PALO ALTO -- As leader of the eclectic, oft-irreverent Stanford Marching Band for more than three decades, Art Barnes has plenty of tantalizing tales to tell.
He filled in on tuba for the 1971 Rose Parade to win a bet, watched the chaos unfold on the UC Berkeley field during "The Play," when the Stanford band took the field before the end of the 1982 game against rival Cal and ended up being part of its infamous conclusion, and he greenlighted the band's controversial "Spotted Owl Show" at the University of Oregon. During his 34 years as director, Barnes didn't conceive of the band's antics, but he didn't get in the way either.
"I wrote the music and kept them out of jail," Barnes said.
Barnes, who retired from Stanford in 1997, is preparing to set down his baton for the last time. His final performance as conductor of the Livermore-Amador Symphony, a position he's held for the past 50 years, will be May 17.
"It will be the longest thing I've ever done besides being married," said Barnes, referring to Helene, his wife of 61 years.
Born and raised in Ohio, Barnes, 84, grew up in a musical family; his father sang and his mother played piano. Blessed with perfect pitch, Barnes started piano at age five, establishing an early career as a pianist and jazz band trombonist. While teaching band and music theory at Cal State Fresno, he also played in a piano bar until 2 a.m., getting just enough sleep to make his 8 o'clock class.
With sights set on becoming a bandleader, Barnes arrived at Stanford in 1963 to pursue a doctorate in orchestral conducting, walking right into a hornet's nest when he accepted the job as bandleader. Upset over the dismissal of their previous director, band members essentially went on strike, sitting out rehearsals and the football team's first two games. But it didn't take the witty, congenial Barnes long to win them over.
"He was cranking out some pretty neat arrangements, doing things that made fun of the other schools," said Stanford Band Alumni Board member Frank Robertson, who joined the band on trombone in 1961. "It was clear to the students that this guy could really arrange and had a lot of imagination."
Barnes ended the impasse by giving the band autonomy, endearing himself with his two-minute interpretations of rock tunes hand-picked by the students. Barnes went on to arrange 300 popular songs, including Free's "All Right Now," still the school's de facto fight song. "We wanted to do something different," Barnes said. "We didn't want to be a military-style band. We wanted to do something more contemporary, so that's what I did."
Barnes kept a laissez-faire attitude about the band's cheekier performances, including an O.J. Simpson-esque Ford Bronco -- complete with bloody handprints -- taking a slow ride around the home field against USC, a 1991 contest at Notre Dame featuring a "nun" drum major wielding a cross like a baton and the infamous Spotted Owl Show at the University of Oregon in 1990, parodying the endangered species' impact on the logging industry. Though Barnes did nix a few performances before they ever saw the field, he generally encouraged the halftime hijnks.
And, Barnes has also marched to the beat of a different drummer. For the '71 Rose Bowl against Ohio State, he sweated out the five-and-a-half mile Rose Parade route playing a tuba, winning a $50 bet with UCLA band director Kelly James.
"They didn't think I could do it, and I said 'All I need is two pairs of socks (to stave off blisters),'" Barnes said. "The librarian wanted to know if I needed any music and I said, 'I wrote it.' That took care of that."
Then there was "The Play," the unfathomable series of last-second laterals in 1982's Big Game, punctuated by the bowling over of an unfortunate Stanford trombone player. Awestruck, Barnes watched from the stands.
"The Cal band was on their end and we were on our end, and it happened that the play came our way," Barnes remembered. "I don't think the referees would've escaped alive if they hadn't let it go the way they did."
While directing a Palo Alto church choir in the early '60s, Barnes met former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who sang in the group. The two are still close friends -- Perry admiring Barnes' skilled musicianship, sense of humor and straightforward personality.
"What you see is what you get with Art," Perry said. "It's always fun to be with him at a party because at a moment's notice he can sit down at the piano and entertain the whole group, not only with his playing but his singing."
Perry, a Stanford professor emeritus, has collaborated with Barnes on several occasions, most recently with a dramatic reading of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" with the Livermore symphony.
Perry's favorite Barnes arrangement is the bandleader's most celebrated -- a stirring, mournful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner¿." When the Stanford band played it at the 1963 Big Game, just eight days after the Kennedy assassination, it received national attention.
The next year, Barnes began making the weekly trip from Palo Alto to Livermore, where he'd taken over as maestro of the small community orchestra. Barnes says he has "all good memories" of five decades as director, writing original music and overseeing the symphony's growth.
Robert Williams, a symphony horn player since 1972, praised his longtime director for a precise conducting style and for treating the musicians like pros.
"He doesn't leave anything for guesswork," Williams said. "It would be nice if he could go longer, but I also think after 50 years he deserves to really retire."
Barnes' last concert will feature "California Golden Suite," which he wrote for the occasion.
Ready for life's next stage, Barnes says he'll miss those with whom he's worked. He plans to write more and continue recording books for the blind and dyslexic via Learning Ally.
"Everybody asks me 'Now that you're going to retire, what are you going to do?'" he said. "I'm going to be busier than ever."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Hometown: Palo Alto
Claim to fame: Director of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (1963-1997), director and conductor of Livermore-Amador Symphony (1964-2014), conducting fellow of the American Symphony League and a former professor of music, Stanford University.
Quote: On his career at Stanford: "It was all just a whole lot of fun. These people who were undergraduates are CEOs at places now, they've all matured. Some of them still say, 'Oh those four years I had in the band were the best years of my life,' and I say, 'You poor slob, life's gone downhill for you.' "
'Five Dedicated Decades'