Phillips Brothers: Musicians of Distinction

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Gilmore L. Phillips, ca. 1900
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

“The music was exceptionally fine...”

Of all the dance orchestras and concert ensembles that Kalamazoo produced during the 19th century, the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra was among the busiest... and perhaps the best. Five talented violinists; Joseph, Joshua, Sylvester, Albert and Gilmore Phillips shared a seemingly equal affinity for classical and popular music, and were some of the community’s most highly respected musicians and society members. The brothers all worked at other jobs by day, but when social, religious, political or cultural gatherings called, the sweet strains of the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra “brought all upon the ball room floor.”

The Phillips Family

H. Wesley Phillips (born about 1829) and his wife, Virginia Harris Phillips (born 19 April 1833, daughter of Joseph “FreeJoe” Harris and Fannie Harris), moved from Vernon, Indiana, to Michigan in September 1862 and bought a farm seven miles west of Kalamazoo in Oshtemo Township where they were among the community’s first African American residents. Together, the couple raised eleven children. (A twelfth child, a son, died soon after birth.)

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Virginia and Wesley Phillips
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Children of Virginia and Wesley Phillips

  • Joseph F. (born 5 January 1851)
  • Joshua W. (born 28 April 1853)
  • Sylvester Crayton (born 17 April 1855)
  • Martha Maria (born 15 January 1857)
  • Gilmore L. (born 10 August 1862)
  • Fannie (born 3 August 1864)
  • Albert J. (born 17 October 1866)
  • Ida N. (born 20 October 1868)
  • Laura Ellen (born 16 September 1871)
  • Carrie L. (born 14 June 1873)
  • Susan A. (born 17 August 1875)
  • Baby Boy (born 23 May 1878)

 

Virginia Phillips died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1878, just a week after her (unnamed) three-day-old son. Wesley Phillips remained a lifelong farmer until his death in 1894, while the Phillips children went on to become successful musicians and business professionals. The sons formed the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra, one of the leading musical organizations of its time in Kalamazoo. Martha Phillips married and became a dressmaker with an interest in real estate; Ida was a beautician and a business owner; Susan, Carrie, and Laura became successful homemakers. Fannie later married Albert White, the celebrated Kalamazoo contractor, and was active in the Civic Improvement League. Fannie joined the brothers’ orchestra on occasion as a vocalist.

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Oshtemo Township plat map, ca. 1890, showing the Phillips farm on West Main St. (M-43) near 3rd St.
Local History Room

Joseph F. Phillips (1851-1921)

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Joseph F. Phillips
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

The eldest of the Phillips children, Joseph F. Phillips (born 5 January 1851) was a boy of twelve when his family moved to Michigan and established the family farm in Oshtemo. By 1871, Joe was living in the village of Kalamazoo and working as a carpenter. In 1877, he married Miss Mary F. Burton and worked as a yardman at the Kalamazoo House, and later as a coachman.

In addition to playing music with his brothers, Joe Phillips was Kalamazoo’s only practicing viola player, and thus had the opportunity to work as a “hired hand” with many of the city’s leading orchestras. Joe performed extensively with the Academy of Music Orchestra, and was a member of George Pfeiffer’s popular dance orchestra for a time.

Kalamazoo College Orchestra (1881)

By the spring of 1881, Joe Phillips had become an accomplished tenor singer and violinist, and was playing double bass with Professor N. P. Stanton’s newly formed Kalamazoo College Orchestra. With assistance from two local professionals, John H. Everard and John Lounsbury, the original 21-piece orchestra made its public debut with performances at the 1881 Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo High School commencement exercises. The orchestra had expanded to forty members when it gave its initial concert at the First Baptist Church in December.

