Music News & Reviews

Cal Poly alumni band gears up for 50th anniversary in SLO

The Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band performs during its 47th reunion at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo in 2014.
The Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band performs during its 47th reunion at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo in 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The first time Atascadero resident Bob Alberti performed with the Cal Poly Collegians, he was a bright-eyed college freshman.

“It was great to be part of that group,” said Alberti, who joined the group in 1955 at age 18. “It just looked like a terrific chance to advance myself musically and to have some fun. … When the opportunity came, I said, ‘You bet. I’m in.’ 

Six decades later, Alberti still enjoys picking up his trombone to play with other former Collegians.

The Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band returns Saturday to the Madonna Inn Ballroom in San Luis Obispo for its annual reunion. About 20 musicians — all of them veterans of Cal Poly’s big band orchestra — will celebrate the swinging sounds of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s with a free program that includes hits by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

They’ll be joined in concert by Cal Poly music major and bassist Troy Hanson, a Collegians’ Jazz Scholarship recipient.

“It’s a gathering of people who are in many ways like-minded. They all have an appreciation for this kind of music, this kind of dancing,” said Alberti, adding that his and his band mates’ enjoyment is “doubled when we get out there and play for people who enjoy it that much.”

The Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band celebrates its golden anniversary next year, but the roots of the group go back further than that.

The brainchild of the founder of Cal Poly’s music department — Harold P. Davidson, affectionately known as “Davy” — the Cal Poly Collegians was created in 1937 as a dance orchestra.

The all-student big band provided the soundtrack for countless school gatherings and community events, and it toured California regularly. It offered a social outlet for like-minded music lovers.

As proof of the Collegians’ musical prowess, Alberti mentioned the time the band cheekily filled in for Les Brown & His Band of Renown, hired to play the 1949 Poly Royal Coronation Ball at Camp San Luis Obispo.

“When the guys in the Les Brown band took a break, the Collegians jumped up there … and played a couple Les Brown charts,” which they had rigorously rehearsed, Alberti said. “The band was impressed. Les Brown was impressed. And the students in the audience, of course, were impressed.”

Clifton Swanson, a Cal Poly professor emeritus, said the Collegians enjoyed a friendly rivalry with another university ensemble started by Davidson, the Men’s Glee Club. Members of both groups were prone to playing pranks on one another — and on their shared conductor.

Once, during a joint concert at Fresno State University in 1960, the Collegians slipped a note in the program instructing the audience not to applaud during the Glee Club’s set, allegedly because the performance was being recorded. Song after song was followed by total silence.

“Finally (Davidson) turned around and scolded the audience for lack of appreciation and manners,” Swanson said. “People in the audience said, ‘We were told not to.’ 

Another time, Collegians absconded with Davidson’s just-purchased sports car, a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and presented it to him as a gift during their annual home concert at the now-demolished San Luis Obispo High School auditorium.

“They carried it literally across the street and put it on stage and drew the curtains,” Swanson said with a chuckle. “The audience was astounded, and Davy was nonplussed.”

“It was a very playful group,” said Swanson, who co-founded the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival (now known as Festival Mozaic) and served as music director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony for more than a decade. “They were young and frisky and very good friends with each other.”

Alberti, who spent two years playing with the Collegians, said he remembered a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

“I learned so much — not just about music, but about life — and had some academic help,” he said.

One band mate, he added, even helped him decipher his upper-division math class.

The Collegians acquired a new name, the University Jazz Band, in the ’70s. But the legendary camaraderie of the original group has lived on in the form of annual reunions.

Rich Andersen, a Collegians alumnus, started the tradition in 1966, holding yearly gatherings at his house in Fresno. The musicians started meeting in San Luis Obispo in the mid-1980s and made the Madonna Inn their Central Coast home base in 1999.

Alberti credited the late George Beatie, then a Cal Poly music professor, with persuading him to join the Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band in 1986. (Coincidentally, it was Beatie who invited the group to begin rehearsing on campus, Swanson said.)

Even though he recognized only one band member from his own days with the Collegians, “I felt part of the group so quickly,” said Alberti, a retired psychologist, publisher and Cal Poly faculty member.

The Collegians alumni band currently has about 50 people on its active roster, most of them retirees in fields ranging from engineering to architecture to teaching, Alberti said. Although the majority of those musicians live in California, others live in Arizona, Oregon, Massachusetts and Quebec, Canada.

They travel to San Luis Obispo once a year to rehearse and perform the big band standards they once played as Collegians.

Some band members are active musicians the rest of the year — such as Redding resident Steve Fischer, who heads the Straight Ahead Big Band.

Others play less often, said Alberti, who performed with the Atascadero Community Band for 20 years before retiring.

Participating in the Collegians alumni band “has helped to keep my horn out of the case and on the (music) stand,” Alberti said. “Without that, it would probably spend a lot of time in the closet.”

He said he cherishes the friendships he’s formed through the alumni group as much as the music.

For instance, he and three other band mates — all amateur radio operators — chat every Monday morning over the airwaves.

Lately, they’ve been discussing ways to honor Davidson, who headed the Cal Poly’s music department from 1936 to 1973. (Davidson also composed the university’s alma mater, “All Hail Green and Gold” and the traditional fight song, “Ride High You Mustangs.”)

During this year’s reunion, the Collegians alumni band will present Cal Poly with two commemorative plaques that will grace the interior of the Davidson Music Building, named for the administrator.

Swanson praised the Collegians alumni band, which established the Collegians’ Jazz Scholarship program for students in 2000, as “symbolic of the nature of Cal Poly, the congeniality of the college in general.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of pride in alumni activity (here),” Swanson said. “This is part of that. This is one of the campus legends that few public schools manage to cultivate.”

Maintaining that legacy is easy, Alberti said, when the band members get so much out of it.

“It’s just plain so much fun. The music is fun. The dancing is fun. The Madonna Inn makes the environment fun,” he said. “ ‘Fun’ is the best way I can sum it up.”

Cal Poly Collegians Alumni Big Band

When: 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo

How much: Free

More information: 805-756-2406 or www.cpcollegiansalumni.com

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