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Music to their ears; Music library fights to keep brass band sounds alive

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2003

CHATFIELD, Minn. Wilma Zylstra doesn't know it, but she's battling Darth Vader every day.

While the ''Star Wars'' theme and ''Hang on Sloopy'' dominate the playlists of high school and college bands, the 79-year-old librarian spends her days dusting off and preserving little-known, toe-tapping gems from the brass band era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the request of patrons worldwide, Zylstra mines the 75,000 tunes of the Chatfield Brass Band Music Lending Library, a collection that began in the attic of a local music lover more than three decades ago. People looking for rare ragtime classics or lesser-known Karl King marches turn to Zylstra and the library to fill the void left by the near extinction of brass band music. In the process, the southeastern Minnesota library has become an internationally recognized repository for music teachers and community bands seeking tunes once thought lost.

''They're invaluable,'' said Robert Kuether, a community band director in Newton, Wis. ''When we really get stuck for something that's been long out of print, long been out of copyright, then I'll go to them and see if they have it, and more often than not they do.''

Kuether said he and others still pine for the underappreciated work of ragtime artists such as Scott Joplin, Percy Wenrich and their contemporaries. ''They wrote terrific, tuneful, happy music and it's just not being played and I wish it would be. Chatfield still has a great deal of it and if they don't it's probably not available anywhere.''

Zylstra's library charges only postage and a small handling fee, though donations are always welcome. Adding to its originality is the library's honor system, which requires lenders to return the music once they're done with it.

''We trust them,'' Zylstra said matter-of-factly, of lending the Chatfield collection. About 95 percent of all music is returned.

And when music is sent out, the recipients get the originals. Zylstra doesn't make copies because she doesn't want to chance legal trouble, even though most of the music is in the public domain. ''You never know,'' she said.

The library was a labor of love for a lawyer (and trombonist) named Jim Perkins. Perkins, now dead, revived the dormant Chatfield Brass Band in 1969 and requested unused music from surrounding schools. Music donations poured in and eventually filled his attic.

In 1971, he created the library as a way to preserve brass band music and make it available to other enthusiasts. But the volumes of music eventually overwhelmed his home and were moved to the city hall's basement, where it filled four rooms.

''Jim had the passion for it and wanted to save this band music, and being a lawyer he had a lot of contacts and a lot of influence,'' said Rich Nicklay, a middle school music teacher in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He grew up near Chatfield and played in its brass band as a teenager.

Perkins' influence got the Legislature to issue a $50,000 grant in 1978 so he could erect a 3,000-square-foot building for the library on land he donated.

Today, the library remains in that building on the south edge of town.

Inside, Zylstra and about a half-dozen volunteers search through a large card catalogue listing each tune by composer, arranger, and title to fulfill about 1,500 requests per year. Once the music is found, one of the workers walks between rows of filing cabinets stacked to the ceiling to search for tunes like ''Bohemian Girl'' and ''Glory of the Trumpets.'' Some are whole, some are missing parts.

On the other side of the building rest about 200 unopened boxes donated music that has yet to be examined for material the library does not already have.

''We have to sift through each box carefully because you never know when you'll come across that one piece or part that we don't have,'' Zylstra said.

Robert Boorn, 71, of Prescott, Ariz., visited the library two years ago after years of borrowing for a semiprofessional band he formed with several veterans. He was amazed at how much music the small building contained.

''I just wish I had a couple of months to spend there to go through (the boxes of music) because I'm sure there are some treasures,'' he said. Boorn was surprised to find a copy of a march his father, Walter, wrote nearly 80 years before.

Those treasures could soon be available on the Internet. In 2001, the library received additional state funding to develop a computer database and, eventually, a searchable Web site. That way people could search for artists or arrangements as if they were in the library. But the project won't be completed for several years.

The library's popularity arises from the fact that much of that era's music became lost because no recordings exist community bands simply got together on Saturday nights to play for townsfolk. The only record of the performances are the sheets of music.



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