City of champions: Joliet band has legacy of winners
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org December 9, 2012 6:24PM
The Joliet Township High School Band stands in front of the historic limestone school building on East Jefferson Street in 1931 -- a national championship year. The band won state titles from 1924-26 and national titles from 1926-28, as well as in 1931. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Updated: January 11, 2013 6:03AM
JOLIET — The band played “Black Horse Troop,” a march with percussion resembling the steps of steeds.
A horse is built for the ground and for the wind. So the musicians continued with a flourish of woodwinds — clarinets, saxophones and bassoons. They played the prelude from “L’Arlesienne Suite” by Bizet and the overture for “Phedre” by Massenet.
The band excelled with this balance of power and grace, like a horse galloping in the wind.
The Joliet Township High School Band won the contest — its first national championship — in 1926 in Fostoria, Ohio. At the contest, 5,000 people cheered this steed that could soar.
A.R. McAllister was the director of the Joliet Township High School Band. Under his leadership, the band won state championships in 1924, 1925 and 1926.
McAllister then led the band to national championships in 1926, 1927, 1928 and 1931.
Then, after the contest system changed, he led the band to Division I finishes — the highest possible national rating — in 1933, 1935, 1938 and 1940.
That first national victory, in 1926, was a special time in Joliet.
“They came home to a hero’s welcome,” said Dr. Phillip M. Hash, a music scholar who has studied the history of the band.
“They arrived in Joliet at 11:15 p.m., greeted by ‘a screaming multitude, not seen since that memorial Armistice Day, 1918,’” Hash said, reading from the Joliet Evening Herald-News.
The band was honored in a parade “headed by a detachment of police, the fire department, the municipal and grade school bands and hundreds of citizens,” Hash read from school documents.
Today, The Herald-News continues with “The Best Band in the Land,” a series on the history of the Joliet Township High School Band, which is celebrating its 1912-2012 centennial. This article, as well as the previous installment, draws heavily on the work of Hash, an associate professor of music education at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The pop years
In the early years, the JT band played popular music. The musicians played for the masses.
As an example, Hash points to the band’s concert repertoire from the summer of 1915: “Bohemian Girl,” “Eleanor” and “Dew Drops,” by Al Hayes, a pseudonym for the famous composer Henry Fillmore.
The band also played the “Joliet Township High School March,” by J.H. Garnsey, a member of the school board.
In the 1916 yearbook, there is a list of instrumentation that is typical for a school band, a community band or a military band during that time.
Hash reviews the list: five clarinets, one alto saxophone, six cornets, three alto horns, four trombones, two euphoniums, two basses and six drummers.
“And there’s that rain-catcher Sousaphone right in the back center, with the bell pointing up,” Hash said, examining a yearbook photo. “Sousa thought that caused the sound to go kind of over the band, to envelop the band. And today, they still use them — the modern upright concert tubas — that have the bell pointing up.”
The mostly brass and percussion band mimicked the military bands of the time — and did not have a lot of woodwind players.
“This instrumentation worked well for marching and for outdoor playing, and it fit the repertoire of the band, which was playing mostly marches, waltzes and popular music,” Hash said.
By fall 1915, band had become an accredited class at the high school, with students earning one credit toward graduation.
“This was a big deal because now the band was a curricular activity, rather than an extracurricular activity,” Hash said.
By the end of its first year, the band had become affiliated with several civic organizations in town, including the Joliet Ad Club, the Joliet Rotary Club and the Grand Army of the Republic, which was an organization of Civil War veterans.
“The Rotary Club was especially supportive of the band financially, donating money for instruments and uniforms,” Hash said. “In return, the band was expected to play at conventions and meetings of this organization, so it was kind of a symbiotic relationship.”
In April 1920, the band accompanied the Joliet Rotary Club to the district convention in Bloomington.
“While they were there, they also played concerts for local schoolchildren, and the school board and officials said, ‘Hey, we need to have this in our school,’ and the following year started a band program in the Bloomington schools,” Hash said.
This is one example of how Joliet inspired other towns to join the growing school band movement.
In June 1920, the Joliet band accompanied the district Rotary to the national convention in Atlantic City, N.J. The band stopped in Gettysburg, Pa.; Washington, D.C.; and Niagara Falls.
Hash reads from the Joliet Evening Herald: “Six thousand delegates are taking back to their homes in Europe, South America, Canada and the United States, Joliet’s boy band idea. ... In hundreds of cities around the globe, delegates to the convention in their report on the section will tell their clubs about the boy band and Joliet.”
The Joliet band later attended Rotary conventions in St. Louis and Toronto; accompanied the Kiwanis to a convention in St. Paul, Minn.; and accompanied the Veterans of Foreign Wars to Springfield.
“In all of these trips, they probably inspired a lot of school bands,” Hash said.
Early contest era
Joliet’s band started out with the mission of building spirit at football games. A repertoire of popular music followed. Patriotic music took on added importance during the World War I years.
In the early 1920s, the band entered a new era: state and national contests.
“The contests were very important to the development of school bands in the United States,” Hash said. “They led to changes in repertoire of the music that bands played — and to the instrumentation, not just for the Joliet Township High School Band, but for others throughout the country.”
These contests turned bands into what were considered serious musical organizations.
