During the 1985 Drum Corps International Tour, the Garfield Cadets pulled off their third World Championship title in a row. The Blue Devils, in third place and just a tenth of a point under Santa Clara Vanguard, won both the High Brass and High Percussion caption awards at the Finals in Madison, Wisconsin, doing so in back-to-back seasons.
One of the most intriguing musical endeavors of 1985 and in all of the 1980s was Suncoast Sound’s “Florida Suite.” The production was the first show in the history of the DCI Finals that was made up of all-original music composed for the drum corps field. According to horn arranger and composer Robert W. Smith, “We were clearly situated in Florida and had built a very good horn line. About half our 1984 show was original music, but we never advertised that. In 1985, we took the approach to be lighter and easier on the emotional palette. We did drastically different things than before, but still kept a sound that when you heard the brass line, you knew it was Suncoast.”
Smith continued, “What prompted us to do the show with original music was our inability to find the right material to work with the theme. It wasn’t easy to find tunes about Florida and being in the Sunshine State. In researching possible music, nothing was jumping out at us. We realized we could be more focused and more efficient if we wrote original material.
“The inspiration was clearly the place where we lived, and then we tried to find the things to which people would relate. For lack of a better term, I’ll call the show ‘postcards or images of the Sunshine State.’ The show was inspired by Ferde Grofé’s ‘Grand Canyon Suite.’”
Battery percussion arranger Allan Murray says, “The thought was we wanted to do a show about life in Florida on any given day.”
Murray pointed out the risks the corps encountered in presenting an all-original show. “One thing that was fun were the initial judges’ reactions to ‘Florida Suite.’ Until 1985, judges could hear about a corps’ repertoire, grab a record or tape, and listen to the source music. They would kind of know what to expect. This was impossible with ‘Florida Suite.’
“I remember listening to the judges’ tapes after the first few shows. There were long silences on the tapes in the beginning because judges were trying to listen and grasp what we were doing and how we were doing it. With nothing to prepare them, they were challenged for the first time to truly react to something they had never heard before, and then award a score for that. Eventually, they began to understand and appreciate the show. Whether they’ll admit it or not, it sure felt like it was a defining moment for judges to react to something new, different and never heard before.”
Smith had his own concerns about the show being accepted within the judging community, adding, “I remember the words from a DCI judges and instructors meeting that the drum corps activity was defined as the original visual packaging and original visual interpretations to the artful adaption of music from other forms. At our first DCI critique, a judge I love and respect looked at me and asked, ‘Who do you think you are? Are you Stravinsky?’ I told him I didn’t think of myself as Stravinsky, but maybe some day, people would think of me as a composer of repute.”
Smith recalls that everyone else associated with the creation of the corps’ show was on board, including Michael Raiford with the visual packaging, Russell Stanton with the color guard, Allan Murray with the battery percussion, and Kenny Brooks with the front ensemble percussion. Smith says, “These really wonderful people were willing to take creative risks.”
The show opened with “Overture,” which set the mood for the individual “postcards or images of the Sunshine State.” According to Smith, “Simple Song at Sunrise” represented “the purity of being on the beach and looking at the scenery. I literally sat on a beach and wrote the melody in a sunrise setting.” In “Beach Frolic,” Smith worked in musical themes “from our friends in Orlando,” including, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” because, “Disney is a great company that has had a great impact on the state of Florida.” At the beginning, the color guard members were seen with beach umbrellas that resembled the tops of palm trees, later paying a nod to tourists by looking through oversized binoculars.
“Cloudburst” was the piece most inspired by “Grand Canyon Suite,” capturing the fury of the thunderstorms that occur in Florida every mid-afternoon during certain times of the year. At the start, the brass players tapped on the metal of their horns to create the patter of falling rain, and a large sheet of metal was shaken to create the sound of thunder. In addition, a crank turned a large barrel to produce a gushing wind sound.
Murray remembers this as a fun production that the members enjoyed performing, and for the drummers out there, Murray offers a little “drumspeak” fact about the production. “The ending was the first introduction of boom shiggy, where we brought back inverted flam taps synced with the bass drum boom shiggy. The boom shiggy was made up of inverts, synced unison basses with intermittent rolls, and the unique choke cymbals sounds of (staff member) Kyle Johnson.”
At the beginning of “Midnight in Miami,” Smith worked in a quote that paid homage to “Melancholy Serenade,” the theme of “The Jackie Gleason Show.” Gleason’s show ran from 1952 to 1970 in a number of incarnations, many which originated from Miami Beach. Gleason composed the song, even though he didn’t write music. (He would hear a melody in his head and have someone else write it out.) The closer was a collaborative effort between Smith and Murray, each listening to an extensive amount of salsa before coming up with the tune. The piece delved into the Cuban and Caribbean Latin-American culture that so heavily influences Miami.
According to Murray, “We decided to eliminate the snare voice in this segment and played on Latin voices of bongos and congas, with snare drummers playing on unique and new double ‘bong toms.’ Further embellishing the music was the conga ‘quint voice’ and bass drummers playing running rolls throughout. It was a dynamic comprehensive piece that is still pleasing to hear, and it still captures the imagination.” The standstill bass drum feature was something crowds always relished, and the steamy baritone horn solo created a sense of being in a Miami jazz club.
While more recent drum corps fans may remember the Cavaliers performing all-original musical productions in 2001, 2002 and 2003, it was Suncoast Sound’s 1985 show that opened the door for audience members to experience music never before heard on the football field.
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