By Tom Emery
Times may change, but some things stay the same. Fortunately for music lovers across Wisconsin, the municipal band is a constant, a cherished part of the summer landscape in communities statewide for decades.
Across Wisconsin 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.
Laurence Buxbaum of Carlinville, Ill., is a retired artist who has played clarinet in the Carlinville Municipal Band for more than 30 years. He also plays in the Heritage Community Band, a unique composition of municipal bands from four nearby small towns that dates to 1863.
“It gives me great pleasure to play in the bands,” said Buxbaum. “I enjoy playing music all by myself, but I especially enjoy making music with other, like-minded people.”
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.
In Fort Atkinson, the Community Band has origins that date to 1960. Today, the 45-member band is a local institution and plays during the summer in Barrie Park.
To the north in Marshfield, the Civic Band was founded in 1895, but four years later, was named the Second Regiment Band of the Wisconsin National Guard, beginning a 62-year relationship with the military.
Near Green Bay, the Little Chute Community Band opened in 1924 with 25 members, and has become a local favorite, playing at parades, Christmas concerts and various other locales. The 38 members of the band today include one gentleman who has played in the group for more than 72 years.
Without question, municipal bands are fixtures in their communities. In 2002, the Black River Area Community Band began to spearhead an effort to build a new bandshell in Lunda Community Park, which became a reality two years later. The band proudly gave its inaugural concert in the new bandshell in June 2004.
When the oldest bands were established in the 1800s, entertainment options were few and far between. In that era before TV, 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 remained prevalent in town functions stretching into the 20th century. In down times, municipal bands have provided an uplift for residents burdened by world wars, the Depression and similar downturns, and lasting effects of natural and man-made disasters.
The cornet was a chosen instrument of 19th-century community music, a reflection of the popularity of brass bands. Local bands themselves have their origins in European tradition, particularly Germany and England.
Near Manitowoc, the Newtonburg Brass Band has attempted to re-create that classic sound. The band first played in 1904 as members of a local church joined to perform at picnics, dances and other gatherings. The band lasted until World War I, but was revived in 2000 and is now known for its marches, Dixieland sound, sing-a-longs, and polka and waltz selections.
Many American community bands also evolved from militia or military bands. Allentown, Pa., claims to have the oldest civilian concert band in the nation, with a documented establishment of July 4, 1828.
Since then, the selection of musical instruments has changed with musical tastes. Still, classical compositions and patriotic music remain the favorites of audience members who have, in many cases, followed their bands for years. Rare is the muni band concert that is not attended by a loyal fan base that brings their lawn chairs and blankets to relax and enjoy an evening of the town’s finest music.
Buxbaum agrees that municipal bands remain popular with the public.
“We’ve actually seen our crowds increase for the Heritage Community Band,” he said. “Our director has expanded our music, and has stepped up our publicity. We’ve also had professional soloists appear with us, including from the St. Louis Symphony.”
And the talent is often substantial in the bands themselves. Municipal bands include members who have honed their craft for decades, as well as top high school and college music players. Past band members in Taylorville, Ill., include Arthur “Boots” Holland, a former trumpet player with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra.
Some bands have the opportunity to showcase their talents around the nation, such as the South Milwaukee Municipal Band, founded in 1935. In 1964, that group performed at the New York World’s Fair.
With a few exceptions, municipal bands perform regularly through the summer months only. So when August fades away, the music usually goes with it. Until next summer, that is.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill.