In 1951, under the direction of Frederick Fennell, a group of wind, brass, and percussion students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, performed a groundbreaking concert. On the program were several names quite familiar to the Western musical canon, including Willaert, Lasso, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, as well as a few less-familiar faces, such as 17th century composers Samuel Scheidt and Johann Pezel, and 20th century American Carl Ruggles. The pieces themselves, however, were in an even more obscure vein: a motet for double brass choir by Lasso, a trombone quartet by Beethoven, and Stravinsky's Symphonies for wind instruments. In an effort to create an ensemble that could fulfill the traditional social and musical functions of a band, while at the same time endeavoring to create its own sonorities and foster its own compositions, Fennell and his students established the Eastman Wind Ensemble. In the ensuing years, Fennell and his group would play a crucial and prominent role in shaping the character of this new, historically grounded but uniquely American genre.
In addition to performing works involving only portions of its constituency (works for brass or winds only, for example), the Wind Ensemble as it came to be defined — largely through its development at Eastman — shed the usual doubled parts of the traditional band, so that the composer could carefully shape, weigh, and balance sonorities with one player on a part. Over the course of the ensuing decades, this concept became widely institutionalized, attracting a large number of composers, performers, and audiences to the genre.
Central to the Eastman Wind Ensemble's pioneering role in the realm of "serious" wind music was its prolific recorded output during the Fennell years. Raoul Camus, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, observed that "Fennell's pioneering series of 24 recordings for Mercury brought about a reconsideration of the wind medium and established performance and literature models for the more than 20,000 wind ensembles that were subsequently established in American schools." These recordings included important works by such notable 20th century composers as Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, Vincent Persichetti, and Krysztof Penderecki; the ensemble's recorded output also reflected the desire, reflected in that first concert, to rescue neglected works of the past. One album, for example, was dedicated entirely to works by Giovanni Gabrieli. The ensemble's notoriety also increased through numerous radio broadcasts heard throughout the country, and through several national and international tours.
In 1962, Fennell passed the baton of the Eastman Wind Symphony to Clyde Roller, an Eastman graduate who had previously conducted the Amarillo Symphony. Two years later, the conductorship was assumed by another Eastman grad, Donald Hunsberger. Hunsberger had been an apprentice to Fennell, and under his new direction, the Eastman Wind Ensemble continued to greatly influence the character of the symphonic winds genre. From 1967-1970, the ensemble helped define and stimulate the wind repertory canon by collaborating on a project with MCA Music and Decca Records, in which performances of new works by the ensemble were coordinated with the publication of scores and part sets by MCA, as well as the release of recordings on Decca.
In the last decades of the 20th century, the Eastman Wind Ensemble continued to serve as a model for collegiate wind organizations worldwide, touring extensively in Europe and Asia, and continuing to perform and record important works by noted composers including Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, and Wynton Marsalis.