Agatha Beiderbecke asked a close family friend, Albert Petersen, to listen to her seven-year-old son play the piano.
According to the biography Bix, Man and Legend, Petersen could hardly contain his enthusiasm. “Agatha, this boy has something.” He said. “Keep me informed about his progress – and whatever you do, get him some piano lessons.”
One might expect a friend – and her cousin’s husband – to be encouraging. But Petersen was also one of Davenport’s leading musicians, bandleaders, and teachers. He also began his career in music at a young age.
Petersen joined the Davenport’s Strasser Orchestra as a horn player at the age of 16. A year later, he was the assistant concert master. A year after that, he was directing the orchestra in the Burtis Opera House. He didn’t slow down.
As Gates Thomas, Professor of Contemporary Writing and Production at Berklee College of Music in Boston, wrote, “Any given week might find [Albert Petersen] conducting the orchestra at the Capitol Theatre one night, a few days later leading the band (playing cornet or euphonium) at a parade, and before the week was out, playing violin or viola in a string quartet at a memorial service. If there was a band concert in LeClaire Park that Sunday, Petersen would likely be leading it. He established the first instrumental music program at St. Ambrose, and was well-known throughout the region as a teacher of ensembles and conducting. Somewhere he also found time to serve in every leadership capacity at the American Federation of Musicians Local #67, including its presidency.”
Petersen formed and then led his own band, aptly named the Petersen Band, for more than a half-century. He would then be instrumental in the establishment and as a charter member of the Tri-City Symphony, known since the 1980s as the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.
As Gates Thomas also wrote, “By the time the Tri-City Symphony was organized in 1916, Albert Petersen was Davenport's preeminent conductor, and had been one of the most well-regarded musicians in the entire Tri-City region for 20 years. He was a founding member of the Symphony as its principal violist, but his greatest contribution to the orchestra’s founding was the conviction behind that decision. His very presence lent his credibility and his imprimatur to the new orchestra, while his unwavering support telegraphed to his fellow musicians that the Symphony was an institution worth supporting.”
Albert’s grandson, James Petersen, a board member of the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Society and the Bix Beiderbecke Museum, added, “When Max D. Petersen (no relation) decided to sponsor the building of a European style band shell on the Mississippi River in LeClaire Park in 1925, his friend Albert Petersen was consulted. Albert directed the orchestra that played the outdoor concert series in that park and other pavilions around the area for 39 continuous years right up to six months before his death at the age of 85 in 1951.”
At the time of his passing, a newspaper article concluded with, “Tho his baton is now stilled, many will long remember him standing proud, erect, and earnest among his musicians in a park pavilion, ready to give the signal for some featured number he hoped would please his audience.”
Albert L. Petersen is buried in Davenport Memorial Park (A54). His grave marker, flush with the ground, has his name and inclusive dates: Sept. 4,1865 and Feb. 25, 1951.
Bruce Walters is a Professor Emeritus in Art conferred by Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on famous (or infamous) people buried in cemeteries in the Quad Cities, and their history that is not so well-known today. If there’s a piece of history buried here that you’d like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.