Episode 15: Strike up the band, featuring Jerry Bilik

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Episode 15: Jerry Bilik — “Strike up the band”

Hi I’m Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan today.

You may have noticed I’m playing some alternative intro music for this episode of listen in Michigan and it’s an honor of my guest musician, composer, arranger, conductor and Beatles fan extraordinaire Jerry Bilik. Now if you’ve never been a member of the Michigan marching band you may not know Jerry’s name. But if you’ve ever been to a football game at Michigan Stadium ya definitely know his music. Jerry joined the Michigan marching band as a freshman trombone player in the early fifties. He trained under Director William D. Revelli and he worked really closely with Assistant Director of Bands, George Cavender. Jerry was writing and arranging by his sophomore year. And he’s had a long career spanning television, stage and film even the escapades at the Oscars actually. As we head into a new academic year and a fresh season of football at the big house. I thought it’d be fun to get Jerry’s insight into the enduring magic of the Michigan marching band currently under the direction of John Pasquale. Jerry’s got some great stories vivid memories dating back many decades of an unforgettable time in the Michigan marching band here’s Jerry.

Jerry Bilik: The first time I ever saw the inside of Michigan Stadium was the pre-game of the Michigan State game of my freshman year. It was mind blowing, you know a 100 thousand people in there. I’ll never forget it, it was so scary you know, am I going to make a fool of myself and everything like that. And that’s exactly the way the band still comes out. We didn’t play the yam damper then we just came out and started playing the victors. That was so awesome. It was just incredible. When I was in high school I saw a poster for the interlock and for the international music camp with a beautiful harpist sitting in her knickers by the palm tree that was in New York then. And I talk to my band director. And I said what’s that place where the pretty girl lives.

Holdship: (laugh)

Bilik: That was exactly 70 years ago from now.

Holdship: Isn’t that amazing. How old were you?

Bilik: 13. Now you know everything. (laugh) I was in orchestra playing my trombone and I always make this joke that they were so impressed with my trombone playing the first year I was there. They gave me a scholarship to come back the next year in drama. (laugh) I don’t play the trombone. But anyhow, in the middle of the summer they announced that they were going to offer a composition class for immediate campers and he said the composition class is going to be in building i10. I knew on the map building i10 was a classroom building right next to the intermediate girls tennis courts. Even though looking out the window a lot, I wrote a piece and he got very excited about it; was not very good. But Seventeen magazine came and did a whole interview on me and it was an outstanding piece of the summer, which it wasn’t. I don’t know what it was, it’s ridiculous. But I’m just saying that because, my interest was always kind of on the side. I learned there a lot and I went there eight years. I went as an immediate camper, high-school camp, and university camper. And then on staff actually. And that’s what brought me to Michigan.

And so I went into marching band just because I was in music education. But at that time my level, I was the 17th out of 18 trombones. I was awful and Dr. Revelli would, when he would go down the thing and yell at people, he would always yell at me for something. He called me Dave Green who was the guy sitting next to me, but in the second year, during the marching season, he said, “I’m looking for someone who’s interested in arranging for the marching band”. And I thought, he thinks I’m Dave Green, he didn’t even know my name. So I think I’ll go in and it was really a way of, because I was in music education and I knew he was the most influential person in the country for getting a good job afterwards. So I went in and I still have the piece of music paper where he wrote out the ranges of the marching band instruments for me. And the first arrangement I did was “Pop by the sailor man” and Revelli. He looked at it and had a lot of suggestions. And the irony is, that was my second year here as a sophomore. I have probably done over a thousand arrangements for schools everywhere. At every arrangement he would look at the score and would have a comment and it was never wrong. He would have a criticism and he was never wrong. He had an uncanny insight about how to make something sound good and he actually changed my personality because as I said I was very lackadaisical. And he was the opposite. He was really tough. But I could hear the difference when the marching band played and this sounds better. And that began our relationship. Then of course George Cavender came second year, during that same year that I started arranging. We were like pals and buddies. We worked together very closely because I got interested in more than just music. I think we should make some storage and do this and do that. And George would kinda run with it and develop the shows and do all those kinds of thing. And we really had a good thing. And I always wanted some kind of organization to the show instead of, here’s a song and now we’re gonna play another song. So I can’t remember what particular song he wanted to do and I said instead of that let’s do a show about the history of stereo, hi-fi and photographs. So we had like an old-fashioned phonograph and I made the music run down and then the band made a formation of a record play. We sped the music backup and stuff like that. And what we were doing and I think what we’re very caught on right away is instead of everyone going out to the bathroom the fans in the stadium started hanging around and we were doing one about Pacific music like Hawaiian music. And we had to go to make a formation of some drums that we’re making and to get to one formation to another. I wrote the transition of a Hawaiian war chant to set up this Hawaiian feeling that we’re going to end with and it was just a transition but nothing important.

