'Good Rhythm And A Very Good Ear'

By: Tim Wood

Kenneth Eldredge directs the Chatham Band during a July 4 parade. CAROL LEWIS PHOTO

Former Chatham Band Director Kenneth Eldredge Dies At 97

CHATHAM – Kenneth Eldredge joined the Chatham Band in the 1930s, but by that time he'd already been playing music for a while in the elementary school band. He started on trumpet but later took up drums and xylophone, which he played in the band for nearly 50 years before stepping into the big shoes of Whit Tileston as musical director.

“I must say I feel a great responsibility because I so admired the way he handled the band, the way he represented the band and the relationship between the band and the audience,” he said in 2013, a year before he stepped down as conductor at age 91.

Mr. Eldredge, a Chatham native who lived for many years in South Orleans, passed away Monday at age 97.

“He was terrific,” said Tom Jahnke, the band's current musical director. “I credit him with restarting my musical career.” Jahnke joined the band in 1995 and a few years later Mr. Eldredge asked him to be assistant director. When Jahnke took over as conductor in 2014, Mr. Eldredge returned to the percussion section for a few more years before retiring in 2016.

“He was a great showman,” band manager Anita Harris said of Mr. Eldredge. “You could see the happiness on his face when he got up on the bandstand.”

As a conductor, Mr. Eldredge “had a real precision,” she said, which probably came from decades of playing drums and xylophone. But he also had a good rapport with the audience at the band's Friday night concerts, she said.

“I'm really going to miss him,” Harris said.

Mr. Eldredge's musical talents may have come from his mother, who played piano accompaniment to silent films at the Orpheum Theater. Mr. Eldredge also played, sometimes sitting down at the keyboard during a break in Chatham Band rehearsals, Harris said. “He was good, too,” she said.

Despite playing in local school bands, the regional Monomoyick Band, the Deerfield Academy, the Dartmouth College Band and the U.S. Coast Guard Band, Mr. Eldredge couldn't read music.

“I have very good rhythm and a very good ear — I can tell you if that's the right note, but I can't necessarily point to it on the staff,” he told The Chronicle in 2013. “It's never been a challenge while directing the band, because if they're not playing it right I can tell right away.”

He spent World War II playing in the Coast Guard Band in Boston, and when the Chatham Band started back up in 1946, he slipped right into his old spot in the percussion section. In the 2013 article he said he briefly considered a career in music, but opted instead to go into the business his father began in 1916, Acme Laundry. He was also active in town government, serving as chairman of the town's finance committee in the 1960s, said moderator William Litchfield.

Mr. Eldredge became musical director of the Chatham Band – just the third since the band began in 1931 – in 1995, taking over from Whit Tileston, who had been director fore more than 40 years. He led the Friday night concerts in Kate Gould Park for 19 years, clearly relishing every performance. Tileston may have made the Chatham Band famous, Jahnke said, but Mr. Eldredge “upheld the band's wonderful traditions, [and] added his own spin to Friday night concerts.” He and his wife Franca wrote special lyrics to “Til We meet Again” for the band to sing, and he started the tradition of playing the popular “Bunny Hop” at every weekly concert.

“It's a remarkable feeling down there between the band and the audience,” he said in 2013. “We can even make a few mistakes, but when that 'Bunny Hop' starts, boy, everyone has a big smile on their face.”

Mr. Eldredge was one of the last connections with the early years of the band, along with his friend Ben Goodspeed, with whom he played trumpet in elementary school. Both played in the band for nearly 80 years, Jahnke noted, admiring their lifelong commitment to the Chatham institution.

“How many people are going to do the same thing, give up Friday nights all summer long, for their entire life?” he said. “There's a lot of loyalty there.”