Ellis L. Brooks (1848-1920) was a trombonist, composer and popular bandleader with strong ties to West Michigan. Brooks directed famous bands in New York and Chicago during the late nineteenth century, and was ranked among contemporaries like Frederick Neil Innes, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and John Philip Sousa, both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim.
Brooks continued to maintain extremely popular bands across the country through the nineteen-teens, and employed many prominent West Michigan musicians, including Chester Z. Bronson, William S. Bronson, George Balcom and John Vleiken (of Kalamazoo), Frank Holton and Gardell Simons (both world-renowned trombonists from Allegan), and countless others.
Dunstable Cornet Band
Born in Massachusetts about 1848, Ellis Brooks spent his childhood with his family in Dunstable, Massachusetts. By 1861, young Brooks was playing trombone in the Dunstable Cornet Band. Brooks’ father built the bandwagon for them.
Brooks’ Famous New York Band
Brooks toured for several years with various stage productions and minstrel companies, including Howard, Langrishe & Carle’s “Black Crook” Company; Sweatnam, Billy Rice & Barney Fagan’s Minstrels; the French Grenadier Military Band; and William Foote’s Millennial Minstrels. Brooks later assumed leadership of the New York Concert Band, which is said to have rivaled the great bands of Innes, Gilmore and Sousa.
Brooks’ band won great acclaim when it was introduced at the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition in 1887. During the wintertime months of the late 1880s and early 1890s, Brooks played at several of the large resorts along the New England coastline, and at least eight consecutive seasons at the historic Ponce de León, Alcazar and Cordova hotels in St. Augustine, Florida. Band members at this time included Frank Holton, Herbert L. Clarke, and Kalamazoo bandsman Chester Z. Bronson, all of whom later joined John Philip Sousa’s New Marine Band in 1892. When Brooks appeared at the 1893 Pittsburgh Exposition, the star soloist with his band was Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, the internationally famous African American singer known as “Black Patti.”
Second Regiment Band, Illinois Volunteer Infantry
In 1893, Brooks succeeded A. F. Weidon as leader of the famous Second Regiment Band of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry in Chicago, where he would continue to receive great acclaim. A crowd of 25,000 was on hand at the Indiana State Fair in September 1894 to witness a 140 piece massed band spectacular featuring Brooks’ Second Regiment Band along with bands from Terre Haute, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.
In December 1895, Brooks’ Second Regiment Band could be heard in concert at Chicago’s finest theaters; the Chicago Opera House, the Columbia Theater, Central Music Hall, the Masonic Temple, and the Auditorium. In January, the band performed afternoon and evening concerts at the Chicago Cycle Show for the thousands who attended. The following May, the band was giving concerts every afternoon, plus Saturday and Sunday matinees, at Chicago’s Ferris Wheel Park on North Clark Street.
In September, Brooks’ Second Regiment Band joined more than 1,000 supporters in serenading Republican presidential candidate William McKinley during part of his “front-porch” campaign in Canton, Ohio. (Brooks’ “Chicago Post March” was said to have been one of President McKinley’s favorites.) To commemorate the occasion, Brooks penned “The Voice of the Buckeye” for McKinley’s 1896 campaign, dedicating the piece “in fond remembrance of the AEolian Silver Cornet Band of the 94th Regiment, O.V.I.” Brooks directed the Chicago Second Regiment Band until May 1898.
“Dixie Queen” March Two-Step by Ellis Brooks (composer), 1900
QRS Arranged Piano Roll #30549 (uncredited arranger) pianola.co.nz
Third Regiment Band, Oregon National Guard
The following year, Brooks was in Portland, Oregon, conducting the 25 member Third Regiment Band of the Oregon National Guard. In February 1900, Brooks led a series of benefit performances carried out over four consecutive evenings that featured Brooks’ composition, “Victories of Old Glory on Land and Sea,” accompanied by stereopticon slides “depicting the life of the soldier and sailor.”
