Lew Sbrana–trumpet, director and founder of the band
“It has just been a joyful ride. I’ve really been blessed”
When I retired, I didn’t know what to do with myself except that I conducted the Healdsburg Community Band one night a week. Somebody suggested that I drive cars for dealers so I did. I was picking them up in various parts of the country and I was so bored after three years that I can remember crawling into bed and saying, “God, there must be something you want me to do.”
I swear it wasn’t more than two weeks later that I had a call from Randy Masselink who was teaching music at Healdsburg High School, and he said, “Lew, there’s a guy here from Star’s Music in Santa Rosa. They want to start a band for seniors and they’re looking for a band director. Would you be interested?” And I answered, “Send him over.” So he came over and he had a video of the New Horizons Band in Rochester, New York, and I fell in love with it. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be fun!” We put out the word in December of 1998, and a few people showed up at the Veterans’ Building and Star’s Music was there to coordinate. We decided to start in January. So January 1999 we started with twelve people. (editor: There are now about ninety musicians on the roster in 2020.)
What I most enjoy about the Band is the fellowship. Sure, we’re there to make music; that’s our primary goal, to come together just to experience the joy of making music. But it’s the camaraderie, it’s the feeling of that group of people . . . I’ve never been associated with a band, especially, but with a whole bunch of people who have been so supportive, so loving–just a great group of people, that’s for sure. I don’t know if it’s our age, or what, but there’s no feeling of competition. People are just there to have a great time. You know what our supposedly 15-minute break is like. Trying to get people back into their seats is a challenge, but it’s just joyful to look around and see people together sharing their lives and their experiences.
I grew up in San Francisco. My father was born in Rome but came to this country as an infant and never learned to speak Italian. My grandfather, Luigi Sbrana, was born in Tunis, Tunisia in North Africa. (editor: Tunis is directly across the Mediterranean from Sicily and less than 200 miles away.) He later immigrated to Italy and received his law degree from the University of Pisa. He was a linguist, proficient in five languages, and ended his career working for the Bank of Italy which morphed into the Bank of America in San Francisco. (editor: established by Amadeo Pietro Giannini, the son of Italian immigrants, in 1904.) I never knew my paternal grandmother, Ella. She died shortly after I was born. She was born in Detroit, MI, had an English heritage (Folsom and Briscoe). She wanted to be an opera singer so she went to Italy to study. Instead she met Luigi Sbrana who was a dashing cavalry officer in the Italian army. They married and produced two sons: my father Lewis and his brother Richard. Ella brought the boys home to Detroit and Luigi joined them some months later. They settled in SF and lived on Wawona Street in the West Portal district.
My father started as a messenger for Bank of America and retired 35 years later as an assistant manager in Ukiah. He and my mother, Virginia Ragghianti, were married in 1934 and I came along in 1935. We were living in San Rafael with my father traveling back and forth to San Francisco via train, the Sausalito ferry and street cars. Around 1937 we moved to The City. We lived on Chestnut Street, Polk Street, on Wawona Street with my grandfather, and finally Francisco Street between Franklin and Gough. I can remember during WWII playing on the tanks in Fort Mason, the military port of embarkation.
My fraternal grandparents, Anita and Emanuel Ragghianti, spoke fluent Italian but only when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. So, unfortunately, I never learned. My mother could understand it but was reluctant to speak it. My introduction to the Italian community was via a wonderful family named Farina. My mother and father had grown up with their children. The patriarch of the family, Antonio, was also known as Pops. Pops was the maître d’ at Di Maggio’s restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. It was quite an honor to be invited to their home near the Marina Green for dinner. I later found out that Antonio Farina helped to start the Crab Fishermen’s Protection Association in 1913. It negotiated the pricing of their catch and was the salvation for the crab fishermen. And his name is on a plaque in the lobby of the SF Opera House. He was one of the “angels” that financed the construction of that beautiful venue.
I grew up in the Marina District and had quite a few Italian friends from Galileo High School, names like Sasselli, La Rocca, Bernadini, Panelli, Marcucci, and on and on. . . the “Mafia” of Galileo H.S. I’ve been blessed with my Italian background. It was fun growing up in San Francisco and visiting my other grandfather, Emanuel Ragghianti, who was a meat cutter with his own butcher shop on the corner of California and Hyde Streets. We had little money, but ate very well thanks to Pa ‘Manuel.
I went to Marina Junior High School and in seventh grade Marina had a band program. You were given the choice between a woodwind and a brass instrument. At that time the trombone really interested me. I’ll never forget the band director sitting with his clipboard at this long table that was strewn with mouthpieces of different sizes and a great big jar of disinfectant. He showed you how to buzz first of all, and then you buzzed through different mouthpieces. So that’s how I got the trumpet. I figured out later, he was a smart man; he was figuring out what he wanted his instrumentation to be, and he must have needed another trumpet player.
