The Band in the Park

on a Summer Night

Springfield’s Municipal Band plays on

Illinois Times

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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated