In the summer of 2020, the Don Palzer Bandshell in Kankakee’s Bird Park echoed with (to borrow a title from the Simon & Garfunkel songbook) “the sound of silence.” For the first time in more than 60 years, the Kankakee Municipal Band did not present its series of free concerts on summer evenings.
“Due to the pandemic, for the first summer since 1954, the Kankakee Municipal Band was silent,” wrote Band Director Mike Snyder in a recent email.
He noted that the 2021 summer concerts might also fall victim to COVID-19, and suggested that the history of the band might make an interesting newspaper column.
“I don’t want the folks of Kankakee forgetting that we exist. Our audiences have been growing for the past several years and I don’t want to lose the momentum.”
The Municipal Band, currently composed of approximately 50 music-loving community members with a wide variety of occupations, has been presenting concerts in Kankakee for 66 years. But the concept of a musical organization providing (usually) free concerts for the public dates to the time when the city was only a dozen years old.
In a history of community band music in Kankakee written in 1997, veteran Municipal Band French horn player Brad Reel wrote, “In 1865, the City of Kankakee gave a general picnic — practically the entire town was in attendance. With the all-brass and percussion band leading the way, the town assembled at the Court House and marched in procession south on Harrison Avenue. Their destination was a beautiful picnic area known as ‘Block 52’ (today, the southeast corner of corner of Harrison Avenue and River Street). The band spent the entire summer day entertaining the townspeople.”
A key member of that 1865 band was hardware merchant Lawrence Babst, who went on to found the Kankakee Silver Cornet Band in the early 1870s.
Composed of a percussionist and seven horn players, the elegantly uniformed band was “frequently called upon to entertain in Kankakee and nearby communities.”
Describing the late 1800s and early 1900s as “the golden age of the instrumental ensemble with ‘no strings attached,’” Reel reported, “there is evidence … that a band sponsored by the City of Kankakee existed from the 1880s and lasted through the early 1900s.”
That band’s first conductor was Charles E. Voss, a well-known photographer in Kankakee; his son Emory was a Municipal Band percussionist from the 1920s until he retired in 1964 at the age of 77.
The city-sponsored band was among those regularly playing at Electric Park (now Beckman Park), an amusement park operated by the Kankakee trolley company.
The direct ancestor of today’s Municipal Band was born in the 1920s as a joint effort by the local musicians’ union, the Chamber of Commerce and the Park Committee of the City of Kankakee (now the Kankakee Valley Park District).
The Kankakee Daily Republican reported on Feb. 6, 1923, that the band would consist of 28 distinctively uniformed members, and would present 14 free concerts in local parks during the summer months.
A supporter of the proposed band declared that it “would be a great advertisement for Kankakee as well as a legitimate amusement, to which the public is entitled.”
The band’s first concert, held at the downtown Luna Theatre on April 4, 1923, charged admission — it was a fundraising event to pay for the new uniforms.
The Daily Republican’s review on the following day was glowing: “It has been a matter of common knowledge for a long time that the city has some good musicians, but the realization that Kankakee has a really great band came last night. The program was perfection itself.”
For at least the next seven years, the band played a series of free concerts each summer in Riverview (now Cobb) Park and other local parks. The band probably became a victim of the Great Depression — Reel’s history of the band notes that it “apparently disbanded shortly after the 1929 season.”
A quarter-century would pass until the band “struck up” again.
Next: Strike Up the Band (Again)!