An earnest high school teacher for 29 years and a hard-working curriculum director, principal, and superintendent for 15 more, I approached retirement with both buoyancy and apprehension.
Optimism my natural disposition, I welcomed retirement. It would afford me time to write, improve my clarinet-playing, and drill into home improvement projects. I imagined taking grandkids to museums, sliding down snowy hills with them, and hiking forest trails as they taught me about edible plants and how to identify black birch by the smell of its bark. Honesty obliges me to confess that I felt a tinge of fear, too, anxious that happiness would dissolve when my job ended, realizing I thoroughly identified with work and received much affirmation through it.
Happily, retirement arrived, my final months the least satisfying of a 44-year career. Yet, I still harbored some anxiety, despite plans to teach part-time inside a local prison, read more, and exercise daily. Four years ago, at age 66, I joined a Honk! band dubbed the Extraordinary Rendition Band (ERB).
ERB is an offspring of a 15-year-old, crowd-pleasing movement. Originating in Massachusetts, the Honk! idea sped across the planet. And like all Honk! bands, ERB broadcasts a commitment to social activism. Dressed for Mardi Gras, loud, and brassy, Honk! bands are now in cities from Spokane to Minneapolis, Brooklyn to Austin, Seattle to New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro to Bologna, and many points in between. Greg Youmans, 63, who plays Eb alto horn in the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, founded Spokane’s Honk! band, the PJAMRS (Peace and Justice Musical Rascals of Spokane), also known as P-Jammers. Youmans said the group’s mission is to “make the world a better place.” As with ERB and most Honk! bands, the members of PJAMRS range in age from 20 to 80.
For me, ERB offers opportunities to jump beyond the circle of gray- and white-haired friends with whom I socialize in restaurants and afternoon book clubs.
Honk! is typically a mixture of traditional-sounding New Orleans street fare flavored with a variety of other musical spices. Klezmer, Afrobeat, Funk, and Latin tempos surface in many Honk! repertoires. Rarely delicate, often melodic, always emotion-generating, Honk! performances compel audiences to smile and dance. Two additional features distinguish Honk!:
Advocacy of grassroots projects (soup kitchens, Cancer Survivors Day, homeless shelters), and promotion of worthy causes and progressive ideals (Special Olympics, racial justice, community gardens); and
Membership consists of free spirits and iconoclasts who wish to perform, often adorned in astonishing clothing.
ERB’s colors are red, white, and shiny. Members scour consignment shops for outrageous garments exhibiting those characteristics. Women’s apparel with sequins and bold patterns boasts more flamboyance than men’s attire. The objective is to look at once foolish and put-together.
While there exists this lighthearted, goofy dimension to fashion, Honkers take music-making seriously. Prior to COVID-19, ERB practiced three hours each week, often adding sectional sessions between rehearsals. We normally play more than 60 gigs a year, perhaps half for free. Now our band continues to meet on Zoom for business. ERB has put out two videos produced in our own homes, each band member alone but using the technology to allow us to match our playing to the correct tempo. We have participated in a few stripped-down events outside with proper social distancing, but about 30 gigs were canceled. ERB also appeared in an online version of the annual October Honkfest in Boston. We will survive, but the fun and good work we do are greatly reduced. For example, one outreach arm of the band gives music lessons to disadvantaged urban kids, but with schools largely remote due to COVID-19, the program is paused.
Inclusivity and equality are the foundation of the Honk! philosophy. As ERB’s mission statement notes, “We welcome musicians from all backgrounds and all levels of ability to join us.” Now at age 70, I am ERB’s second oldest member. I would urge any aging contemporary who possesses just a smidgeon of musical talent, a big heart, a comic temperament, and a yearning to use all three in order to make a difference to consider joining a Honk! band. Perhaps the final sentence of ERB’s mission captures the wild, welcoming world of Honk!, an outlook capable of convincing even a timid or hesitant oldster to enlist: “We value silliness, gratuitous antics, and pure fun for its own sake as much as (if not more than) musical skill.”
Paul Graseck worked as a high school teacher and school administrator for 44 years. Married since 1975, he has two daughters. In 1979, he and his wife built with their own hands a passive solar house. Paul is an avid gardener, essayist, former editor of a professional magazine for social studies supervisors, and an improving clarinetist. He lives in Connecticut.