(instrumental music plays)

But George later that year said, “yeah that works so well. Let’s play it after the game on Monday.” And that’s how that started. It was actually just a throwaway piece to get from one formation to another. The the good thing about that triumvirate, the three of us, is that I was always wild with ideas. And George was very practical but Ravelli always had a good taste. So he knew when to shut me down. And music was always first, so from my standpoint of writing the music it was really great because he insisted that the band play well.

Holdship: It seems like a really really challenging kind of field to go into. You’ve got some people who are sitting really far away. Other people who are very close. How do you make it sound good?

Bilik: Well that, I take some credit for that because I was in music school and I had become very interested in music theory and acoustics. I began analyzing my own scores of what Revelli was looking for. And I will tell you what happened with him. I mentioned a hi-fi show. We did an arrangement of box the cotton and Fugue in D minor. (Bilik makes instrumental sounds) It’s an organ peace.

Holdship: Oh yeah.

Bilik: And it was going to be about a stereo system. So you said, the announcer said of course you have to have the tweeters high notes and then to balance it. (Makes tweeter sound) And you have to have the mid-range. (Mid-range instrumental sound) You have to have the woofers. (Woofers sound effect) You had all this stuff. I mean it was designed that way, we knew that that’s what they were going to say. And then in that piece there’s kind of a pyramid. Were all instruments come in on top of each other. We were playing it in the stadium. This is probably the second year I was arranging. And all of a sudden the entire stadium stood up (organ sound) and started screaming and Revelli was conducting and he turned. He thought some woman was getting passed up or whatever it was. They’re all like pointing at the band and screaming and what did happen, thank Bach for this, but the way the chords lined up. They reinforced each other and the sound. It totally consumed the stadium. Every air molecule in that stadium was vibrating. And when that happened and we all you know. I was playing at that time. It was the first time I saw the music move the stadium.

Holdship: And you’re still a student at this time. You’re just a young kid, right?

Bilik: A sophomore (laugh)

Holdship: Wow

Bilik: In those days, in the fifties, sixties and seventies when I was writing. What I was known for is producing issued sounds and all I was doing was using the basic fundamentals of musical harmony of having a very balanced chorus. I was teaching a lot of arrangers at that time and I made a big point of using musical devices to draw the listener in and I mean so it wasn’t haphazard. It was very calculated and it worked. The sound of the Michigan band at that time was unequal then and it’s still, that tradition of course is still going on. It’s an incredible sounds.

(instrumental music plays)

Most marching band. The objective is loud. And I think the difference with Michigan it’s never because of Revelli and that tradition that John still has. It isn’t.. loud is not good enough. It has to be beautiful and you don’t think Beautiful at the Michigan Stadium. You know there’s people out there killing themselves and we’re coming out here and playing beautiful. Bock, you know, decotta a few. But it’s it’s it’s the skill. What brings people is the quality of the sport, the team, how well they play, that same kind of energy Reveli and all the people who have succeeded him keep in the march. So the same thing is being projected during halftime. That you see the same artistry, the same. The people actually out on the field, even though there’s 300, there’s another 100 who didn’t make it. And I was only 17th out of 18. I almost, I almost didn’t make it. I mean even now the band rehearsals are much more intense than when I was there. I would have been thrown out. I’m pretty sure because I used to make fun of Revelli.

Holdship: (laugh)

Bilik: A friend of mine and I started. We started a magazine called “The Leaky Bugle.” I think they still do it, even now 50, 60 years later whatever it is. We’d make fun of what happened in rehearsals and I used to draw cartoons of Revelli.

Holdship: (laugh) Did he see those?

Bilik: He saw some of them. He well, I pushed the envelope. So the band loved it. At first he didn’t like it, then he realized it was a lot of love. We became very cool, I was like his son because he never had one and we became very close for the last few years.

Holdship: I have a question. There’s a house across the street behind our building that says tuba on it. And I always thought, why would someone just put the word tuba on their house but I’ve since come to find that the musicians live in houses together.

Bilik: Yeah yeah.

Holdship: Now when did that tradition start? I understand that the trombone houses are the bones sone.

Bilik: Oh yeah. Yeah they, that’s long after me. We would practice by the rank of the row we were in. And again, I did once, we were doing some formation change. I was a row leader. By the time I was a senior and because I had done the arrangement. I knew exactly how many counts of music we were at. Going from one formation to another and everybody just usually goes the shortest route. And I said let’s do something different to my rank, the 12 of us. I said instead of going that way where everybody else does. Let’s go the other way and said because this arrangement has 64 counts in it. So we had eight counts every five yards. I had figured this out so we can go 30 yards this way. We can turn around and come back and we will hit where we’re supposed to be on the last count of the music. And so they did they agree to that and the band the entire band or what I’d made some lines and we made a circle on the role of the trombones just went away. Left the band. Everybody watching us. And Revelli, what had happened (inaudible) and then just at the last note we completed the picture and the audience cheered.

