By day, members of Lenox Underground run law firms, head marketing companies, and raise families. The seven bandmates, ranging in age from 49 to 59, juggle the responsibilities of life, while having fun in a band. And beyond all that—they give back every cent they make from gigs to their charity, the Lenox Underground Foundation, which provides money to children in need who want to pursue music.
“At the end of the day, we just want to play,” bassist and vocalist Dave Bondy says of their decision to donate. “To get paid and do something good with the money makes it even more rewarding.”
The band is somewhat of a legend in and around it’s home of Summit, New Jersey. Since its start in late 2001, the group has consistently performed year-round in northern New Jersey and New York City, playing mostly covers. However, the band did release an all-original album in 2010. The current lineup is: Bondy; Brian Hussey, on guitar and vocals; Tracy McKee on keys and vocals; Gary Kull on drums and vocals; Lauren Cook on vocals; Mike Gambro on guitar and vocals, and Peter Schwartz on keys. But the band looked very different at the start.
The original motivation for the group stemmed from some introspection following the attacks of 9/11. The aftermath of 9/11 left many people thinking about the frailty of life and living in the moment. “What should I be doing that I haven’t been doing,” Bondy recalls asking.
At the same time, the wives of several future band members were participating in a book club. When conversations about families led to the realization that four of them had husbands who played instruments, the wives took it upon themselves to provide the push. The band name came from the Lenox Avenue basement where they first gathered to practice.
“We started practicing in late 2001 and had our first performance mid-2002,” Bondy says. “It was a private party at my house. And you know the way things go—people like it and then you play at their parties and then you wonder, can we do this on a bigger scale? Clubs? Benefits? Get paid? We keep it in balance with our professional lives, but we’ve been dedicated to the time and effort it takes to make it a band that sounds good. It takes work.”
Though Bondy and Gambro had both played music most of their lives, neither had performed regularly in a band. Bondy is a banker who went to the University of Virginia for undergrad studies and to New York University for his MBA. He played piano and trumpet growing up, but took to the bass in college. He moved to New Jersey in 1985 and didn’t play with a band until Lenox Underground formed.
Gambro played guitar as a kid and through college, but stopped during law school at Columbia, given the time crunch. Once he graduated, he went to work in L.A. and didn’t pick up the guitar again until he bid on one at his daughter’s elementary school silent auction. It reminded him it was time to play once again.
“There was a guy in there from Paula Abdul’s band auctioning off guitars,” he says. “I was the only bidder, so I got it and it got me back into it.”
When the band started building steam, some members left and others joined, including 56-year-old attorney Schwartz in 2003; 51-year-old AV Programmer Hussey in 2005; and Cook, 49, owner of the strategic marketing firm Moldave Designs, joined four years ago. Kull, 55, another lawyer, and full-time mom McKee, 53, joined within the past year.
As members came on board, they did so with the understanding that they’d never see a financial return on their investments of time and effort. The Lenox Underground Foundation, started in 2004, instead pools the money made by the group for scholarships for students in and around Summit and New York City.
“The primary purpose is to support music education for young people,” Bondy explains. Each year, they sponsor four needs-based scholarships for middle school students. That money helps students buy instruments or get private lessons.
Though some musicians might see never earning revenue from the group as a deterrent for joining, McKee felt the opposite.
“I knew the Foundation and it’s one of the things I find attractive about the band,” she says. “Bands like us don’t rake in tons of money, so it’s nice to think that the money we bring in won’t change our lives, but it will change the kids we give it to and give them the chance to continue their music. It makes it more worth while.”
That being said, over the years, Gambro estimates the Foundation has given away about $17,000 in scholarships, an incredible accomplishment in itself. “It’s nice to give the money away,” Cook says.
Though the band members agree on the Foundation’s mission whole-heartedly, it’s not always easy to find the time to commit to the group. They try to practice weekly, though with family activities, work, and the other curveballs life tosses in the way, it’s not always an easy commitment to keep.
Choosing material is another challenge. Some members are stuck on the music of the ’70s, while others want today’s music.
“You have to work through it and believe in what you want to do,” Gambro says. “I’m of the view that I want to have fun, but it’s not fun for me unless it sounds really good. It wouldn’t be fun if we were just bangin’ around sounding like a crappy garage band. It’s important. As far as the time—you make the time for hobbies that you like. If you like being in a band, practice. If you like playing golf, do that. Life is short.”
In the end, the band plays a wide variety of material, spanning the 1950s to current music. Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, The Talking Heads, Van Morrison, Bad Company, Queen, and Fiona Apple have all found their way onto Lenox Underground set lists, according to Cook. The band pulls it off well enough that even their kids think it’s pretty cool.
“My kids are into it, I think because we’re not bad,” Gambro laughs. “They’re proud. They bring friends to the shows. They come see their dad.”
Everyone in the group keeps a busy schedule, and being in a band can be something like being in a “dysfunctional family,” according to Cook. She says the payoff for the group is the satisfaction of giving back and the excitement of performing.
“I didn’t realize the thrill of performance when the audience responds to you in a positive way,” Gambro says. “People dancing and clapping to your music … having positive, immediate feedback from the audience is a thrill.”
Lenox Underground members are gracious, hardworking, and simply happy to be along for the ride. “I’m just happy to be in the band,” McKee says. “I’m really glad they let me tag along.”
Read Tips for Aspiring Bandmates from members of Lenox Underground.