The Band in the Park
on a Summer Night
Springfield’s Municipal Band plays on
August 11, 1978
The tradition of the band concert in the park pavilion on a summer evening has not died in small-town Illinois, but it is ailing. Springfield is not different. A municipal band costs money that most voters want spent on other things. Springfield’s Muny Band, I am happy to report, plays on, having survived budget cuts and time’s effects on its natural audience. I also wrote about the band here.
Outdoor band concerts are a tradition not much in favor lately with a generation that gets both its music and its fresh air out of boxes at home. Most of the people who show up at Springfield's Douglas Park every summer Tuesday and Thursday evening to hear the Springfield Municipal Band are old. The band's concert self is more than fifty players strong (there is a smaller, thirty-piece ensemble that plays the ball parks and parades) and it plays in the Louis Hahn band shell across the tracks from the John E. Sankey high-rise for the elderly.
The oldsters are the band's biggest fans, an allegiance that has its roots in both taste and finance. The band plays what they like to hear, but they also play for free, and that is important. On concert evenings they stroll over, some toting aluminum folding chairs of various stripes, some staking claims on the pond-green park benches that attend the bandshell like ducklings trailing in the wake of their mother. Others come by car and park nearby, listening from inside their cars with the doors open as an invitation to passing breezes. Some people sit on the concrete stoop of the high-rise across the tracks— it's easier for the sound of the music to traverse that span than it is for some of the audience. No one sits on the ground; it is damp on the ground, and for many of the band's faithful the distance between vertical and horizontal is impossibly large.
It is generally arranged by the band's managers that an ice cream social is held on concert nights adjacent to the bandshell site. Church groups and ladies clubs and sewing circles appropriate tables at the rear of the seating area at a discreet distance from the bandshell, and during concerts audiences wander back in twos or threes and march in review of the pies and cakes on display, often to the tune of accompaniment. It's all homemade, and it's cheap—75 cents for ice cream and cake, another quarter for coffee if the evening isn't too warm. It is an arrangement of inspired satisfactoriness. The sponsoring groups get a built-in crowd while the audience gets cheap refreshment. One suspects that, were the same ends accomplished by means of cumbersome concession contracts between the city and some caterer, the food would probably be only half as good and sell for twice the price.
But the band is the main attraction. There was a band in Springfield as early as the 1830's which was reported to have played "very well for a new country." It was organized under the leadership of a cabinet-maker. This is not unusual; today the Muny Band includes librarians, postal clerks, factory foremen, insurance agents, college students, meat cutters, and enough public school teachers and administrators to form a branch chapter of the National Education Association.
The most celebrated of the early bands was the Illinois Watch Factory Band (readers may make up their own jokes about the band keeping time) which first performed in 1881. When the factory closed in the 1930s the band merged with another outfit and became the Springfield Municipal Band. In 1936 the voters of Springfield, with a generosity scarcely creditable today, approved a referendum authorizing a tax on local property to pay for it and a five-person Municipal Band Commission to run it That levy produced every dollar of the band's 1978 budget of $59,500. Members are paid as little as the union will let the city get by with, but since gigs are scarce in the summer the band rarely has trouble getting people to show up to play
The man named to conduct the band that first season was Homer Mountz. He's been conducting it every summer—forty-two years in all. This season Mountz was named conductor emeritus. He no longer rehearses the band, and during concerts he conducts only a thirty-minute middle section of the program, six or eight pieces in all.
Mountz and the regulars in the audience know each other very well. His selections tend toward old popular songs, novelty tunes—"Lawrence Welk Plays Guy Lumbago," "Trumpeters' Lullaby," that sort of thing—and marches. Sousa ranks high on the list. The audience will begin to tap their feet to "Semper Fidelis" or the "Washington Post March," and when Mountz comes to a familiar favorite passage (what Andy Griffith, when he was still Deacon Andy, used to call "the darlin' part") he'll negotiate a quarter turn atop the podium and glance smilingly (still beating the beat) at the crowd, a gesture that says, "This is for you."
The musicians don't know what Mountz will play until concert time. Most of the tunes are simple stuff. Many are stock arrangements by a man named Hal Leonard, who might be described as sort of the Henry Ford of musical arranging: both turn out uncomplicated, unglamorous products that anybody can handle at a price everybody can afford. Several of the band members have been in the band as long as Mountz and their knowledge of the standard tunes is intimate and long-standing. It is occasionally said that once the downbeat is given the band sometimes leads Mountz rather than the reverse, but if that happens it is probably because both already know where they want to go.
The band is not quite as sure of its destination these days, however. The band has a new conductor. Gene Haas, the instrumental music director at Lincoln Land Community College; when not at LLCC or on the podium at Douglas Park, he can be found where he's been every weekend for fourteen years or so, placing bass in a dinner music combo at the Sangamo Club. Haas is a different sort of conductor from Mountz. He's much younger for one thing, and he takes what P. G. Wodehouse was fond of calling the broader view. The difference between the two men is not one of talent but of eras. Haas has asked the band this season to play more demanding selections. A concert band is more than a marching band sitting down; there exists a large and varied inventory of original works written for such ensembles as well as transcriptions for band of symphonic works. (Some composers, like the Englishman Gustav Holst, wrote specifically for band.) Now, in between medleys from "Porgy and Bess" and rhumbas, concert-goers hear things like Beethoven's "Egmont Overture" or English folk tunes arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Predictably, the new sounds grate on some ears. Some of them belong to the players, in fact. "Some of the guys don't dig the heavy stuff," says one, "because it means more work." Others welcome it because the new scores are a challenge to play. Haas is politic enough to know that the new music, like any rich food, is best served in small helpings, and the band still makes many bows in the direction of popular taste; it is one thing to lead an audience toward new music, another to leave it behind altogether. The ultimate criterion is the size of the audience, and the crowds this season have been good. Whether it is a triumph of habit or good taste it is hard to tell. The atmosphere at Douglas Park on band night is one of unforced hominess. Joe Bonefeste, the manager, circulates among the crowd during and between numbers, saying hello to the regulars, occasionally cocking a seasoned ear to hear how the band is coming across, taking requests—yes, the band does requests—sometimes collecting the names of out-of-town guests. This last ritual culminates in announcements during intermission that go like this: "Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So are here tonight from Danville," he'll intone, and the crowd gives the So-and-So's a polite hand. Once some people from faraway Connecticut showed up, and when Bonefeste revealed that astounding fact, people seated on a bench near the front murmured, "Oooh!"
The Municipal Band plays other places besides Douglas Park. The ordinance that created it says the band is to play for parades, concerts, and "civic and public celebrations." The band thus finds itself uncomfortably ensconced in places no musician would ever normally go. Last summer the band sat under an unforgiving sun at Sangamon State University with handkerchiefs draped over their heads, playing during the half-time of SSU's first soccer game. This year they played in the bleachers at Lanphier Park during a Fourth of July Redbirds baseball game. They also tootled at SCADA's art fair, the St. Aloysius Golden Anniversary, the Midwest Charity Horse Show, the Knights of Pythias convention parade, the 38 Club chicken fry, and the YWCA ice cream social. At times such a schedule seems a throwback to the days when musicians were considered little more than court jesters.
The Muny Band's concert season ends Thursday, August 31. The band hibernates during the winter when most of its members spend their time in studying, most teaching. When they play, they play in Elks Club ballrooms. Holiday Inns, and the assorted clubs, classrooms, and union halls where musicians are obliged to play when the weather turns too cold for chicken frys and ball games. ●