Joliet band did more than win titles — it made memories
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org January 4, 2013 7:02PM
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:02AM
JOLIET — The cornets were like three rays of sunlight, three songbirds, announcing the dawn over the Scottish countryside.
“Annie Laurie a la Moderne,” a song featuring a cornet trio playing with a rise-and-shine quickness, was performed by the Joliet Township High School Band. The song’s composer, Cuyler H. Leonard, was delighted.
In 1940, Leonard directed the band in a concert at the University of Southern California. This was one stop on a memorable Western tour.
“When the audience applauded enthusiastically after the number, Leonard told how he had written the number for the Golden Cornet Trio, outstanding professional cornetists of the United States,” a newspaper article read. “He told his surprise at hearing the number, written for professionals, played so excellently by the Joliet band’s cornet trio of Robert Hamilton, Ray McKeever and William Hartung.”
By the time of this concert, the band had won numerous state and national championships under its full-time director, A.R. McAllister. However, this tour points out another aspect of the band’s legacy — the ability to make memories, to inspire.
Today, The Herald-News continues its series on band history, “The Best Band in the Land,” again drawing heavily on the research of Dr. Phillip Hash.
Hash is an associate professor of music education at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has done extensive research on school band history in Joliet.
When recalling one’s years in a school band, when recalling one’s school years in general, a graduate must look past the trophies and grasp the intangible: What did I learn back then, that I can take with me for my entire life?
New York City
In April 1936, the Joliet Township High School Band traveled to New York City to perform at Radio City Music Hall, for a week’s worth of performances with the Rockettes.
The band played four times a day and five on Saturday.
“Twenty-nine times we played, and we did it all by memory,” band alumnus Bob Moore told The Herald-News this summer, recalling the trip.
The band played in a stage production called “The Glory of Easter.” Afterward, the theater showed the movie “Little Lord Fauntleroy” — which, by the way, features the “Annie Laurie” of antiquity, a Scottish song.
A photograph shows the Rockettes and orchestra in front, and the Joliet band in the back, during a performance at this historic American venue.
The late Otto Mattei Jr. was another member of the band during that trip. His sister, Gloria Mattei Watson, still has a school essay that he wrote regarding the experience.
“I suppose that everyone has at some time or another experienced what might be called the most thrilling moment of his life. At any rate, I have. These moments were during the first performance of the Joliet High School Band at Radio City, New York,” Mattei wrote.
“Have you ever played Radio City? Have you ever faced an audience of 8,000 of the world’s most critical and hard-to-please people? Have you ever had bright lights bear down upon you and blind you so that you couldn’t see these severe critics, yet all the time you knew that they were there? Have you ever experienced the thrill that comes to you when you were enveloped by the approval of 16,000 applauding hands?” the student wrote.
“You’ve experienced all of these things if you were on stage with the Joliet band at the Showplace of the Nation,” Mattei wrote. “But if you were not there, you could only be told of these strange and new sensations by one who was there.”
Mattei said the stage actually moved, and the performances were exciting.
The band played in two parts of the show, according to the program. The Joliet musicians played in a part called the Easter Parade, and then they also played in the finale.
The Joliet students stayed in New York for a week. Radio City Music Hall wanted them to stay for another week, but some parents complained, and the superintendent declined the offer, saying that he did not want the students to miss another week of school.
McAllister said the boys had gotten as much out of the experience as they could, and it was time to go home. Nevertheless, Mattei’s excitement followed him back to the Midwest, and his essay is a detailed account of a trip that endured as a lasting memory for him and his family.
Mattei’s teacher — while asking him to watch his spelling — gave him an excellent score of 97 on the essay.
“So to play at Radio City Music Hall was quite an honor for a school band,” Hash said.
In 1940, the band toured the American West by train. The trip included stops in El Paso, Texas; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; and Boys Town in Nebraska.
The band performed on the “American Youth Program” on the NBC Radio network.
On April 2, the band performed at the Music Educators National Conference, which was the main reason for the trip.
“To go to California in 1940 was not easy. You got on a train, there were a lot of stops, it took several days to get there,” Hash said. “This was such an important ensemble, that the Music Educators National Conference wanted them to be a part of that concert.”
A.R. McAllister was the director of the Joliet Township High School Band from 1913 to 1944.
During these years, he helped lead a national movement to develop high school bands into sophisticated musical organizations — playing a repertoire of both popular music and classical pieces.
McAllister was president of the Illinois School Band Association, which took over the state contests from 1924 to around 1940.
He was vice president of the National Band Association, and then president from 1926 to 1941. And he led the efforts to coordinate band, orchestra and vocal contests with the Music Educators National Conference in 1937.
In 1931, McAllister was elected to the American Band Masters Association.
“That’s really quite an honor — there’s currently only about 300 some members of that organization. And most of them are college or professional conductors,” Hash said.
McAllister served as an adjudicator and a guest conductor throughout the United States. He conducted bands at Interlochen, the prestigious arts center in Michigan.
“He was very well known and a very important part of the history of school bands in the United States,” Hash said.
McAllister died in 1944 at the age of 63. He made Joliet a nationally known name in the field of band music.
In January 1953, the Chicago Daily News printed a quote from the late music legend John Philip Sousa — declaring that Joliet Township, under McAllister’s direction, had “the best high school band in the land.”
Next installment: Bruce Houseknecht becomes director.
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 visit www.jolietmuseum.org.