Holdship: There’s so much going on. It’s so complicated.

Bilik: It’s very complicated. Now of course the computers are huge. And when we when we were doing shows we used mimeograph machines and we actually had cut stencils and George would actually cut the stencils to show the formations where everybody is and he’d have to figure it all out that way. Now of course they do it by computing. You could actually see them people marching around on a computer. I’m not for that. I like the old-fashioned way but of course they could do much more complicated visual stuff now.

Holdship: Wow I don’t know. It just feels like I can’t imagine symbol players like what, how strong do you have to be, how coordinated you have to be.

Bilik: I can tell you firsthand because when I was inducted into the band fraternity the all the pledges we had to march around the campus in little band. And I volunteered to play symbol when the parade was over I couldn’t lift either arms. I was like this for days. So yeah it’s, it’s amazing but holding a trombone up isn’t easy either.

Holdship: Yeah no kidding. You have to play music. You have to remember your formation. You have to put on a show. You have to play loud. You have to play well, geez.

Bilik: Yeah, it’s amazing, but the secret is the response. See the audience is part of the equation. And you know how the stadium or wherever, as you said yourself, how you respond to the sound of the band. Well look. Musicians are aware of that. And so you have the largest college stadium, the largest crowd and therefore the largest response. So there’s no better motivation. You say how can I do all this work and I must say they work twice as hard as I do. I mean John and present staff. They’re much… they seem much tougher than I remember George. I mean he would yell and all that kind of stuff but we could kind of (Bilik makes laugh sound effect).

Holdship: (laugh)

Bilik: You can’t do that in the band. You have to really told a mark, literally. And it shows the nature of the art requires discipline and teamwork. And I’d visit word solidarity. You. If the group is not unified the music doesn’t work. Music, the creation of beauty where you must do it with others. You can do it by yourself but it works much better with others. It motivates you to be conscious of the other. So there’s this whole extraneous thing, which is what has really been driving me from the very beginning, why I wanted to go into band.

Holdship: Well it’s nice to be part of something bigger than yourself, right?

Bilik: Exactly! Music is three elements as a creator, then there’s a performer and listener and all three are integrated. And the performance of the marching band, the effort that they expend to produce the music actually reaches your conscious of, whether you’re there or not, you can hear it. And you can hear the degree of effort that’s being put into producing the music, which had been produced for you; for the listener. And this is true. This is why, you know the most popular pieces in all music literature work the same way. That the notes are put together in such a way that performers can produce them in such a way and the audience realizes, this is all for me.

(instrumental music plays)

Holdship: Did you catch that? It’s all for you! So remember that next time you’re at the Big House. Well I hope you enjoyed this episode with Jerry and you can find more “Listen in Michigan” podcasts at michigantoday.umich.edu under the topics tab. Just click podcasts. You also can find us at iTunes and TuneIn. Alright I hope to have you back next month. For now I’m gonna play you guys out with a little more M-fanfare. Courtesy of Jerry Bilik.

(instrumental music plays)

Music man

Composer/arranger/conductor Jerry Bilik, BMus ’55/MMus ’61, never expected to be part of Michigan Marching Band (MMB) history. Even today, he seems bemused by such a notion.

But when he was just a sophomore in the early 1950s, Bilik (who barely passed the audition as 17th of 18 trombones) discovered a talent for writing and arranging that caught the ear of the legendary — and formidable — band director William D. Revelli. And any football fan who’s attended a game in the Big House since then has heard Bilik’s music. He is the artist behind “M Fanfare,” “Temptation,” “The Hawaiian War Chant,” and “The Block M March,” among many others.

Happy band members practice on the field 2021

Happy MMB members return to the field in 2021.

While his fellow bandmates often quaked under Revelli’s notoriously fierce tutelage, Bilik thrived under the director’s mentorship. His talent took a quantum leap during college as he formed a father/son bond with Revelli, and grew to be close friends with his second-in-command, George Cavender.

Together this musical trio ushered in a golden era for the Michigan Marching Band, combining Revelli’s uncompromising insistence on perfect sound production, Bilik’s imaginative arrangements, and Cavender’s sophisticated and witty shows. As a result, the MMB became the most copied and admired marching band in the country. It remains that way to this day. (Per The Cavender Years.)

Bilik went on to a successful career as a composer/arranger/conductor for television, radio, film, and stage. Throughout his career, he has studied with Tibor Serly, Ross Lee Finney, and Leslie Bassett.

As summer gives way to fall each year, the Michigan campus literally vibrates with the sound of band rehearsal. The current director is John Pasquale, whose ethos is “exactly the same” as Revelli’s, Bilik says.