In the fall of 1900, Brooks moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was enlisted to direct the newly formed 40-member Furniture City Band and to head the music publishing division of the J.W. York Band Instrument Company. Brooks met with great success in Grand Rapids, and his performances were typically well attended. During the winter months, Brooks led an annual series of concerts at the Powers Opera House, where he continued to wow audiences with his multimedia epic “Victories of Old Glory in Peace and War” and other favorites. Summertime brought performances at John Ball Park and other summer resort work.
Sousa in Grand Rapids
Shortly before John Philip Sousa’s May 1901 concert in Grand Rapids, Brooks received word that Sousa intended to perform Brooks’ “Forget Me Not Waltz” during his show. Perhaps to smooth the tension over a recruiting dispute a decade earlier (Brooks was upset that Sousa had apparently recruiting members of his band), Sousa invited Brooks to direct the popular number during his performance. Brooks accepted. Sousa’s Band would also make a recording of Brooks’ “Lagrimosa” soon after.
Lyon & Healy
After several seasons with the Furniture City Band, Brooks left Grand Rapids in 1905 and moved back to Chicago to become a manager for Lyon & Healy, a prominent instrument manufacturing and music publishing firm. Unfortunately, Brooks suffered an apparent stroke during summer of 1905, and a second in October, which forced him to resign. Chicago musicians staged a benefit concert for Brooks in November, which featured several famous guest conductors, including Alfred Frederick Weldon, a long-time Chicago band director and composer; Frederick Neil Innes, a former member of Gilmore’s band and one of the most famous bandleaders of his day; Carl Bunge, instructor at the Chicago Conservatory; Jacob F. Hostrawser, director of Chicago’s famous Pullman Band; A. Fischer, and Charles E. Brinley. A commemorative march, “Remembrance,” was penned for the occasion.
Brooks’ Chicago Band
By 1909, Brooks was back on his feet, leading band concerts in Chicago during the summer months and touring the Southwest during winter. In November 1911, Brooks led his 40 piece military band at the opening of the Second Annual Expositon of the Texas Cotton Palace in Waco, Texas. For two straight weeks, Brooks’ band was the chief entertainment and furnished two concerts each day for the estimated 200,000 in attendance.
Ellis Brooks: Composer and Arranger
In addition to his work as a bandleader and orchestra director, Ellis Brooks was a prolific arranger and composer of popular music, marches and semi-classical pieces. He even made a brief foray into ragtime. At one point, Brooks claimed to own the largest collection of music in the country—some 11,500 pieces—spanning more than a century.
The sound of Brooks bands survives today on several recordings from his era, including renditions by Sousa’s Band, the New York Military Band, and Vessella’s Italian Band. A few of Brooks’ compositions also survive as piano rolls, cut during the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed many of Brooks’ works are being performed by brass and marching bands to this day.
“Garden of Roses Waltz.” New York Military Band. Released: 1915
Ellis Brooks (composer)
Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, UC Santa Barbara Library
During the 1912 fall and winter season, Brooks was in Hamilton, New York, directing the Hamilton Military Band. By 1915, Brooks was leading his famous Chicago Band on annual summer tours with Lincoln Chautauqua, performing from Chicago to New Orleans, and all points in between. Brooks was featured as a guest conductor during a February 1915 performance by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and his compositions were performed many times during that organization’s formative years. Brooks’ band also performed for twenty consecutive seasons at the prestigious annual Chicago Auto Show.
In May 1918, Brooks moved to Quincy, Illinois, where he became director of the Illinois State Band. Brooks passed away on 10 November 1920 following a brief illness. He was 72.
- Hazen, Margaret Hindle.
- 789 H429
“Ellis Brooks and his Band”
Ludington Daily News. 12 August 1903, p. 2
“Benefit of Ellis Brooks”
The Music Trade Review. 9 December 1905, p. 45
Jacobs’ Band Monthly. January 1921, p. 6
“Making the Band: The Formation of John Philip Sousa’s Ensemble”
American Music [0734-4392] vol.24, 2006
The Library of Congress: Chronicling America (Newspaper Search)
Old Fulton New York Postcards (Newspaper Search)
Local History Room Files
History Room Subject File: Music.
Related reading from Kalamazoo Public Library’s Local History essays.