It has been more than eighty years since a group of men came together on a wintry February evening on Vesey Street to form a new cultural organization which they called the Down Town Glee Club. The meeting had been arranged by two young men who had served aboard the same ship while in the U.S. Navy.
Channing Lefebvre and Arthur Schwartz would later recall talking about forming such an enterprise while standing at the ship’s starboard rail somewhere in the cold North Atlantic. Channing became the club’s first conductor, and Arthur its first president. Over a period of several weeks, the singers met every Wednesday night, rehearsing a varied program with the help of a twenty-four year old accompanist, George Mead. By the date of the concert, May 12, 1927, more than one-hundred men joined to perform in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt. The concert was a huge success by all accounts, and the Down Town Glee Club was well on its way to becoming a well respected member of New York’s music community.
The club continues to present two concerts each year – one in the winter and one in the spring. In addition, it has always performed other special concerts. In recent years the concerts have been held in St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway, not more than a block from where it all began. There are very few male glee clubs performing today. They represent a somewhat unique sound compared to the most mixed groups that abound. Popular music changed a good deal beginning in the second half of the last century. Glee club music will typically include a wide array of songs – Broadway, sacred, folk, standards, as well as more traditional choral music that’s been around for a long time.
After a lapse of some years, composers and arrangers have again begun to pay more attention to four-part male harmony.
The Down Town Glee Club, having survived thus far in its long fight for survival, is now enjoying a modest resurgence and is attracting new singers and a broader audience for the first time in years.
– Gerald Osterberg