“Those who are well posted in music and musical matters say the music was wonderfully good, for the amount of practice the organization has had, and even a credit to any orchestra.”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 June 1881

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Kalamazoo College Orchestra, ca. 1881 (Joe Phillips back row, far right)
Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 November 1921

Madam Jannasch-Shortt’s Orchestra (ca. 1887)

“Mrs. Shortt’s orchestra does not play dancing music but only parlor music...”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 11 June 1887

By June 1887, Joseph Phillips and his brother, Sylvester, were part of Madam Jannasch-Shortt’s advanced orchestral instrumentation class and were performing with her twenty piece orchestra. Shortt, a prominent—though somewhat eccentric—Kalamazoo violin and music teacher, was well known throughout her forty-plus year career for providing instruction for many of the community’s up-and-coming musicians. Shortt, however, made it clear that her orchestra was not a dance orchestra, but instead a group that focused on sophisticated repertoire.

Senator Francis Stockbridge

About 1887, Joseph Phillips began working as a caretaker and servant for Senator Francis Stockbridge in Kalamazoo. After the senator’s death in 1894, Joe continued to serve as a caretaker for Stockbridge’s stately home on Carmel Street. Joe was a highly respected member of the community and as a great lover of music; he conducted the choir at Second Baptist Church for many years. “His work in the churches with the young lovers of music was especially marked as successful” (Gazette). Joseph Phillips passed away in March 1921 at age 70. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

Joshua W. Phillips (1853-1937)

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Joshua W. Phillips
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Joshua W. Phillips, born in Indiana on 28 April 1853, was the second child of Virginia and Wesley Phillips. By 1876, Joshua was living on Water Street in the village of Kalamazoo and working as a barber, a trade he would continue throughout his lifetime. In 1884, Joshua married Martha C. Wilson, and began working for George W. Stafford as a barber. In September 1900, Josh left Stafford’s Burdick Street shop to become the full-time barber at the Michigan Asylum for the Insane.

An accomplished violinist with a smooth baritone voice, Josh Phillips’ violin solos were featured many times during programs at Second Baptist Church and his baritone vocal solos were often a highlight of community programs. Joshua Phillips passed away in May 1937 at the age of 84. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

Sylvester Crayton Phillips (1855-1899)

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Sylvester C. Phillips
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

The third Phillips child, Sylvester C. Phillips, was born 17 April 1855 in Indiana. By 1886, he too was living in the village of Kalamazoo, where he worked as a drayman (delivery driver). By 1899, Sylvester was working for the Desenberg & Co. grocers with his younger brother, Gil. He later worked as a carpenter and was employed by the Clarage Fan Company in Kalamazoo for several years.

Sylvester was bicyclist, a bass violin player and a bass vocalist (his favorite song was “Sleeper in the Down”), and served as musical director at Second Baptist Church. His wife, Catherine (Wilson), whom he married in September 1897, passed away just seventeen months later at the age of 24. Sylvester was devastated by the sudden loss, but was later remarried to Anna Daley in January 1900. Sylvester Phillips died 18 August 1919, and was buried at Riverside Cemetery.

Gilmore L. Phillips (1862-1938)

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Gilmore L. Phillips
Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Gilmore L. Phillips, the fifth child of Virginia and Wesley Phillips, was born 10 August 1862 in Indiana. At the age of 18, Gil Phillips left the farm and began attending night classes at Parsons Business School in Kalamazoo. By day, he worked as a porter, shipping clerk, and later a foreman at Desenberg’s Wholesale Grocery. While there, he and his brother, Sylvester, would have undoubtedly become acquainted with fellow musician, Edward B. Desenberg. The Phillips brothers would later share the stage with Desenberg on many occasions as musicians and performers.

Eliza Dean Phillips

In 1887, Gilmore Phillips married Miss Eliza Dean Proctor (born Eliza D. Wilson), a South Carolina native. Eliza Dean Phillips was a gifted soprano who often added vocal accompaniment to the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra performances.

“Mrs. Dean Phillips voiced in strains of enchanting harmony ‘Seek ye the Lord’ which thrilled the congregation, richly meriting the encore which was demanded by rapturous applause...”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 September 1889

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Eliza Dean Phillips

The couple became successful property owners and received high praise in the 1919 Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, an early salute to African-American business owners and entrepreneurs. Together, they spearheaded many local society events and led the local Progressive Legion Society, an African American organization brought about for “the promotion of brotherly feeling and the advancement of social intercourse.” Dean Phillips passed away on 19 November 1930 at Borgess Hospital.

