As the name implies, The Great Kanawha River Rat Navy Band is a pretty ragtag bunch.
The Dixieland jazz band has been the featured entertainment of Charleston’s annual Funeral Parade for nearly 30 years, but members do not practice ahead of the event.
The musicians get together about an hour before the parade in the basement of the BB&T building to tune up and warm up.
“Of course, warming up and tuning up included a few beers,” band director Jack Hamrick, 78, said.
Hamrick passes out the sheet music to Dixieland classics like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Down By the Riverside,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Basin Street Blues” and “Joe Avery.”
He wrote most of the arrangements himself and keeps the originals in an old Craftsman air compressor box. Each song lives in a separate popcorn box, labeled in black permanent marker.
The band runs through each song a few times.
“Then I say ‘OK, throw the music away,’” Hamrick said.
Although he keeps a roster of musicians on yellow legal pads, Hamrick said he is never sure who will show up for the parade.
The band attracts musicians of all skill levels, from high school and college horn players to professionals and hobbyists. The band usually includes between 30 and 50 people, and Hamrick said there are always at least a few new faces.
After about an hour, the procession lines up on the corner of Lee and Capitol streets and begins its long trek toward Kanawha Boulevard.
It’s a short four-block walk, but it takes the band about an hour and a half to complete.
The River Rats take their time.
“We don’t march. We just kind of stroll,” Hamrick said.
This year’s Funeral Parade will step off from the corner of Lee and Capitol streets at 6 p.m. Friday.
The parade has traditionally been held on the Saturday before Labor Day, but Hamrick said the band could not secure a permit from the City of Charleston for that day.
The event nearly died in 2009, after the City of Charleston decided to end its annual Regatta celebration. Scott Miller, owner of Capitol Street establishments Bar 101 and Ichiban, stepped up at the last minute to sponsor the parade.
Miller bowed out in 2012 and the parade moved to South Charleston that year. It returned to Charleston last year, but was held in the middle of August to coincide with SportsFEST.
This year, the Great Kanawha River Navy decided to sponsor the parade itself.
And the River Rats are ready to let the good times roll.
The group started in 1985, when Hamrick and some friends from the Red Carpet Lounge decided the River Navy needed a navy band.
“We had a boat. We decided we needed a marching band,” Hamrick said.
They entered their boat and their band in the Charleston Regatta’s Grand Feature Parade.
The group also sponsored a jazz festival in memory of local trombonist Paul “Cuz” Carney, with top jazz musicians from all over the country. Many of those musicians joined in the parade, too.
“We just did it for fun. The next year, they wanted us back again,” he said.
The Grand Feature Parade was canceled for rain that year, however, so Regatta organizers invited the River Rats back for the next day’s Funeral Parade.
The parade, a riff on the street processions held in New Orleans, began in the 1970s.
Organizers brought in brass bands from New Orleans to lead the procession during the first several years, but the River Rats quickly became the official band of the parade.
“It just was an unbelievable response from everybody,” Hamrick said. “While the Regatta was going on, we’d start down the street and the whole street was packed with people. We didn’t know where we were going to march.”
Soon, musical festivals from all around the state were calling to book the River Rats.
The band turned down each of those offers, however. Members decided the band would only perform for the Funeral Parade.
“We decided before we ever did this, it was going to be right here in Charleston. That was it,” he said.
Hamrick, a longtime school band director, became the group’s de facto director along with drummer Bob Leighty.
Their friend Ralph Bevis became the band’s drum major, leading the procession in a fanciful uniform covered in cords and tassels.
When Bevis died in 2007, he was buried in his drum major uniform. He still made an appearance at that year’s Funeral Parade, however.
Hamrick and Leighty had a photo of Bevis blown up and framed. They had someone carry the portrait down the street in front of the band.
“He was gone, but we didn’t want him to be gone, so we carried him down the street,” Hamrick said.
This will be Hamrick’s first year without Leighty.
About a week before last year’s parade, he and Leighty were on the phone discussing an email to River Rat Band members. Before they hung up, Leighty promised to send the email immediately.
“About a minute later I got the email. About 15 minutes later I got a call from his wife. She said ‘Bob just died.’”
A neighbor saw him walk to his garden, sit down on a bench and collapse with a heart attack.
His legacy will live on, however.
One year, Hamrick couldn’t make it to the funeral parade. He left Leighty in charge.
“He let the women in,” Hamrick laughed. “Up until that point we’d never had any women in the group.”
Not that Hamrick minded. There’s only two requirements to join the River Rats: a working knowledge of your instrument and a strong desire to have a good time.
“We’ve always been into fun,” he said.
Marchers are welcome to join in Friday’s Funeral Parade to pass out candy and Mardi Gras beads to spectators. The event also will include a costume contest, with prizes awarded following the parade.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.