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Buffalo's Music Man; John Surra was a bandleader, music teacher and composer -- and his "Buffalo News March," arranged for orchestra by his son, will be on the BPO 'Pops Showstoppers' program Saturday

In the 1930s and '40s, North Buffalo was home to a sweet New Year's Eve tradition.

At midnight, John Surra, who lived with his wife and six children in a corner house behind St. Margaret's Church, would step out onto his porch. Lifting his trumpet to his lips, he would play "Auld Lang Syne" into the snowy night.

The song never shone more brightly.

Surra was not an old man, but he belonged to a vanishing era -- the glorious golden days of the brass band. He had played with John Philip Sousa -- like Meredith Willson, who wrote "The Music Man."

Before that, he had graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music and studied in New York City under the famed conductor Walter Damrosch.

When he moved to Buffalo, Surra taught countless kids, and adults, the joy of playing in the band.

One of his many extracurricular activities involved the annual Independence Day festivals sponsored by The Buffalo Evening News, as the paper was then called. He hand-picked and directed a 50-piece brass band.

In 1948, the party was held in Delaware Park. Surra shared the bill with Bob Hope and WBEN's Clint Buehlman.

In 1949, Surra and his gleaming band presided over a festival at Buffalo's Civic Stadium, along with drum corps, drill teams and trapeze artists.

That day, Surra premiered a piece he had written: "The Buffalo Evening News March."

Newspaper marches -- Sousa's "The Washington Post March" is a famous example -- were a hallmark of the brass band era. Surra had dedicated his march to Edward H. Butler, the paper's editor and publisher who was, on that occasion, his patron.

Saturday, as part of "Pops Showstoppers," the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is performing "The Buffalo News March" -- arranged for orchestra by the composer's son Jerry Surra (who also updated the piece's name).

There is a poignant note to the music's revival. The 1949 premier was part of John Surra's last public appearance.

Sick with cancer, he had trouble getting through the performance. The next morning he was hospitalized. He died in 1950, 55 years old.

>A vaudeville romance

The solemn High Requiem Mass at St. Margaret's was a poignant conclusion to a life full of splash and fanfare.

Born in 1893 in Bradford, Pa., Surra -- the name is Italian -- served in an infantry unit in the Mexican Border War and in World War I. He met his English/Irish wife in a Hornell vaudeville theater (he was directing the pit band, and she was playing the piano).

He came to Buffalo in the early 1930s to work for McClellan Music House. While he was house hunting, he met the priest at St. Margaret's. The priest offered Surra the job of church music director -- and the house behind the church, if he said yes. Surra said yes.

Surra quickly became legend in his new hometown.

His job for McClellan Music involved rotating among various schools, organizing and rehearsing student bands. (Then, as now, many schools lacked money for music programs.)

The list of districts where Surra taught includes but is not limited to Angola, Eden, Cheektowaga, North Collins, Cattaraugus, LeRoy, Tonawanda and Snyder.

Clarence Hopper, 94, was a student at Gardenville High School when Surra handed him a trumpet. "He used to come around once a week," Hopper recalls. "We had to pay 50 cents to belong to the band.

"He was a very nice man. Very good with us kids. He came in every week, collected 50 cents from us. He was a nice man. I enjoyed it." Hopper enjoyed it so much that he stuck with it and now leads the West Seneca Town Band.

Hopper's memories of Surra may have mellowed with time.

"My father was a very strict disciplinarian," Jerry Surra says from his home in Arizona.

"I heard beaucoup stories. He would throw batons at the kids." No matter: "Everyone would come up later and say, 'This man was the greatest musician.'"

Many of Surra's students went on to careers with top bands, including the United States Marine Band. The discipline must have worked.

"This typifies my father," Jerry Surra says. "Every summer he would go to the Erie County Fair with his band. One kid walked up in a baseball uniform. My father said, 'You're going to help load the bus.' He said, 'No, I'm playing baseball.'

"My dad was quiet. Then he told the boy, 'You're not in the band anymore. You didn't have the courtesy to load the bus because you were playing baseball.' "

The tale had a twist.

"A few years after my father died, the doorbell rang," Jerry Surra recalls. There was a young man standing there, a tall man. He said, 'Can I speak to your mother?'

"He looked at her and said, 'I was the kid who wouldn't load the bus that day at the fair. I regretted that so much.' He said, 'He was the greatest band leader I ever had.' "

>Soul-searching on Hertel

Surra was the first instructor and conductor of the now-legendary American Legion Band of the Tonawandas. Six years before he died, he became music supervisor of the West Seneca Central High School district.

The family living room was dominated by a piano and also a huge harp, inscribed with the name of its former owner, a vaudeville musician. On Saturdays, kids paraded into the house for music lessons.

At the same time, the Surra children never thought their dad was too busy for them. Jerry Surra says his father counseled him once when he was trying to decide where to go to school. "He took me for a walk on Hertel, trying to help me figure it out."

Surra did not pressure his children to go into music.

"He saw so many kids who would come for music lessons and didn't want to do it," says Robert Surra. "His feeling was, if my kids want to study music, fine. Otherwise, I'm not going to force them into it."

Robert Surra became an architect with Foit-Albert Associates, involved in various projects including the Darwin Martin House's gardener's cottage. An older brother, Joseph, 86, is what his brothers describe as "a natural piano player," but worked for Chevrolet.

Jerry Surra had no interest in music -- until, suddenly, he did.

"In 1954, I came down with hepatitis. I was off for a year not doing anything," he says. "All of a sudden I said to my mother, 'I wonder if they have any openings in music at Fredonia [State College].' "

They did. He enrolled.

And to his own surprise, he became the living legacy to the leader of the band.

Jerry Sura moved to Arizona in 1979, but before that, he taught band music at local schools, including Buffalo, West Seneca, Cheektowaga, Warsaw and Mount Mercy Academy.

Last year he, like his father, wrote a march. It was "The Fredonia State Alumni March." He conducted it at Fredonia's commencement.

Back home in Arizona, he thought of revisiting his father's "The Buffalo Evening News March." He began to arrange it for orchestra.

It was then that he learned that he was suffering from throat cancer.

"I've been going through radiation therapy, they seem to think that maybe they've got it close to remission. But..."

His voice, hoarse from treatment, is not sad, just reflective. "The closeness of what happened when my father wrote the march -- and when I sat down to write the arrangement, that I should have the situation like he had..."

He regrets that, because of continuing therapy, he won't be able to come to Buffalo to hear "The Buffalo News March." The piece, to hear him tell it, sounds stunning.

"There's a big fanfare-ish intro, then, before the first strain of the song starts, he put in an eight-measure drum section solo," he says. "Then it goes into Section One, the first melody. It's got a lot of movement. Then the second section features all lower instruments playing a big, heavy, pumping-sounding melody. Then it slows down to where the strings of the orchestra play this beautiful melody that sounds like the queen of England is being led in a procession. In the background we've got flutes playing trills, trumpets playing muted fanfares --"

He laughs, as if aware that he is talking his father's language.

"I said to my wife a few weeks ago, 'You know, I remember my mother coming to some of my concerts. I bet she was just thrilled that someone in the family -- even though all of us were accomplished -- someone went into band music and school music like her husband.

"At least I gave her that thrill."

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Preview

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra present "Pops Showstoppers" at 8 p.m. Saturday, Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle. Tickets, $25-$72; 885-5000 or www.bpo.org.