“He’s very demanding,” Bilik says. “And he’s like Revelli in that it’s not enough to be good. It has to be beautiful.”

It’s been decades since Bilik donned a band uniform and marched into the Big House with his trombone. But he’s in that stadium for every home game whether you see him or not. Just listen.

Tracks in the podcast: “The Victors,” “M Fanfare,” “Hawaiian War Chant,” “Temptation.”

Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts. Subscribe at iTunesTunein, and Stitcher.


  1. Suzanne MacLennan - 1985

    It’sgreattobeamichiganwolverine! Go MMB!


  2. Bob Houts - 1970

    Enjoyed the Podcast and it brought back many memories. However, unless my mind is gone, that was not M Fanfare which I love, that was the introduction to the Victors you kept playing.


    • Deborah Holdship

      Ha! Not YOUR mind, Bob. The proper link is up now with all the requisite Fanfare at the end.


      • Bruce Galbraith - 1962 & 1963

        Thank you Deborah. Jerry Bilik is a legend among those of us that played in the Michigan bands. He wrote and arranged all of the Big 10 fight songs, which the 1961 Russian tour band recorded the morning after their jubilant return home concert in Carnegie Hall.
        Need more Bilik anecdotes? He’s clever, funny and one of the most creative people I have ever had the pleasure to work with. He helped create a program for “Sounds of 76”, a bicentennial program that we toured all over the state of Michigan – way back when.


        • Ann Klotz

          Bruce–how lucky I am to have discovered your connection to Jerry, my formidable father-in-law, some years ago. Two exceptional music men.


  3. Henry Yee - 63 and 65

    It was in 1960 arriving on campus about a week before classes that a bunch of us wanted to get out and enjoy the beautiful day. Several bookstores were playing a new record called “Touchdown USA.” Being in the school spirit, we each bought a copy. We were listening to it when a couple of students came in to listen. We found out they were listening to themselves; they were members of the Michigan Marching Band who were part of the concert band that made that recording under the direction of Dr. Rivelli. One of them, Dick Perkins, later became Music Director at Royal Oak – Dondero High School.
    Some trivia we learned from those two guys: the recordings were made indoors, not at The Big House (that should have been obvious if we had just thought about it); and most or all the arrangements were by Jerry Bilik, who had become an institution in his time there.
    At first, we didn’t notice any particular characteristics of the arrangements, but after listening as long as we did, we could say Jerry Bilik was there, in the intros and transitions, but especially in the endings.
    On football Saturdays we would blast that music out our windows; three music set-ups coupled by phono cables down the hall. It would have been easier and safer if we had Bluetooth back then.


  4. Roger Hilbert - Undergrad 1953-56. Medical School graduate 1960

    What a thrill to hear & read about Jerry Bilik. I played snare drum in the marching band under Dr. Revelli from 1953 through 1956 (took drum lessons from Dr. Cavender while in HS). Jerry was much admired by me & fellow band members for his lively & innovative arrangements. We practiced every week day from 4-6pm & again Saturday morning before the game. It was very intense, but great fun to be part of such a well trained group. Dr. Revelli was a tough taskmaster, but it paid off. Our lead drummer Ron Fremlin counted the cadence of the other bands so we could come out faster!


  5. Henry Lowendorf - 1964

    I appreciate Jerry Bilik’s note about his under-the-wire success in the trombone auditions. In marching band tryouts in fall of 1960 I was 12 out of 12 sousaphones. Bilik’s orchestrations of Big Ten victory songs were loved by the band except for UM’s The Victors. I remember Jerry giving a public talk on how to make money in composition – write commercials. In my junior year as a science major, although I had no prerequisites except the music floating around in my head, I took a course in composition with Ross Lee Finney. Four decades later as a retirement gift to myself I began again to study music composition. Thanks, Jerry, for the inspiration.


  6. Henry Yee - 63 and 65

    To be 12th out of 12 for the Michigan Marching Band is like barely making the cut for the Olympics; it’s nothing to be ashamed about. One of the other band members who played Sousaphone was a guy we called “Tiny” who weighted something short of 300 lbs. Tiny was very proud of the fact that when they said, “Band, take the field” he could high-step as high as anyone on the band.
    I think it was Tiny who told me one of Dr. Revelli’s edicts: “When you play the visiting team’s fight song, it is mandatory that you play it with such enthusiasm and precision that their band will say ‘Gee, why can’t we play our fight song as well as they can?'”


  7. Arnold Knepfer - B.A. '52, M.A. '54

    Jerry used to sit down at a piano, at Interlochen, 1950 or thereabouts and ask, “What tune would you like me to play the ‘history’ of?” You could name any tune, and he would play its “history”, starting in the style of a Gregorian chant, all the way up to modern style. I’ll never forget that!

    And I love the M Fanfare more each time I hear it.

    —Arnold Knepfer


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