As I was going into my senior year in high school, my Dad was offered a job at Bank of America in Arcata. It was a chance to move out of San Francisco and my mother was all for it. The band director at Arcata High School was outstanding, just a wonderful guy, and later it turned out he was my master teacher when I did my student teaching. I just loved the guy. So he had a great influence on me. So did the choir director, a woman who was just a dynamo.
I grew up in a family that was very eclectic in their choice of music. My mother could sing. Dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he loved music. So I grew up listening to a broad variety of music, everything from the Sons of the Pioneers to classical. I’ve always loved music but I also loved animals. I worked for a veterinarian in San Francisco at the Marina Pet Hospital, and I thought I was going to be a veterinarian. In college I started out as a pre-vet major and almost flunked out of school.
Here I was at Humboldt playing in the band and singing in the a cappella choir and a music prof came up to me toward the end of my first year and said, “How you doin’, Lew?” and I told him, “I’m about ready to flunk out.” He asked me, “What’s your major?” and I said, “Pre-Veterinary Medicine.” “If I were you I’d change to Music,” he said. So that was it.
Humboldt State in the 1950s was a very small school. I think around 1955 they had just gotten their 1000th student. The music department was very small, but they had about a fifty piece band and a little orchestra and a wonderful choral department. The profs were great. In order to get a credential to teach music you had to experiment with everything, so I played a little bit of trombone, tried the tuba, French horn. I got into the strings, clarinet.
I graduated from college in 1956, and in those days the draft was hanging over your head. So I thought I’d just take my trumpet and go into an army band. But it didn’t turn out that way. A young Navy ensign who was just out of O.C.S. (editor: Officer Candidate School) came through just before I graduated, but I stayed away from him, didn’t want to talk to him. When I came home (I was living with my parents), my bed was strewn with all this Navy propaganda. He had stopped by the house and my mother was bouncing up and down, saying “Lew, you can serve as an officer!” So that was it.
I went to Newport, Rhode Island, spent a year on Guam, and then came back and was stationed at Fort Mead, Maryland, at the National Security Agency. That’s where I met Elaine. She was working at the Agency. We were married in 1960 and lived another year Back East and then I dragged her out here to the West Coast.
I really grew up in the Navy. That was quite a challenge, going to O.C.S. There was no fooling around. You had to memorize the schematic of a destroyer’s engine room, or boiler room, and weaponry, and navigation. And if you flunked out, they sent you right off as a recruit seaman. It was pressure. My father was great, he just kept encouraging me. “Come on, Lew, you can do it, you can do it.” So I went through O.C.S., got through all that. When I came out of the Navy, I was a different person. Before I was a typical “Joe College”: I had my MG, I had my Tam o’ shanter, I had a pipe in my mouth, and I just enjoyed four years of playing student. But I really grew up in the Navy.
My first job in music was in Boonville, Anderson Valley. It was just terrific. I couldn’t have landed at a better place. There were some openings in Santa Rosa to fill in for teachers who were taking sabbaticals, and they promised me, if they hired me, they would try to keep me on even after the other teachers came back. So we left Santa Rosa feeling pretty good, and we drove into Boonville and this little man, burly little guy in hiking boots and a T-shirt, comes out of their high school and he says, “Lew, my name is Bob Mathias. I’m the Superintendent and Principal. Come on into my office.” He told me, “I want a band at every home football game and I want a pep band, if you can, at our home basketball games, and the rest is up to you. You’ll have elementary through the twelfth grade.” This was a small school district. So I told him we had just left interviews in Santa Rosa, and he said, “Well, you’re hired here as far as I’m concerned. You let me know.”
So we went back to Arcata and waited, and finally I called Santa Rosa, and the woman there said the Board was meeting that night and would make their decision. So I said I’d been offered a job at Anderson Valley and she said, “You know, if I were you, I’d take it.” So I phoned Bob Mathias and told him I’d take the job, and he said to come down in June or July and they’d find me a place to live, get me set up. Then the next day Santa Rosa called and said they would like to hire me. But I had already made my commitment to Bob. It turned out to be the best thing. I spent two years at Anderson Valley and they were terrific to me.
I started with about 25 kids in the high school band. When I walked into the band office I saw all this music spread out all over and I asked the kids, “Did you play some of this music? What did you do last year?” And they said they had played about seven or eight pieces all year, and I thought “Oh, my gosh!” So I just started passing out music, and we played and played and we really had a good time. I was really enjoying myself. When I left we had maybe 35 kids in the band. It was just great.
Then Healdsburg needed a band director and I was there for 31 years.
I’m a very fortunate guy. I’ve really sort of sailed through life. Everything has fallen into place for me.
One evening in 1986, I turned on our PBS-TV channel and was treated to the New Sousa Band “On Stage at Wolf Trap”. Keith Brion, resplendent in a black band uniform of the early 1900s, stepped to the podium and gave the down beat for the first number.
This was immediately followed by an encore, one of Sousa’s marches. The band was superb, about 50 musicians representing wind players and percussionists from military service bands and symphony orchestras. The program was hosted by Beverly Sills, whose vocal teacher, Estelle Liebling, had sung with the Sousa Band. The concert moved quickly from pieces of different genres, each one followed by and encore. I was delighted! It was fun, nostalgic, and patriotic.
