July 17, 2024

Historic Highlights: Municipal bands a favorite of summer across Illinois

Times may change, but some things stay the same. Fortunately for music lovers, the municipal band is a constant, a cherished part of the summer landscape in many communities for decades.

Across Illinois and the nation, musicians in communities large and small keep the tunes playing for a devoted following, spending their precious time and using their own instruments on warm nights throughout the season. And mostly, it’s for the love of it.

“It gives me great pleasure to play in the band,” said Laurence Buxbaum, a retired artist who has played clarinet in the Carlinville Municipal Band for over 35 years. “I enjoy playing music all by myself, but I especially enjoy making music with other, like-minded people.”

The DeKalb Municipal Band performs its annual Independence Day concert at the Dee Palmer Band Shell in Hopkins Park in DeKalb on Monday July 4, 2022 to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The term “municipal band” and “community band” are often used interchangeably. In many cases, municipal band members are supported by their cities and earn small amounts of money for their efforts, while community bands may be solely volunteer efforts. There are an estimated 2,500 community bands nationwide.

Several municipal bands in Illinois jockey for the title of oldest in the state. In DeKalb, the city’s municipal band dates to 1854, when the Silver Cornet Band was created by a small group of musicians who had just returned from the California Gold Rush.

Today, the band concerts attract sizable crowds and are even broadcast live on local radio as DeKalb lays claim to “the city with the oldest continuous band in Illinois.”

In Peoria County, the community band of Elmwood (population 1,945) makes a similar claim to the title of oldest in the state.

In 2009, the band marked its 150th anniversary with a special concert including an originally commissioned piece inspired by a Lorado Taft statue in Central Park, home to the band’s performances.

That band’s website also declares itself “the longest continuously performing community band in Illinois.”

In Edwardsville, one of the older towns of the state, the municipal band has origins that date back to 1843. Today, the 75-member band plays weekly during the summer, mostly at the Edwardsville City Park next to the public library, continuing a tradition since 1885.

Edwardsville was one of many communities that took advantage of a 1927 state law allowing municipalities to enact a “band tax” to support their bands. The Illinois law was copied from neighboring Iowa, where Karl King, a former Barnum and Bailey Circus bandmaster, had campaigned for legislation permitting communities to levy taxes for their bands.

The Alton Municipal Band has been around since 1891 and plays in front of enthusiastic crowds during their summer schedule, mainly at Riverview Park on Thursdays and Haskell Park on Sundays.

Like many others, the Alton Municipal Band features a wide range of ages among its members, ranging from late teens to late 80s. The band offers a mixture of Broadway, traditional marching band favorites, and contemporary numbers.

In Carlinville, the municipal band plays around six concerts a year, including for Memorial Day and Flag Day. Most are held in the town square and attract a strong following.

Buxbaum also plays in a unique composition of municipal bands from four small towns. The southern Macoupin County communities of Staunton, Gillespie, Mount Olive and Benld each hosted their own bands for decades, though around a quarter-century ago, the bands consolidated to form what is now known as the Heritage Community Band.

Of the communities that compose the group, Staunton had the oldest band, dating to 1863, so the Heritage Community Band rightfully claims 160 years of near-continuous legacy. The band is directed by Darryl Coan, a music professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

When those older bands were established in the mid-1800s, entertainment options were few and far between. In that era before television, radio, the Internet and automobiles, residents were left to their own devices to pass the time. Music was the choice of many, and local bands popped up at significant events, such as political rallies, rudimentary sports challenges, and town picnics.

Such musical accompaniment was prevalent in town functions even in the early years of the 20th century. In down times, municipal bands have provided an uplift for residents burdened by world wars, the Depression and similar downturns, and the lasting effects of natural and man-made disasters.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.