Count backward to 1958. How many early Valley landmarks still hold their identity today after all that time? One of those landmarks is the Phoenix Pipe Band.
The Phoenix Pipe Band is the oldest continuously running pipe band in Arizona. One of the founding members, Joe Leonard, was still with the band until moving to Florida in 2002. He and his brother Bill moved to Phoenix in 1958 from upstate New York, where both brothers had played drums with a pipe band. The magnetism of their interest drew a few others from Tempe who played pipes and drums. They set up a practice in Coronado Park, and within a short time they had collected several other musicians who had gotten their start in military pipe bands in Scotland and Canada. The Phoenix Scottish Pipe Band was on its way.
Their teamwork in music overcame the mix of tartans in the kilts they wore. The band’s public debut came in 1958 at the Prescott Rodeo Parade. “We were quite a sensation with the cowboys,” Joe Leonard recalls. In time the Band upgraded from the original Pakistani-made bagpipes to Scots-made pipes. They also settled on military-style uniforms with kilts in the tartan worn by the Seaforth Highlanders, a Scottish unit of the British Army.
The Band’s increasing quality and inherent attention-getting capability eventually attracted a sponsor. Pepsi Cola offered financial support in return for presence at promotional events and other marketing visibility. In addition to the use of a bottling plant as a practice location, the Band got new kilts, changing to the red MacGregor tartan at Pepsi’s request. “Phoenix was a young city then,” Joe Leonard says. “We played for the grand opening of every gas station that had a Pepsi vending machine.” They also played for housing developments, bowling alleys, the Tombstone Helldorado Parade, anything where ample sound and color were desirable to attract an audience.
Pipe bands, like any other organization, have their ups and downs. A group of pipers and drummers splintered from the Phoenix Pipe Band, operating under the sponsorship of the Shrine. But Phoenix kept going, its members continuing their involvement in all kinds of Celtic arts. Joe Leonard and Leonard Wood Jr., a piper who joined the Band in 1961, teamed up with the Arizona Scottish Society to create the first Arizona Scottish Games in Encanto Park in 1966. The Games have since moved to Mesa for a number of years, but are now back in the heart of Phoenix.
The wardrobe of red MacGregor kilts has clothed “hundreds” of pipers and drummers through the years, according to Joe Leonard. The Phoenix Pipe Band is “the Dean of pipe bands,” as Joe puts it, the common point from which band members went on to the Argyll Pipe Band, Shrine, Phoenix Police, Mesa Caledonian, Spirit of Scotland, Seven Pipers Society, and other bands in Arizona and elsewhere.
So why has Joe Leonard stuck with the Phoenix Pipe Band for all these years? “I grew up with it, I keep coming home.” And whether he’s at the back of the band as a tenor drummer or at the front of the band as Drum Major, the Phoenix Pipe Band marches on.
The core of tradition is giving way to change, though. The band is expanding its repertoire of Irish music and embracing a more inclusive approach to Celtic music in general. They have also moved away from a military uniform—spats and khaki shirts—to a friendlier look that complements steadily improving musicianship. The 40+ current members of the Phoenix Pipe Band practice on Wednesday evenings in Mesa for the grade 5 band and Thursday evenings in Paradise Valley for the grade 3 band.
Piping and drumming lessons are available for new students, and both new and experienced pipers and drummers are welcome.