Joliet American Legion Band wins national band contest for the 39th time

The band has also performed for 7 U. S. presidents and 7 Illinois governors.

Joliet American Legion Band past president Don Witt honors its founders and strong ties to Joliet's musical history of Joliet prior to taking the stage for the American Legion’s 2022 National Concert Band Contest in Wisconsin. Pictured in the frames are A.R. McAllister Sr., A.R. "Archie" McAllister Jr. (band co-founder) and Bill Austin (band co-founder).

Joliet’s nickname “City of Champions” is due, at least in part, to its great band history in the Joliet schools and with the Joliet American Legion Band.

The Joliet American Legion Band again showed its championship status Aug. 28, by winning the American Legion’s 2022 National Concert Band Contest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This latest win was the band’s 39th since it began competing in 1946, said Mike Fiske of Joliet, music director. This is a sweet win for the band because it triumphed over a “wonderful band” from Tonawanda, New York, a “formidable opponent,” Fiske said.

“They started winning a lot back in the 1980s,” Fiske said. “And they’ve been a really strong band since then.”

Fiske is a newcomer to the Joliet American Legion Band, but he’s not a newcomer to bands. He played in the Joliet East High School band and then taught music education for 39 years, first at Morris Community High School, then at Joliet Central High School, where he retired from in 2016.

Fiske joined the American Legion Band in 2019 and assumed directorship in February.

“It’s been a lot of fun to me to be able to sit in front of the band,” Fiske said. “It’s a wonderful group of people. I love what they stand for. They’re service-oriented, they honor the veterans and they’ve got a great history. It’s been a wonderful opportunity.”

The Joliet American Legion Band again showed its championship on Aug. 28 by winning the American Legion’s 2022 National Concert Band Contest in Wisconsin. Pictured, from left, are the Joliet American Legion Band Director Michael Fiske, the 2021 to 2022 National Commander of The American Legion Paul Dillard, and the 2021 and 2022 Joliet American Legion Band President Matthew R. Witt.

Fiske said any mention of the Joliet American Legion Band must include mention of former music director Tom Drake.

“Tom started out playing clarinet in the band and directed the band 50-plus years,” Fiske said.

Drake said in a 2014 Herald-News story that the concept of starting the Joliet American Legion Band originated during World War II when two Joliet men, Archie McAllister Jr. and Bill Austin, served together on a small island in the South Pacific.

Their goal was – after the war – to form a band of Joliet musicians, led by Archie McAllister Sr., McAllister’s father and director of the Joliet Township High School Band, Drake said in the story.

When the senior McAllister died before the band’s inception, the junior McAllister founded it as a memorial to his father and served as its first director, Drake said in the story.

But the band also wanted to continue Joliet High School Band’s competitive tradition. So when members entered their first state American Legion contest in 1946, they “donned their service uniforms,” Drake said in the story.

McAllister served as band director until 1963, stepping down because of illness, Drake said. Drake, the assistant conductor since 1956, took McAllister’s place. Drake said in the story that the Joliet American Legion Band has three components: concert, marching and symphonic.

“No other band in the world does all three to the extent that we do,” Drake said in the story.

Tom Drake, director emeritus of the Joliet American Legion Band

According to the Joliet American Legion Band website, the band’s “unique sound” is from the “precise disciplined tradition” of John Philip Sousa, a composer and conductor of military marches.

It’s this military-style of discipline that sets the Joliet American Legion Band apart from other community bands, Fiske said. A military band performs concerts, but it also performs in parades, ceremonial events and, basically, whenever the community asks, Fiske said.

According to its website, the Joliet American Legion Band also has performed for seven U. S. presidents, seven Illinois governors, many government officials and dignitaries, and at the top of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

The band plays patriotic marches, show tunes, classical selections, band transcripts and contemporary pieces. It also performs an annual Christmas concert at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, where the ticket “price” is a donation of nonperishable foods for local food pantries.

Any person ages 18 and older may join. One member, Ed Periu, has played with the band for more than 50 years, Fiske said. Trumpet player Don Witt has played nearly as long.

“We’ve got people that are in their 60s and 70s and we’ve got people that are just out of college,” Drake said. “We’ve even had some high school players play with us. It’s a variety of ages.”

American Legion Post 1080 sponsors the band, he said.

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