Wes English has been making music all his life. And beyond just playing music himself, he has made a lifelong habit of forming musical ensembles, gathering likeminded musicians and putting on shows.
It can be Dixieland, traditional jazz or German oompah music, but if Wes is playing, it will have a happy feel that tends to get your toe tapping.
“Music has always been a wonderful release for me,” said English. “If you have a stressful day, it’s nice to be able to come home and play.”
English is best known on Marco Island as the founder and longtime band director of the Marco Island Strummers, the banjo-anchored band that has played at innumerable island events over the years. But the multi-instrumentalist, while he strums the old-time four-string banjo like nobody’s business, also plays a variety of other instruments, notably the slide trombone, along with the tuba, the trumpet, and various keyboards.
He couldn’t always devote his full attention to his music making, though: Wes had a day job for many years, as a surgeon and kidney transplantation specialist for many years, after graduating from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
“Kidney transplants were pretty new,” he said of his pioneering days. “I enjoyed it, but when you’re over 65, you’re not that welcome in an operating room.”
Even in medical school, though, “once I got through the first two years,” English found time to play in a classic Philadelphia mummer’s string band. The oldest of four children, Wes English learned to play banjo and trumpet from his father, and played in some informal family ensembles.
He played banjo in a square dance band in college, and after taking up his medical practice in Portland, Maine, started a group consisting of five four-string banjo players and one tuba.
“It was called ‘Doc’s Banjo Band,’ after Doc English,” he said, and added they are still playing “red garter style” singalongs to this day. A move to Bangor spawned another band, the Penobscot Banjo Company, who rode around in a retired firetruck and played Dixieland gigs.
Wes and Elizabeth “Ann” Ryan were high school sweethearts, when he was class president and she was class secretary – so he was fooling around with his secretary back in the days before that got you into trouble. She saw and heard someone playing washboard in a band at a festival in Colorado, and took up washboard and related percussion enthusiastically.
After Wes retired to Marco Island in 1998, he was looking for something to do.
“I don’t play golf, and I didn’t want to lie on the beach,” he said, making one wonder why Marco Island exactly, but he did what he had always done – started a band. “I put an ad in the paper for banjo players, and in 24 hours, I had two banjo players and a guitarist.” That was the genesis of the Marco Island Strummers.
The band grew to as many as 22 musicians, plus or minus – the number pictured on the cover of their 2012 CD, “Paradise Found” – and could go down to a group of half a dozen at the Farmers’ Market, or just bandleader English playing a solitary keyboard, as he has done for the ACS Cancer Walk.
Over the past 14 years, Marco Island Strummers have shown up at all kinds of events, with a wide variety of ensembles, from the Blessing of the Fleet at the MIYC, to providing a patriotic music bed for Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day commemorations at Veterans’ Community Park. For many years, they played a monthly concert at Mackle Park during the season.
In a highlight of the shows at Mackle Park, many of the band’s groupies, otherwise known as the players’ wives, would join in the Parasol Parade, taking up colorful mini-umbrellas and promenading around the band and the audience to a Dixieland melody. As English explains, this is an old New Orleans custom from funerals, where the band would play mournful numbers going to the graveyard, and more lively, spirited music on the return.
But time has taken its toll on the Strummers, including their bandleader. Wes had to put Ann into memory care, in New Hampshire where their daughter lives, after taking care of her himself for many years.
“With people getting older, and many seasonal members, it’s hard to get a band together sometimes,” he said. “Too many of the brass players are short timers.”
The Strummers are scheduled to play their only engagement this season, at the United Church Jazz Worship Service on Sunday, Feb. 25. They still get together one day a week for a practice and jam session.
But English also played in many other bands in Southwest Florida, including the Naples Daily News Traditional Jazz Band, four years of trombone in the Naples New Horizons Band, and seven years with Reminisce. He has played for Oktoberfest with a variety of groups, including the Hafenkapelle and the Sounds of Yesteryear – “I bought my lederhosen 50 years ago in Germany, and I can still wear them,” he boasted.
He also joined a mini concert band called Gator Bait in 2015, and played twice a month with Blue Dirt at the Southwest Florida Military Museum in Cape Coral.
Former Tommie Barfield Elementary principal, and current Collier School Board candidate, Jory Westberry, recalled English bringing the Strummers to her school.
“Wes was so enthusiastic – he loves to play for the kids, and be around them,” she said.