Wrangling 40 mismatched musicians is no easy task, but MarchFourth Marching Band leader John Averill '89 keeps them moving in step both literally and artistically
John Averill '89 has a sweet ride these days—a pearl white 45-foot passenger bus with cherry-red linoleum floors that sleeps 24. Trombones, saxophones, trumpets, drums, cymbals, and Averill's wireless bass guitar fill the compartments underneath the bus alongside stilts, Hula Hoops, and other tools used by wax-mustachioed men and sequined dancers. Then there are the drum harnesses, shiny Mad Max contraptions welded from recycled bike parts, the mismatched marching band uniforms and hats collected from thrift stores, fishnet stockings, leather garters, red snakeskin print pants, and maybe a shimmering pair of silver bell-bottoms.
As the bandleader and co-creator of the MarchFourth Marching Band, Averill marshals something between a saucy vaudeville show, a Bootsy Collins groovefest, and a three-ring circus. The Portland, Ore.-based band counts 40-plus members, but trims the ranks to 23 when touring, mostly playing music festivals and smaller venues. Whatever the gig, the band's sound is huge—an original melding of Afrobeat, rock, ska, Dixieland jazz, and gypsy brass. MarchFourth jams the stage with wildly costumed drum and horn players while a troupe of dazzling beauties and stilt dancers spill into the audience to perform impossible hoists and twirls. And that guy on stilts? He might crowd-surf during the finale. Seemingly impervious to the chaos, Averill threads in a funky electric bass to hold it all together.
"I've had a lifelong fascination with human chemistry and how people get along with one another," says Averill. It's no easy task to keep so many artists and the complexity of a five-piece drum corps, at least eight horns, and a small army of dancers and stilt performers moving in the same direction, but Averill takes a Zen approach. "You can't control that many musicians," he adds, "but you can guide it in whatever direction makes itself known."
A Eugene native, Averill majored in studio art and says one of the reasons he chose Oxy was because of the exchange program offered with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he studied graphic design. He also credits "Art Thing" events—campus functions organized by students that blended art, film, music, and poetry—as an influence. And Oxy is where he first picked up the guitar when he realized friends around campus had taught themselves how to play and created bands. "I thought, hell, maybe it's not too late to become a musician."
Following graduation, Averill spent several years in an L.A. band with other Oxy alumni before moving to Portland to work at an animation studio. After he was laid off in 2003, he hatched the idea for a marching band with his close friend and neighbor Dan Stauffer '91 and three other area musicians. Like many of Averill's other music projects, it was meant to be a one-time gig. Organized for a Fat Tuesday party (on March 4, hence the name), the band packed the venue. Several weeks later, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, MarchFourth reconvened for an anti-war demonstration in Portland. "We marched for three hours in the rain with 18,000 people downtown, playing the same seven songs over and over," Averill recalls.
"We transformed everyone around us from anger to clapping and dancing," says Stauffer, who plays cymbals and other percussion that includes anything from a cowbell to the Latin-American güiro. "It's the event that galvanized us."
At the time of the band's creation, Stauffer was developing the Egg, a Portland warehouse-turned-artist-collective that now provides a practice space for the group. The title of the band's fourth and latest album, Magnificent Beast, describes the transformation that has occurred since. Once a local Portland favorite, the band now spends more time touring than at home, including an overseas tour to Germany, where even the most conservative audiences got up and danced by the end of the set, says Averill. (A 28-minute documentary, Was Ist Das?, captures the behind-the-scenes antics.)
For his part, Stauffer adds a big dose of high energy aimed at encouraging the audience to join in the fun that complements Averill's even-keeled composure. He also fills the role of something like a ship's captain when the band rolls out on tour by navigating, routing, and getting the band to where it needs to be with a been-everywhere mindset that he says evolved in part from a year in England through Oxy's study-abroad program, as well as a year post-graduation living in Tokyo. But more than anything, says Stauffer, his role as a head resident in Erdman Hall prepared him to deal with the dynamics and issues of working and traveling with such a large and diverse group.
While Averill never worked as an RA, he says his involvement with Kappa Sigma fraternity taught him the social tools he needed to work with a large group. Says founding member and dancer Faith Jennings, "John really nurtures a family vibe in the band."
One challenge along the way has been how to turn the enterprise into something that pays its members a modest income. To that end, some band members design and stitch their own costumes, or sell handcrafted hats and other wearable art at shows. In March 2007, they purchased a 1984 MC9 motor coach with a million-plus miles on eBay for $10,000, dubbed it Razzle Dazzle, and retrofitted it with bunks, a tiny sink and cooktop, and topped the roof with rows of heavy plastic bins to carry camping equipment.
But the operation is about more than just touring and selling CDs. A slice of the proceeds from MarchFourth's 2009 album Rise Up was donated to Sweet Home New Orleans, a nonprofit that helps perpetuate the city's music and cultural traditions. Band members Ariel Brantley-Dalglish and Robin Jackson co-founded the Joy Now Foundation, a group that mounts workshops to engage Portland youth in music and performance arts. Using MarchFourth music as a template and with the help of some of the band's musicians and performers, kids learn how to play as an ensemble and perform for an audience.
Occasionally, that goodwill yields musical gifts: The clarinetist, tuba player, and saxophonists of the New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band improvised several solos that were incorporated into a track on Magnificent Beast (produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos). But other dividends have resulted as well. After logging more than 300,000 miles on Razzle Dazzle, the band launched an online fundraising effort last winter to help buy a newer, larger, and more fuel-efficient ride. Fans pitched in $46,000 and, after some modifications for on-the-road living, the band rolled out in its new bus this spring (name pending).
Although MarchFourth isn't entirely sustainable yet, Averill says that it's become enough of a business that he's taken to wearing a tie and vest when he performs. "We're out there pursuing a dream and making it happen in small steps," he says. "I think the band is poised for a breakthrough."
Robyn Morrison '90 is a freelance writer living in Panoia, Colo.