In the days when beer was a nickel a glass and gasoline a dime a gallon, the circus band-brassy, peppy and high-stepping-was one of the grand delights of the Big Top.

But the old days of bright red uniforms, high-plumed hats and the snappy marches of Karl King and Henry Fillmore are gone.

Today the circus band wears black ties and tuxedos and plays an array of music from light classics to rock. And, if the performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey band currently playing at D.C. Armory are any indication, it's more likely to perform the boogie-down strains of "Ease On Down the Road," from "The Wiz," or Chuck Mangione's smooth "Feelin' So Good," than the crackling melody of "Barnum & Bailey's Favorite."

Merle Evans, 86, isn't very happy about the change. Evans, the venerable circus maestro who was musical director for Ringling Brs. and Barnum & Bailey for half a century until his retirement in 1969, says "The suff they play doesn't fit the acts. They don't play many gallops-and not many carches."

Evans lives now in Sarasota, Fla., but he survived one of the greatest circus calamities of all time-a fire that took 69 lives in Hartford, Conn., in 1946.

"That was the worst thing I'd been in (tent) blowdowns and train wrecks. We kept playing until the fire got right down to us. Lights and poles were falling, people were screaming.

"We got off the banstand and played near the entrance. We played a little bit of everything, but mostly the trio (section) from 'The Stars and Stripes Forever.' But people were screaming so we could hardly be heard.

"The Hammond organ burned. So did the music stands and p.a. system. The only thing we saved was the music and the bass drum. But no one in the band or the show was hurt."

Ronnie Drumm, the 44-year-old band director for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey edition appearing at D.C. Armory through Sunday, missed those times-and has a different perspective.

"We play a little bit of everything," he says. "I missed the big band era, but we play a lot of good charts-in the (Stan) Kenton, (Woody) Hermanvein."

Drumm has to cope with another change-younger players, different ones in every city. Ciruses used to carry their own bands intact. Now they travel with a nucleus of musicians-in this case, an organist, trumpeter, trombonist and conductor-trumpeter-and use local performers.

It works well in large cities, says Drumm, but not so well in small towns.

"Right now we're using the first trumpets from the U.S. Marine and Navy bands and a top-flight civilian-first trumpeter," he explains.

"I remember once in Billings, Mont., we needed 10 musicians, and they only had eight in the city. In Sheville, N.C., we used high schooler We had a girl who'd been playing saxophone for a year."

Sometimes they get famous musicians. Marshall Royal, former lead saxophonist for Count Basie's Orchestra, filled in in Los Angeles recently.

The change from old to new fails to alter some of the fundamental roles of the band. It still performs waltzes during most of the high wire acts and blazing fanfares during the opening moments.

Helping Drumm considerably with musical chores is his son, Rick, 24, the group's percussionist, whose main interest is jazz (he once had an offer to go on the road with the fusion group, Weather Report). Many nights after a performance in a strange city, he goes out looking for ajazz club where he can sit in.

So the Drumms, father and son, travel with their wives in trailers, always pulled by the lure-and lore-of the circurs, knowing that they won't get much time off.

The joy of performing is always there-whenever the elder Drumm lifts his flugel horn to play gentle melody for a trapeze artist, or the younger Drumm executes a billowing snare roll or sharp rimshot.

But there's still something magical-even for the players-in watching a performer do a double somersault high in the air as the band buoys him up with a lyrical waltz. CAPTION: Picture 1, Ronnie Drumm and members of the circus band; by Douglas Chevalier-The Washington Post; Picture 2, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus band; by Douglas Chevalier-The Washington Post