“And it likely narrowed the curriculum for a lot of organizations,” Hash said. “In order to win, what do you have to do with your contest music? Practice it a lot. So a lot of bands started playing only a few numbers, and working on those most of the year — which was, by most people, seen as a detriment to school bands.”
In 1923, the Music Dealers Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event that is considered the first national contest in the United States.
The Joliet Grade School Band participated, and won $1,000. That victory will be covered later in this series.
Another group, the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music, decided that such contests were too commercial. This group wanted something more educational in nature.
So in 1924, the bureau established contests requiring a high caliber of repertoire: mostly orchestral transcriptions, such as Mozart, Bach and Rachmaninoff.
Joliet responded to this trend. Hash points to the repertoire from Joliet Township High School’s concert on April 27, 1925. The list includes the “Unfinished Symphony in B Minor” by Schubert; “Serenade d’Amour” by Von Blon; “Pioneer,” a march by E.F. Goldman; “Scenes Pittoresques” by Massenet; “Ballet Music from Faust” by Gounod; and “The Kilties,” a march by S.E. Morris.
“These are pieces that they were preparing to play in the contest,” Hash said.
The Joliet Sunday Evening Herald documented this change in repertoire:
“A new departure, or something very like it, will mark the sixth-annual concert of the Joliet Township High School Band. The unusual feature, according to A.R. McAllister, director of the band, is that the music to be given in this concert is not usually performed by brass bands, but it is of the high grade and subtle quality usually left entirely to the symphony orchestra.”
After the concert, the Joliet Evening Herald reported: “From the start, the shading and power was noticeable. The sustaining emotional content was pleasing. And altogether there seemed to be a new delight, and a new attitude toward music for its own sake. The contrast from power to passages of extreme delicacy was well felt, and well controlled. The applause for the ‘Unfinished Symphony’ by Schubert was attributed to the vision of the director as well as recognition for the work of the players.”
The rest is history: The Joliet band won the state championship from 1924 to 1926.
“They gained permanent possession of the trophy,” Hash said. “After that, the other directors said, ‘You know what? Let’s just not have them compete anymore.’ They won all the time.”
Starting in 1927 or 1928, Joliet stopped competing in the state contest, and immediately was forwarded to the national contest — giving other Illinois bands a chance.
The band won three national championships in a row: in 1926, in Fostoria, Ohio; in 1927, in Council Bluffs, Iowa; and in 1928, in Joliet.
Ironically, Joliet almost did not attend that first championship contest in 1926.
“It was graduation week,” Hash said. “They voted, and some boys voted not to go.”
What happened next was an indication of how important Joliet had become.
Hash describes the scene: “The organizer of the contest, C.M. Tremaine, who was the head of the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music, came to Joliet. He met with the superintendent, and said: ‘How can we make this work? Because it’s not really a national contest if the Joliet band doesn’t come and participate.’ ”
The Joliet musicians showed up in Ohio — the evening before the contest began. Not exactly a leisurely schedule. This was noted when the contest results were announced.
“They started with the fourth, Louisville, Kentucky; third, Ogden, Utah; second, Fostoria; first ... the plucky band that pulled in last night at 7:00 and played at ...”
At that point, the crowd of 5,000 began cheering “Joliet!”
Their cheers were absolutely correct, according to this account, given in the high school annual.
Due to time restrictions, the band declined an invitation to play a public concert and boarded the train for a trip home, where the musicians were honored in a parade.
The following year — 1927 — the contest added a new challenge.
“The contest organizers said, ‘You know, there are a lot of bands that are just playing three pieces all year, so they can try to win the contest. And that’s not right. They need to learn how to read music, and play a lot of different music. So we’re also going to start testing them on sight reading.’ ”
Sight reading — the practice of playing music from the sheet, without having practiced beforehand — became part of the contest.
The following year — 1928 — Joliet won the national contest on its home turf. Legendary composer John Philip Sousa stood on Herkimer Street and conducted 2,000 musicians who had traveled to Joliet to compete.
“Sousa was one of the judges, and the contest was on Saturday and Sunday,” said Bob Moore, a band alumnus who watched this event as a young boy. “Before they left to go home, they all assembled out there under his baton and played ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ ”
In 1929, the Joliet band was not allowed to compete, since it had won three titles in a row.
“They were going as an honor group, or just to perform as an exhibition group,” Hash said of the band’s trip to Denver that year.
In 1930, Joliet came in second place — by only 0.7 of a point. Senn High School, of Chicago, won the national championship in Flint, Mich., that year. Joliet lost the close competition on the sight-reading portion.
In 1931, Joliet regained the national title in Tulsa, Okla. The following year, there was no national contest because of the Great Depression.
In 1933, the contest switched to a rating system.
“The organizers of the contest said, ‘It’s gotten to be too competitive — bands are losing by 0.7 of a point,’ ” Hash said.
Under the new system, more than one band could win a Division I rating: the highest possible. Several bands could be grouped into each rating.
Under this system, McAllister led the band to Division I ratings in 1933, 1935, 1938 and 1940.
Next installment: Reflections on the McAllister years.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum, 204 N. Ottawa St. in Joliet, is now displaying “Strike Up the Band,” an exhibit on 100 years of band history at Joliet Township High School. The museum is seeking sponsors in order to create a permanent band exhibit. Call 815-723-5201, or visitwww.jolietmuseum.org.