Community band president marks 2 decades and counting

On March 21, 1947, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, which began, “No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice. …”

Apparently, the voting members of the Bartlett Community Concert Band (BCCB) aren’t aware of this law. At the end of last year’s season, they re-elected their president.

For the 20th year in a row.

Bartlett resident Chris Thorne, 56, joined the band in 1993, just two years after it was formed. He took on its presidency in January 1996 and has held the job ever since.

He doesn’t get paid. It takes tremendous dedication and countless hours of behind-the-scenes effort.

So why does he do it? Short answer: It’s all about the music.

“I keep taking on the job of being the president of the band because of the joy I get giving the gift of music to so many people,” he said. “The joy of seeing our members playing great music with a dynamic community band.”

Besides his being the commander-in-chief, when the baton is raised at a rehearsal or concert you’ll find Thorne sitting in the first clarinet’s chair doing what he loves most — playing music.

But make no mistake: He’s not first chair because he’s president. He began playing in the seventh grade at Kingsbury Junior High in Memphis. Two years later he was first chair, first seat in the All City Memphis Honor Band.

In high school he made the All-West Tennessee Honor Band for three straight years.

After high school, however, he put his clarinet away and went to work. Still, he never lost the fever, or his passion, to play.

“Those of us who played in high school and loved it, but stopped playing after school, still have that need in your heart to play. Something is missing in your life without it.”

When he first heard about the BCCB, he was hesitant.

“It took me a year before I decided I was going to try it out. I can remember the first night I was at practice. I was really nervous. But when the band started playing it was like something came back in my life. Something I loved and missed for so long was back,” Thorne said. “It was music.”

Thorne was elected vice-president in 1995. The rest, of course, is community band history. And while Thorne considers his first couple of years as president a learning curve, he has since settled in and found his niche.

“It took me a few years to find what worked for me. And I still have doubts about my decisions at times. I try to do my best to make this band the best it can be and for the members to enjoy their experience of being a part of the band.”

However, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who doubts Thorne’s ability. Dr. Rhendle Millen, the BCCB conductor since 2002, is a huge fan.

“I truly believe that Chris is the heart and soul of the Bartlett Community Concert Band,” he said. “Keeping a volunteer community arts organization of any kind going for any length of time can be a herculean task, and the longevity and any successes we in the Bartlett Community Band have enjoyed are unquestionably due in a very large part to Chris. He is truly one of the best natural leaders I have ever known.”

Millen also understands the hard work that goes into Thorne being “the prez.”

“Chris basically does everything. He books concerts, hauls and sets up equipment, runs the board meetings. His dedication, loyalty and vision is obvious and sincere. Chris is also a visionary. He is continually looking for ways to make the band more fun, interesting and just plain better.”

Longtime board member and trumpeter David Wiemar agrees.

“In the years that Chris has been band president, he has managed to keep the band in a positive attitude, bringing in new members and playing more gigs every year. He works hard at keeping us all happy. A hard job.”

Debbie Gelineau, Bartlett director of community relations, has worked with Thorne many times during his tenure, booking the band for city events.

“Over the years it has been my pleasure working with Chris and the band. He has always been willing to help in any way he can. I look forward to many more great years,” she said.

It will likely be many more years. Despite two decades of holding the top job, Thorne still finds reasons to continue.

“First, the music. I never get tired of playing my clarinet,” he said. “Second, the members. I feel blessed to be associated with so many great musicians. And I hope the band will continue to grow and give the citizens of the Mid-South a venue to play music.”

And while Thorne’s wife, Sue, may be his first love, she understands that music and the BCCB run a close second.

“Chris takes his role as president very seriously,” she said. “His love of music and the respect for the musicians he plays with has kept him in this role for 20 years, and I will not be surprised if it keeps him there a while longer.”

How much longer? Thorne says he knows when he’ll finally pass the baton.

“If I get to the point where it’s not any fun, that will be the time for me to step down,” Thorne said. All I want is the best for the BCCB.”

Written by Rick Jacobs, special to the Express. Contact him at