‘The best band in the land’: A look at 100 years of high school band excellence
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org November 14, 2012 10:28PM
Members of the Joliet West High School Marching Tigers pause to perform music as they march to raise money for the coming school year as seen Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 16, 2012 6:05AM
JOLIET — “The best high school band in the land.”
America always has been a place of civic boosterism. Every town has eager folks filling the newspapers with hyperbole. This quote could have come from a person who was hopelessly biased for the home team.
Except it didn’t.
This quote — declaring that Joliet Township High School has the best band in the land — was spoken by John Philip Sousa.
In 2012, Joliet Township High School is celebrating a century of band history. It is a history full of high honors. The Herald-News will document this century with a special series of stories over the next few months.
A.R. McAllister was the director of the Joliet Township High School Band. He led Joliet to four national championships and three state championships between 1924 and 1931.
In the Joliet band’s early years, these musicians were on the leading edge of the nascent high school band movement in the United States.
Joliet went to the top — the national competition. And it was among the first to get there.
These musicians were so good, the contest organizer personally visited this city and beseeched them to compete at the nationals — because it wouldn’t be the nationals without them.
And then, after Joliet had won three straight national titles, the band was not allowed to compete in 1929. It performed as an honor band.
When Joliet finally did take second place, it was by seven-tenths of a point.
Since McAllister’s death in 1944, the campus on East Jefferson Street has had only three other directors — Bruce Houseknecht, Ted Lega and Mike Fiske. These three men have produced an impressive array of national- and state-level trophies themselves.
And at Joliet West High School, Kevin Carroll and his band have stormed downstate numerous times in the last 19 years, upholding a legacy of honor in Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal.
In the coming weeks, look for regular Herald-News stories that trace this century of history: the 1912 performances at football games; in-depth biographies of McAllister, Houseknecht, Lega, Fiske, Carroll; memories from students, parents, alumni; a thrilling run all the way to the state competitions this fall.
JT and beyond
However, any serious history must go beyond the limestone walls of Joliet and comprehend the school band movement that this city helped create.
In 2012, Lockport Township High School can commemorate the 50th anniversary of its national championship in 1962, under Director Ernest Caneva.
In 2013, the Joliet Grade School District will commemorate its centennial year. And it can celebrate the 90th anniversary of its national title in 1923.
In October, the Lincoln-Way High School District had three schools in the top 12 at the Illinois State University competition. Lincoln-Way East placed fifth, North placed sixth, and Central placed 12th.
This is the tip of the iceberg regarding the storied band history at Lincoln-Way. It is an institution that takes music seriously. North is home to the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.
Many grade school bands in the Joliet area have legacies that run deep: Troy, Chaney, Rockdale. The Herald-News will look into their histories as well.
And then there is the award-winning Joliet American Legion Band, which is a necessary continuation of the Joliet Township story. For many years, the legion band was directed by Archie McAllister, the son of A.R. McAllister.
Who was this man who recognized Joliet as America’s best high school band?
Sousa was the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Semper Fidelis” and “The Thunderer.”
Sousa was the leader of the U.S. Marine Band, which was recognized as the finest military band in the world. “The March King” was born Nov. 6, 1854. He died March 6, 1932.
In 1928 in Joliet, Sousa conducted 2,000 musicians who had traveled here for the national contest, which Joliet won.