Municipal bands, a summer favorite
Times may change, but some things stay the same. Fortunately for music lovers across Illinois, the municipal band is a constant, a cherished part of the summer landscape in communities statewide 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. 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 30 years. “I enjoy playing music all by myself, but I especially enjoy making music with like-minded people.”
In Springfield, the Municipal Band was established in 1936 and now features 50 musicians, who alternate on performances throughout the summer. It performs outdoor concerts in Douglas Park, Tuesdays from June through the first week in August, 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m. There are additional performances in other parks throughout the summer.
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 effort, 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 from a small group of musicians who had just returned from the California Gold Rush.
Today, the band concerts attract sizable crowds and are broadcast live on local radio as DeKalb proudly calls itself “the city with the oldest continuous band in Illinois.” Closer to home, the Decatur Municipal Band, which plays two concerts a week, dates to 1858.
In Edwardsville, one of the older towns of the state, the 75-member municipal band has origins that date to 1843. 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 from Fort Dodge, campaigned for legislation permitting communities to levy taxes for their bands.
Buxbaum, the clarinetist, 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, which rightfully claims 154 years of continuous legacy.
When those oldest bands were established in the mid-1800s, entertainment options were few and far between. Residents were left to their own devices to pass the time, and music was the choice of many, as local bands popped up at 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 such as Depression and the war years, municipal bands have provided an uplift for burdened residents.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.