Courtland Freese, one of four brothers who introduced swing music here, has joined his bandmates on another stage 

  • The Freese brothers George, Courtland, Bill, Jack hold their instruments. Courtesy of the Freese family

  • Courtland Freese (left) plays the trumpet with his brother Jack on the trombone.

  • Courtland’s band “Frankie Freese and His Orchestra.” Courtland is pictured in the black sport coat in the back. —Courtesy of the Freese family

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/28/2021 4:11:49 PM

The entertainment in Music Heaven got a lot hotter this month, if you like the big band sounds of the 1940s.

Courtland Freese, who died on Dec. 12 at the age of 93, was the final surviving brother of a unique musical institution that’s still thriving today, more than eight decades after the Freese boys brought swing music live to the Granite State, and years after all four actually played together.

For anyone familiar with the Freese Brothers Big Band, born in Pittsfield in 1982, a clear, nostalgic snapshot appears, now that Courtland has passed and joined his bandmates.

Jack and Bill are in the front row on sax, George and Courtland behind them on trumpet, all dressed in white button-down shirts and dark ties, playing with their 20-piece brass band, cheeks puffing and toes tapping, filling the air with nostalgia, the sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey.

Even the Angels are tapping their toes and waving their wings.

The band lives on down here as well, strong and polished, but Courtland, part of the core and soul of this entity, was the final link to the original Fab Four, and the death of the final surviving member resonated with area lovers of this sort of music.

“He was the last of the four, so that’s a pretty significant event in our hearts and minds,” said longtime band member and Concord attorney Peter Imse. “They were the spirit of the band.”

Imse goes way back, to the Freese brothers’ early gigs of the early 1980s. By then, they had been belting out tunes for decades, starting with a family troupe called the Homespun Broadcasters. They even had their own small bus, with instruments piled on top.

But this was no Partridge Family phony-baloney TV show about a band touring and singing its way through life.

The brothers played in high school and college and while in the military. They played together and they played in various groups.

The family was certainly well known for founding Globe Manufacturing – the largest maker of protective clothing for firefighters in the country, sold by the family five years ago – in the 19th century and bringing it to Pittsfield.

But the music coming from the brothers had its share of the spotlight as well.

They nailed the swing sounds of the 1940s that, in those days, mixed with black-and-white images of a world at war. It’s nearly impossible to revisit this local treasure without Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” popping into your head.

They expanded into different directions, leading other bands, then returned to the brotherhood and the chemistry that had been created through the decades.

By 1982, they formed their final act, the Freese Brothers Big Band and set out recruiting. Dr. Jack Freese, a dentist who died in 2014 at the age of 92, made his pitch to patients, simply asking if they played an instrument.

“Someone could be in the chair and Jack could be probing their mouth and he’d ask them,” Imse said. “He was very persuasive.”

Imse, in fact, was corraled by Dr. Jack at a coffee shop. He dusted off his old sax, unused in 10 years. Now, he cooks with the band.

They brought in old veteran musicians and high school kids. They practiced all the time. They spread the Gospel of Swing Music, played at the presidential Ballroom at the Balsams Grand Resort and the scenic bandstands at Alton Bay.

They charged money and gave it to high school students as part of a scholarship program. And they did more.

David Tirrell Wysocki plays the tenor sax in the band. He said the brothers always made sure to create a team environment. Family feelings.

“The four of them were not only leaders and inspirational,” Tirrell Wysocki said,” “but they were the support group and they were the cheerleaders and the role models, and although they were the founders of the band, they were not the directors of the band.”

“That’s what they gave us,” Tirrell Wysocki continued. “The real joy of sitting together and making music.”

Courtland was a detail-oriented individual. Hands-on as well. He used to walk the floor at his manufacturing plant in Pittsfield, mixing with the employees, raising morale, leading from downstairs, as well as up.

He was laser-focused, always finishing what he started, at work and with the band, but a smile was never far away.

The brothers, all four, last played together in the mid-1980s. Bill died in ‘85. That’s when they created the educational scholarship, which to this date has raised about $80,000.

George was 77 when he passed in 1997. Jack, the dentist, died in ‘14, at 92. And then there was one.

Courtland’s grandson, Cody Herrick, 27, was not born when Great Uncle Bill died. He was too young to recall Great Uncle George. He Recalls Jack and grew particularly close to the man the grandkids called Papa.

And, of course, Herrick played an instrument. The trumpet, for about 15 years. He played with his cousins at the family house on Crystal Lake in Gilmanton. Downstairs in the finished basement.

Papa was the conductor.

“I was always amazed by the number of instruments they could play, their overall musical talent,” said Cody, who lives in Bow. “I’d go see him in the morning and he’d be singing a song he just made up. Everything about him was musical.”

Courtland remained active and sharp, only slowing down recently. Covid, of course, complicated everything. His wife, Shirley, could not be reached for comment.

Research shows that the brothers hadn’t played together in 35 years. Not the four of them. But the other three had a 15-year ride, and together, all four represented the start of something different that continues to this day.

The Freese Brothers Big Band has a gig on New Year’s Eve at LaBelle Winery in Derry. Their schedule, in fact, is full.

They still play in Wolfeboro, near Crystal Lake, and it wasn’t too long ago that Courtland paid a visit to hear and see what he had created.

“He’d show up at a place and it was great to see him,” Imse said. “You would see him in the audience, smiling away.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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