At the next Healdsburg Community Band rehearsal, I told them about what I’d seen and thoroughly enjoyed. Did they want to give it a try? Yes! I grew a mustache, bought some grey hair spray, found I could still get into my Navy uniform and we presented our version of a “typical” Sousa concert. We performed at the Raven Theater and, surprisingly, filled the seats. It seemed that the name Sousa was a draw. I found THE biography on Sousa, John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon, by Paul Bierley. I studied that book like crazy. I wrote the script for our host Father Marvin Bowers, a local Episcopalian priest, and included facts about Sousa and the selections. We always featured a wind player soloist playing a number of that period and we always had a lady vocalist who would sing something operatic and then a tune from that era. Our last number was always The Stars and Stripes Forever, with a gigantic American flag displayed as the rear curtains opened on the final playing of the trio. The audience loved it! (editor: one remarkable concert evening, the Raven’s marquee read: Sousa Concert, SOLD OUT, Star Wars, tickets available.)
One memorable evening at rehearsal, Keith Brion dropped in. We were thrilled to have him work with the band, making lots of suggestions about phrasing, articulation, and balance. One of the flute/piccolo players had been taking piccolo lessons from Mr. Brion and invited him to Healdsburg. Great surprise!
The Sousa concerts soon outgrew the Raven Theater and we decided to really go big time and perform at Luther Burbank Auditorium. We were very fortunate to have a husband and wife team in the band who were entrepreneurs. They enlisted color guards from every service and we featured them for the National Anthem. I was amazed; we played twice at LBC and filled it the first time (1,700 seats) and almost filled it the second time. Following our two performances there, we were able to play in Jackson Theater at Sonoma Country School for the rest of our concerts. All told, we performed 20 Sousa concerts. The last one was in the gazebo at Healdsburg Plaza on June 2, 2013. The 60-piece band was a composite of members of both the Healdsburg Community Band and New Horizons Band. It was a very nostalgic day for me and a lovely and fitting way to say “good-by” to Mr. Sousa, The March King.
We have two girls. They were born here and both went to college, University of the Pacific. One of them got her law degree and she’s in Brooklyn, working for New York State. My other daughter first became a computer tech writer and went on to receive a MA and became an archivist. She’s married and living in Michigan with our two grandchildren.
I used to sail. I had two sailboats at one time. I love that, even though I can’t swim. As a little kid I can remember someone saying, “You’ve got to learn how to swim.” There was a swim center, I think called the Crystal Plunge, in North Beach in San Francisco so I went to the pool but I just could not coordinate the arms and the legs; I just couldn’t do it, so I gave up. Then I find myself in the Navy and the first thing we had to do was take a swim test. Every night, while guys were writing home and polishing their shoes, good old Sbrana would be down at the pool. It was same old, same old; I just could not coordinate it. We were there for four months, and at the end, you’ve got to pass the swim test, so with a whole bunch of other guys I lined up at the pool at the deep end. I took a running leap and cleared as much water as I possibly could and then paddled like crazy along the side of the pool, and finally got to where my feet could touch the bottom of the pool, so I made it there, and turned around, and then I had to go half way back, and I did that. The other part of it was to climb up a tower, 25 or 30 feet high, and jump off; that was supposed to simulate going off a ship. So you go down into about 15 feet of water. And I didn’t come up! I just sort of sat there. Finally I did come up and I could hear guys screaming at me, and someone said, “Come on, get over here. Okay, you passed.”
I like gardening. The pandemic has given me a lot of time to do that. Elaine has a green thumb, and I can follow her around and put plants in the ground.
I spend a lot of time with Healdsburg Community Church. We’ve been very active musically and counseling. I sing in the choir there. They’re always looking for a tenor.
My Dad really loved to cook. He was a primo chef. I never learned to cook but I loved to eat his food.
We’ve done some traveling. We’ve crossed the U.S. quite a few times by car, going to visit Michigan, or Elaine’s sister on the East Coast. We’ve been to quite a few different States. My parents, ‘way back in the 1970s gave us and my sister a trip to Europe. It was like that old movie, “If it’s Tuesday, It Must Be Brussels.” One day here, one day there, but it gave us an overview of Europe.
And we’ve been to Italy a couple of times. I still have relatives there. My Sbrana family relatives live in and around Florence. The last time we visited was about 6 years ago. We stayed in Montecatini which is an easy commute by train to Firenze. Beautiful country! The family met us one evening and took us to a restaurant on a high hill above Montecatini. We had a fabulous meal and as we walked to the cars, I looked up and there was the most beautiful full moon I’d seen. “Que bella luna!” I said and they went wild. “Alright, Lew!!” I laughed and told them I remembered the line from the movie Moon Struck. Shows what you can learn from a movie.
I’m looking forward to our return to New Horizons Band. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they get a handle on this monster (COVID-19).
It has just been a joyful ride. I’ve really been blessed.