in the New York Staff Band
It’s been 33 years since Lori Jackson Laidlaw and Lauren Garell became the first women members of the New York Staff Band (NYSB). Both said they were proud and honored by the distinction, but they also knew there were other talented women before them.
Laidlaw, now a Salvation Army major in Levittown, Pa., said she is pleased today to see several women in the band.
“There were many women prior to me who were good enough players to have been in the band,” Laidlaw says. “I lament that they didn’t get that opportunity. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Garell agreed, adding, “I’m proud that I was in the band. It’s a major accomplishment for anyone—male or female. I don’t think having women in the band is special anymore. When it was just two of us, people stopped and looked. It’s becoming commonplace.”
Both women came aboard in the fall of 1986 under Bandmaster Brian Bowen. The book The Proclaimers: A History of the New York Staff Band 1887–2007 dedicates several pages to the unexpected move, calling the NYSB “one of the last bastions of all–male comradeship.”
The Chicago Staff Band had accepted women, but few other Army brass bands in North America had followed its lead.
Laidlaw said she was contacted in the summer of 1986 by Colonel Edward Fritz, the band’s executive officer, who asked her to pray about joining the band. She was only 19. If she accepted, the band would also bring on then–Captain Garell.
“I think the band was at a point where they needed to consider women,” Garell recalls. “It wasn’t the 1800s or early 1900s anymore. There were many fine women players. I just happened to be in the New York area. The bandmaster needed players.”
Garell, who played the alto horn, said some of the bandsmen went out of their way to help the women feel welcome, but not everyone was happy with the move.
“There definitely was some resistance,” Garell said.
On the road, the women were often forced to find their own changing rooms.
“Lori and I usually went to the bathroom. No big deal,” Garell says.
The Proclaimers includes several anecdotes from the women about their early days with the band.
Laidlaw, who played cornet in the band from 1986 to 1997 and again from 2010 to 2015, said there were many “sanctifying moments” for her.
“Just one example would be during the middle of a piece called ‘Divine Communion,’ the chorus was ‘Sweet Will of God’ and the solo cornet player sitting next to me put his horn down and began to weep. God spoke to me in such a powerful way, asking me ‘Lori, are you wholly lost in me?’
“I first learned and witnessed the universality of the Gospel as we traveled and worshipped with fellow believers and Salvationists around the world. In Korea, as we played an arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace,’ a North Korean soldier put his rifle down and stood at attention until the end of the piece, at which time, he picked his rifle back up. This was such a powerful moment for me.”
Both Laidlaw and Garell were heavily influenced by their parents and family when it came to music.
Laidlaw was a third–generation member on both sides. Both of her grandfathers, Samuel Maginnis and Frederick Jackson, played in the NYSB, as did her father, Frederick Jackson II, and her son, Caleb, a fourth-generation member.
Laidlaw said her father knew the sentiment in the band against women and urged her not to join.
“He told me, ‘If you’re going to do this, then you need to be the hardest worker in terms of loading and unloading the band truck, make sure you can play your part, keep your head down, and make sure you’re the best possible member that you can be.’ So, I tried to do that,” Laidlaw said. “I tried not to be a problem or a prima donna or a princess.”
Meanwhile, Garell’s presence in the band was a source of immense pride for her parents, Majors Laurence and Phyllis Garrell, who would often drive hundreds of miles to see their daughter perform.
Garell said she was unaware of the history she and Laidlaw were making at the time. She only knew that she had pleased her father, who was a good bandsman, but never got in the NYSB.
“I don’t think I was thinking of it in terms of the history at the time,” she said. “I know I was thinking how proud I had finally made my parents. They were proud when I became an officer, but my Dad had always been a huge band enthusiast. He put an instrument in my hand.”
Garell said her favorite part of seeing the band today is when they ask former members to stand.
“I am extremely proud to have been in that group and to develop so many unique friendships,” she said. “The band is a blessing. It’s hard work.”
Garell and Laidlaw got to travel the world and enjoyed the camaraderie.
“I enjoyed playing music that was challenging to me,” Garell said. “I enjoyed the mentorship from bandsmen. They were some of the greatest days of my life. I saw places I never, ever would have been able to see.
“For me, it wasn’t about us, it was about who we reached. It was about what the crowd got from our performance.”
by Robert Mitchell