Gilmore Phillips later became a guard at the City National Bank (Kalamazoo-City Savings Bank) in charge of the safety deposit vaults, where he remained until late in life. A great lover of music, he managed the Phillips Brothers Orchestra, played violin, and assisted with the choir at Second Baptist Church. He became church music director in June 1900, and was a founding member of C. Z. Bronson’s Symphony Orchestra and E. C. McElhany’s Philharmonic Orchestra, both 1890s forerunners of today’s Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Gilmore Phillips died at his home in 1938 at the age of 75. He is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

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Property owned by Gilmore L. Phillips, and Phillips’ residence, 1915
Western Michigan University

Albert J. Phillips

Born on the family farm in Kalamazoo on 17 October 1866, Albert Phillips was the youngest of the Phillips sons, and a violin player, as well. Albert evidently left Kalamazoo at a fairly young age and spent much of his life training race horses in Kentucky and Indiana. Albert Phillips died on 3 December 1923. His last known residence was in Rushville, Indiana (1921), but his place of burial is not known.

Phillips Brothers Orchestra (1880-1893)

“The Phillips’ brothers entertained the audience with several choice string quartettes, which were executed finely.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 1 May 1885

 

“The Phillips Bros., upon the violins, viola and cello, rendered pleasing music...”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 December 1886

During the 1880s, the Phillips sons were still working the wheat fields on the family farm in Oshtemo. In their spare time, however, the oldest four brothers; Gilmore, Sylvester, Joseph and Joshua, had formed a string quartet and were performing for occasional church events and community programs.

Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra (ca. 1886)

  • Gilmore L. Phillips, violin
  • Sylvester C. Phillips, violin and vocals
  • Joseph F. Phillips, violin, viola and vocals
  • Joshua W. Phillips, bass violin and vocals

“Pleasing Music”

From early 1880, the Phillips brothers were performing musical programs in many of the local churches and in surrounding communities, including Almena, Oshtemo and Portage. The brothers performed a “pleasing melody” for a holiday program at Second Baptist Church in December 1886, and by 1887, had begun holding midwinter dance parties at the Masonic.

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Sylvester Crayton Phillips
H 325.26 W746 

By 1890, the Phillips brothers had expanded their orchestra to feature anywhere from six to ten musicians, and were performing throughout West Michigan. Crowds consistently filled ballrooms and social parties throughout the 1890s for a chance to dance to the immensely popular orchestra, yet the brothers themselves were well educated with sophisticated repertoire. As an aside, they often performed as a concert orchestra and were included in a variety of local events. They also took part in numerous programs of classical and sacred music at many of the local churches.

While many of their performances were clearly directed toward the growing African American community, the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra remained extremely popular among Kalamazoo’s general population. The Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra became a popular attraction at Lake View Park on Woods Lake during the summers of 1893 and 1895, and provided special musical programs during Rev. Thomas Barr’s “Lake View” services at First Congregational Church throughout the winter months.

Philharmonic Orchestra (1894-1895)

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Gilmore Phillips, ca. 1915
Western Michigan University

In April 1894, two essentially separate concert orchestras were formed in Kalamazoo; C. Z. Bronson’s Symphony Orchestra, and E. C. McElhany’s Philharmonic Orchestra. Gilmore Phillips was a founding member of Bronson’s Symphony (ca. 1894), and a year later, joined his brothers Sylvester and Joseph at the core of McElhany’s Philharmonic.

In addition to the Phillips brothers, the Philharmonic Orchestra included other well known local musicians, many of whom are believed to have been African American. The Philharmonic was initially directed by First Presbyterian Church organist George W. Klock, and included Eugene C. McElhany, violinist and director of the Academy of Music Orchestra (McElhany later took over as director of the Philharmonic); and Oscar G. Clement, a violinist, as well, and popular local orchestra leader. Frank Wilson, a musician, actor and manager of Kalamazoo’s predominantly African-American Harmonic Brass Band, signed on to manage the Philharmonic, while William Marchant from White’s Military Band was enlisted as the musical director and librarian.

