters with the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Like any musical group, the Merry Music Makers have come across some hiccups while performing. Such was the case two weeks ago during a packed Saturday night fundraiser.

“When we played here Saturday night it was onstage, and we were in a straight line and we couldn’t hear each other,” Halcro said with a laugh.

“But we managed to make it work.”

For Sullivan, the youngster in the group, watching the other members of the band continue to play year after year is inspiring.

“I hope I am able to do that when I’m their age,” he said.




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