It's Still Band Time In Chatham

By: Debra Lawless

The Chatham Band opens its 84th season Friday. KAT SZMIT PHOTO

For Chatham’s summer and year-round residents alike, Chatham Band concerts on Friday evenings evoke memories of summer and childhood “that you don’t get anywhere else,” says the band’s musical director Thomas Jahnke.

“It’s where everything comes together at the right moment,” adds Jahnke, who is beginning his third year as musical director. “It’s the perfect spot in the center of town. It is quite magical.”

The band’s 84th season will begin on Friday, July 1 at 8 p.m. in Kate Gould Park with a musical tribute to America. Concerts will run each Friday through Sept. 2. New music this year will include something for all ages—Taylor Swift’s dance song “Shake it Off,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and a new version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Many of the band’s musicians, who range in age from 13 to 95, have been performing with the group for decades. Take Kenneth Eldredge, 93, Jahnke’s predecessor as director. After nearly 20 years of conducting, he returned to the band’s percussion section in 2014. He joined the band in “year one” in the 1930s and “I don’t think it’s changed a bit,” he says, remarking on the band concerts’ timeless quality. “We’ve always played just stuff that the whole family would related to and enjoy.”

Eldredge notes that “all of us in the band look forward to Friday nights and really appreciate it. It’s been a marvelous situation.”

Those who wish to prolong the magic of band concerts beyond Friday nights might enjoy reading the new book “We Can Hear You On the Hill: The History of the Chatham Band” by band trumpeter David L. Boyer.

Boyer says the band’s magic comes from a combination of things—the visual appeal of the bandstand, the strings of balloons and the red uniforms; “guys who look otherwise like NYC bond traders, now doing the bunny hop;” and the park itself, that allows you to imagine it is “whatever year you like.” All these elements enhance the great music.

“Throw in the ambience of Chatham before and after the concert, and it’s a combination not to be found elsewhere,” Boyer says.

For many years Boyer was one of the summer people who wouldn’t miss a chance to attend a Friday night band concert during his family vacation here. When he retired from his job working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., he moved to Harwich, “mostly for the weather,” he says. And then, in 2006, he took up the trumpet.

“When I came to the Cape, I found the town bands weren’t looking for violins and pianos, so I borrowed my son-in-law’s saxophone and took a few lessons,” he recalls. After hearing a street performer playing the trumpet in Trafalgar Square in London, he discovered he preferred the trumpet.

“Starting at age 60, I’ve hardly ever missed a day of practice for 10 years,” he says. He qualified for the Chatham Band in 2014 and, as with Jahnke, this will be his third season.

In “We Can Hear You On the Hill,” Boyer tells the story of the band’s beginnings in 1931, what he dubs “a year of artistic ferment in Chatham.”

The band was originally called the American Legion Band, and it was directed by Thomas Nassi, an Albanian emigrant teaching in the Chatham schools. Men in the band—they were all men—wore blue blazers and white trousers. Forty-six members played at that first concert on May 7, 1931.

As the Great Depression dragged on, the band got to be well known, and would play anywhere. The summer of 1939 ended with an all-request concert, “a difficult thing to do well, but it was well appreciated,” Boyer writes.

With World War II, band concerts ceased for four years. Many of the players were serving overseas; trumpeter Roland James was killed in action in France.

After the war, tourism picked up in Chatham, and the band resumed its schedule. The Fourth of July concert in 1966 drew between 12,000 and 14,000 to Veterans Field. The year 1992 marked another milestone when Sharon Ferguson became the first woman to join the previously all-male band.

In the 85 years since 1931, the band has had only four primary directors. After the war, in 1946, Whitney Tileston, a teacher in Chatham, took over from Nassi. Under Tileston, the band became famous nationally, due to extensive media exposure. Tileston, who directed until 1994, initiated “The Bunny Hop” and was known for beginning concerts with his catchphrase “hi-dee-ho.” The park's band stand was eventually named for the long-time director.

Eldredge took up the baton in 1995. He continues performing on Friday nights with his friend Ben Goodspeed, a member since 1937.

“We all feel that we’re doing something nice for the community,” Eldredge says.

Boyer will sign copies of “We Can Hear You On the Hill” on Saturday, July 23 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Where the Sidewalk Ends. He will also talk about his book at the Eldredge Public Library on Wednesday, July 27 at 10:30 a.m.