ELKHART — From humble beginnings to sharing the stage with world-class performers, the Elkhart Municipal Band is celebrating a special milestone this year.
The band will mark 75 years of music with concerts that will pay tribute to the ensemble’s history and celebrate more years of entertainment to come. The band’s first performance of the year will be at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Lerner Theatre in downtown Elkhart featuring guest soloist Eugene Rousseau on saxophone.
“It will be free just like all of our concerts,” band director Dave Swihart said. “We’re hoping to have a good crowd, a full house.”
Elkhart commissioned the municipal band in 1938 when the city was the epicenter of the band instrument manufacturing industry. The group, which started out with 40 musicians, practiced everywhere from a cafeteria above the old C.G. Conn instrument factory to an old boxing ring with a single light bulb hanging in the center of the room. The band’s home at the McNaughton Park bandshell, named after longtime director Arthur J. Singleton, is much more comfortable, said drummer Betty Kegerreis. Kegerreis was one of the first women to join the band in 1943.
“The director at the time told me I could come to rehearsals but said I would never be able to play concerts with them because they didn’t allow women in this band,” said Kegerreis, who was fresh out of high school when she began rehearsing with the group 70 years ago. “That’s the way it was.”
World War II was a turning point for the municipal band, Kegerreis said. Several of the men in the band were drafted, so women filled the empty slots. Kegerreis has been performing at each of the band’s concerts ever since and always looks forward to the group’s Monday evening rehearsals.
“You can be so tired that you can hardly get one foot in front of the other and come to rehearsal, and by the end of that rehearsal, you are so psyched,” she said. “It’s almost like a drug because of the musicianship, that you’re playing with all of these tremendous musicians and the fact that music itself is just exhilarating.”
The band has grown to include 56 performers with a repertoire that spans marches, jazz, symphonic pieces and everything in between.
“We make enjoyable music,” said Lloyd Fillio, a trombone player who joined the band in 1947.
Swihart, a trained percussionist who became the band’s leader in 2010, attributes the group’s longevity to its dedicated members, past directors and the continuing support of the city of Elkhart.
“I’m not sure that we would have been able to exist for 75 years without that financial support,” Swihart said. “Elkhart has always been very important in the music world, especially in the musical instrument industry.”
Joyce Gerber, a trumpet player who has been in the band since 1947, has been the group’s secretary treasurer for 40 years.
“The members come in and while it’s fun, we get down to business,” she said. “It’s always been like a large family. It’s been a big part of my life, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
The municipal band is known for drawing talented soloists to perform at their concerts. The band’s spring show on April 21 at the Lerner Theatre will feature guest percussionist Ben Runkel playing the “Concerto for Percussion and Wind Ensemble” by Joseph Schwantner. Artist Celia Weiss will play Camille Saint-Saens’ “Finale from the Organ Symphony” on the theater’s newly restored organ.
The municipal band will kick off the Elkhart Jazz Festival on June 20 and host its traditional summer concert series with shows at McNaughton Park every Tuesday evening beginning June 4 through the first two weeks of August.
“We want to play music that makes people smile,” said Phil Penn, a longtime band member. “Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be performing at our very, very best and giving the best quality of music to the citizens of Elkhart.”