The first advertised public performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra was a “grand concert” at the YMCA auditorium on 9 January 1895. The orchestra performed several times throughout the year until early 1896.

Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra (1894-1914)

“There will be a grand musical concert at the Second Baptist church, Thursday evening, May 11, under the auspices of Phillips brothers famous orchestra, assisted by Mr. Desenberg with is shadowgraph. This entertainment promises to be one of the best indoor concerts of the season.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 May 1899

August 1894 saw the Phillips Orchestra performing for Governor John T. Rich with more than three thousand onlookers during the afternoon exercises of a massive Sunday school rally in Kalamazoo. For a November 1895 benefit concert in West Cooper Township, the Phillips brothers were joined by former Symphony Orchestra members Fred Davis (cornet) and C. Z. Bronson (clarinet).

As an example of the brothers’ repertoire at the time, a program given at Turn Verein Hall in February 1897 featured the following selections by the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra:

  • “American Cadet March,” Robert Browne Hall
  • “Medley on National Airs,” E. Beyer
  • “Promenade Waltz,” Gunzel
  • “The National Patrol,” Voelker
  • “Chicago Post March,” Ellis Brooks
  • “Sounds from the Sunny South,” J. Tenneau
  • “Trap Medley,” Humphrey
  • “Donauwellen Waltz,” Ion Ivanovici
  • “War Songs of the Boys in Blue,” L. P. Laurendeau
  • “Adlake March,” Ellis Brooks

In 1901, the Phillips Brothers took part in a First M. E. Church banquet that included then Governor Aaron T. Bliss and an audience of more than two hundred. A year later, the six-piece Phillips Orchestra “furnished a long list of charming dances” for a party of some seventy-five invited guests at Brook Farm.

“Phillips Bros. Orchestra furnished delightful music.”

The Phillips brothers continued to perform concert and social music in and around Kalamazoo well into the nineteen teens, though its popularity as a dance orchestra appears to have peaked soon after the turn of the twentieth century. The Progressive Legion Club held frequent events, for which the Phillips family members always provided ample vocal and instrumental entertainment, while the various church socials, weddings and private parties managed to keep the brothers’ social calendars filled.

After more than three decades of performing, a November 1913 benefit concert for the North Side Improvement Association proved that the Phillips Brothers’ Orchestra hadn’t lost touch with current repertoire. The orchestra featured timely renditions of Rose De Haven’s Carolina Chimes (1904), Von Tilzer’s Medley Overture (ca. 1912), Piccalilli Rag (1912) by George A. Reeg, Jr., and Chas. L. Johnson’s Dream Days (1913).

Continuing Research

Like many in our “All About Kalamazoo History” series, this article is by no means a definitive study but rather a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.

 

Sources

Books

The Search for FreeJoe  

  • Lacey, Earnest Edward.
  • 1999
  • b18370586~S15 (MeLCat)

The Rural Black Heritage Between Chicago and Detroit, 1850-1929

Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress 

The Progression of the Race in the United States and Canada

  • Buck, Rev. D. D. (Daniel Dana).
  • 1907
  • b12664368~S15 (MeLCat)

Articles

Obituary: Sylvester C. Phillips

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 August 1919, p. 8

“Joseph F. Phillips, 70, Musician, Dies”

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 21 March 1921, p. 11

Obituary: Joseph F. Phillips

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 March 1921, p. 15

“Mr. Joseph F. Phillips...” 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 27 March 1921, p. 22

“Gilmore Phillips Expires at Home” 

  • Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 January 1938, p. 15

Websites

Local History Room Files

History Room: Kalamazoo Biography Scrapbook P1:114.

History Room Subject File: Music.

History Room Name File: Phillips, Gilmore L.

Learn More

Related reading from Kalamazoo Public Library’s Local History essays.