At 85 years young, Al Brogdon’s love of music has spanned the decades, hitting a lifetime of high notes along the way. Brogdon is a 2021 Ewing Arts Award Performance Art honoree, recognized this year for his longevity and proficiency as a musician.
Music must have been in his blood. His father was a musician and a music educator who taught him to play the cornet in 1943, when he was only 7. By age 10, he was booking his first paying gig.
“I grew up with music all around me and in my genes,” Brogdon said. “I took off from there.”
He learned to play the other brass instruments in the following years — trombone, tuba, French horn, trumpet and euphonium — then the reed instruments and the string instruments. His favorite? He says he plays the trombone more than anything else, with the tuba coming in second.
A Fitzwilliam resident for the past 23 years with Maggie, his wife of 51 years, Brogdon was born and raised in Tennessee, as his Southern accent openly discloses. They relocated to New Hampshire with no ties to the area — Maggie was simply tired of the weather in the Maryland suburbs where they previously resided for 25 years.
He is father to three children; one they share together. “We have an abiding love that has helped us,” he says of the couple’s longstanding marriage.
Prior to 1967, Brogdon was not a paid professional musician but rather earned an electrical engineering degree and later worked as a technical writer and editor for 32 years. When he graduated college in 1957, he had never left the South, but a time in the military took him eventually to Germany, a journey that inspired his lifelong love for German festivals and their music.
He lived in State College, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s, playing trombone with a Dixieland jazz band called the Gilded Seven. He organized a 15-piece German festival and concert band there called the Little German Band that continues to perform to this day, 53 years later.
In 1970 there was a move to Maryland, where he led and played trombone with a seven-piece Dixieland jazz band called Southern Comfort. They started out with weekly gigs at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, Brogdon says, the first franchise pizza chain in the United States.
“We played at Shakey’s every Friday night for 13-and-a-half years,” Brogdon recalled. “Gradually, we became well-known locally, nationally, and even in other countries.”
Southern Comfort performed in many major concert series events in the Washington, D.C., area, as well as playing shows at the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Capitol. Brogdon even remembers performing at a 75th birthday party for California Sen. Samuel Hayakawa, thrown by John Kennedy.
“We didn’t have to work at promoting the band,” Brogdon said. “It promoted itself.”
Southern Comfort played jazz festivals and events in 24 states over its 25-year history, performing on the cruise steamboat Mississippi Queen five times for special one-week Dixieland Jazz Cruises. Most notably, the band’s festival performances included the Spoleto USA Festival of the Arts in 1978, where it was the opening act for Ella Fitzgerald at the festival's major jazz concert.
“That was a real honor,” Brogdon said. “The front-row seats were reserved for VA patients who were brought in on gurneys. That made me feel good.”
Concurrently, while in Maryland, he led and played trumpet and euphonium in an authentic five-piece German festival band called Heimat Echo, which translates to “Echoes of the Homeland,” appearing at many festivals and parties in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, also marching in the New York City Steuben Day Parade once.
Dixieland jazz and German music share similarities in that they’re both happy, he explained. “I was busy,” he recalled of those years. “During Oktoberfest time, we’d have five jobs on the weekend.”
After retiring at age 55, he and Maggie traveled extensively, where he “sat in" as a guest in Dixieland jazz and German folk bands in Scotland, Denmark, Germany, France, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Switzerland. Twice, he organized small traveling musical groups that toured Europe, getting the chance to take a Dixieland jazz trio to join local Parisian musicians at prominent jazz clubs in Paris.
Another time, they traveled with a brass quartet called Alte Kameraden to present concerts of German Christmas music at Austrian and German Christmas markets. He recalls their first performance being at Stille Nacht Platz, the Silent Night Plaza, in Oberndorf, Austria, where "Silent Night" was written and first performed.
These days, Brogdon is looking forward to a return of performances this summer after the COVID-19 hiatus. He currently leads and performs in a five-piece band called 20th Century Pops that performs the mid-20th-century music of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, as well as Dixieland jazz.
“Summer concerts are a great service to the community,” he said of the effort by area town to provide summertime music performances. He hearkens them back to older times when entire towns would show up for summer concerts.
Moving to Fitzwilliam is a choice they’ve never regretted. New Englanders like to keep the old traditions going, he’s noticed, including the parades that “keep the spirit of America alive” and make him proud to be a “transplanted New Englander.”
He only booked one gig in all of 2020, but he’s starting to hustle again now for the rest of summer and fall. It’s time to play music again.
“We get paid to have a good time,” he said. “We so enjoy making music together. It never gets stale; it’s always new and fresh and we love it.”
Not unexpectedly, he also leads and play in a five-piece German festival band called Oompah! that books quite a few Oktoberfest gigs at The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy during fall foliage season. It’s really authentic and the band performs in full costume, he says, adding that they wear “the real lederhosen, not the fake ones.”
As much as he credits his late father for starting him down a musical path that has led to a happy and fulfilling life, he is equally appreciative for Maggie’s never-ending encouragement.
“I’ve had a rich musical life thanks to my father’s genes and teachings and thanks to my wife’s support,” he said. “She was a big part of making my part-time musical career so wonderful.”