History of the Joliet Township High School Band Part Two: “A Sound Tradition”

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • January 10, 2019

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Last month we introduced you to the directors of the Joliet Township High School band, and the lineage that links the present with the origin of the program a century ago. This month we continue the history with those that have shaped and influenced its course.

The display cases are filled with items from a band historian’s dream. Original award plaques from the National Band Competitions of the 1920’s and ‘30’s where the band was adjudicated by the likes of Karl King, Edwin Franco Goldman, Herbert Clarke, and John Philip Sousa—share space with modern day plaques from the prestigious Illinois Super State Festival, where they were named the Honor Band 14 times. The traveling trophy from the National Band Competition, an ornate award depicting a band performing in a concert shell, is permanently retired here. There is an original bandsman’s hat from the Sousa Band. McAllister’s uniform cap, gloves, and baton sit in a place of honor near the auditorium entrance.

Other items archived here portray a “who’s who” of band history. There are original letters written back and forth between Houseknecht and E.F. Goldman discussing an upcoming guest conducting visit, correspondence with a young Frederick Fennell discussing a piece of music, and even the original handwritten score of Houseknecht’s band transcription of Pavel Tchesnokov’s Salvation Is Created…the one we have all played at some point in our band careers. Decades’ worth of concert programs are kept on file here, including several from the mid 1940’s listing a young string bass player in the band by the name of Ron Nelson—who of course went on to make his own substantial mark on the music world.

“The tradition of the band is what drives the kids,” says Fiske. “Don has done a marvelous job of teaching the kids what that means. The kids have a desire to be better because of what’s happened before them.”

Stinson related this to his own time as a student here, being a 2002 graduate of the school and a member of Lega’s final senior class. He said there was a respect of the history and tradition, but “having Ted as a director…this was a guy that made 14 to 18-year olds feel like artists. Life can be tough as a teenager, and the band room at Central was fantastic. We won awards, and that was great, but stepping into the band room…this guy got us to love who we were as artists, people, and musicians.”

“The tradition drove us,” Stinson continued. “There were times when we didn’t want to practice, but we didn’t want to be the senior class that messes this up!”

The humble beginnings transformed into a meteoric rise under McAllister’s direction. Within five years the band was gaining a national reputation, and within the next decade they had garnered their first national championship. With successes the band continued to grow in numbers as well, eventually becoming two bands with a large symphonic band numbering 70-80 performers and a smaller “training” band. Private lessons were a large part of that success, with nearly 100 percent of the members studying with the many local teachers.

It was during this time that the “Joliet sound” began to develop—a symphonic, almost orchestral sound. This paired well with the fact that at the time, prior to significant amounts of quality literature written specifically for wind band, transcriptions of major orchestral works were the order of the day. Programs from the 1920’s and 1930’s show that concerts consisted of music by Verdi, Sibelius, Wagner, and other masters of the Romantic era. Concerts were full Sunday afternoon affairs—four to five major works, an intermission, and four or five more major works. McAllister’s model for the high school band pushed others towards that style.

Houseknecht continued programming transcriptions, being a fan of Wagner as well as a very religious person. His arrangement of “Sine Nomine” is still played at Joliet’s graduation every year. There was a tremendous side benefit to Houseknecht being a staff composer for the Kjos Music Company—the band received multiple pieces of published music that the company wanted to have this famous band play. As a result, they have a large library of music that to this day Stinson uses to help the current band develop their sight-reading skills.

For Lega in particular, his model was that of the nearby Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He liked orchestral, Romantic era pieces — the John Krance and Alfred Reed arrangements in particular. He was also influenced by Harry Begian, the director of the University of Illinois bands. Begian became a mentor for Lega after hearing the band perform at an event in Champaign-Urbana, and the mentorship led to a lifelong friendship. Lega summed up his musical philosophy with, “There is always strength in beauty.” As a student under Lega, Stinson learned that “expression is the hard part…. There were times when we spent 30-40 minutes on one note. We needed somebody that was going to show us you could be good, or you could be great.”

Next Month: How the Tradition Continues!

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