In June and July, every Thursday evening folks gather in Fremont Park in Emporia, Kansas. Some lounge in lawn chairs or on blankets. Others choose to stand in the clear air of the Heartland. All come to hear the Emporia Municipal Band (EMB) play a free concert as it has done since the 1940s.
A white gazebo, rebuilt a few years back by Emporia State Bank, looks just like the original one that stood there in the early part of the twentieth century. Unlike the first gazebo, the new one has electric lights in case clouds turn dark and dim the world. The band has grown, so it is a tight fit for the EMB’s sixty members. The upper woodwinds know to arrive early so they can get to the front row without having to climb over the trombone section. Wire stands are equipped with full page-sized acrylic covers and large acrylic clips, which anchor the music on the stand. It is Kansas and the wind will blow. Keeping music from blowing away is its own challenge and a necessary skill for the musicians to acquire.
EMB members range in age from high school kids to retirees. College professors and local band directors sit next to their students. The rest of the band is populated by white-collar and blue-collar workers, all unified by their love of music. Being a member of the Emporia Municipal Band means cracking trumpet jokes, bragging about your section, and complaining over the tight seating. Smelling valve oil, hearing squeaky reeds, and the inevitable tuning is as rich an experience as playing a Sousa march; and, there is never a season when a Sousa march is not played.
Once assembled and ready, the band director of twenty-three years, Gary McCarty, reads the play list so that everyone can move from one piece to another without a long pause. The format is simple and has been the same for years. Radio personality and emcee Roger Hartsook asks the crowd to stand. A drum roll begins with a sforzando and the downbeat brings the band in for the national anthem. Meanwhile, the local troop of Boy Scouts raises the United States flag, and then the state flag of Kansas. Immediately following is a rousing tune to enliven the crowd.
Many concerts have themes: movie music, Kansas tunes, favorite band composers, Broadway hits. The Fourth of July concert is full of patriotic favorites, including an energetic performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. A local church sponsors ice cream before one of the concerts each year and that always draws a thankful crowd.
A Children’s Concert is always held during the week that Emporia hosts the National Teachers Hall of Fame inductees. As honored guests, they often join the kids in the chicken dance.
Every concert has a march for the children, although adults often join in. Kids are invited to come forward to carry flags and they march around the park. It is an honor to carry the larger American flag and the Kansas flag, but most kids get a small one. Hopefully, the children wave their flags without dragging them on the ground. Band members enjoy sneaking peeks at where the children will meander to this week, often amused by their ambitious, circuitous routes. When the march is complete, each child receives bubble gum for returning their flag. Many toddlers prefer to keep the flag instead of getting gum and voice their objections loudly.
As all places are in Emporia, Fremont Park is near the railroad tracks. These particular tracks are a mere stone’s throw from the gazebo. Throughout the concert, train whistles blow, accentuating music and undoubtedly covering up key parts of the song written at pianissimo. The best train ever to pass through came when the band was playing a medley of John Williams tunes. Just as the low brass played those iconic, ominous notes that scream Jaws, “bah-dump,” a train answered with a low-voiced horn, “waaaah.” This repeated several times. As if tuned for its debut with the Emporia Municipal Band, the train stole the show while the woodwinds snickered.
Other weekly standards are a simple hymn, followed by a sing-along like In the Good Old Summertime. The concert is full of delightful, beloved band literature. It wraps up with a stirring arrangement of the state song of Kansas, Home on the Range. Emporians stand with their hands over their hearts as the flags are lowered. The sun sets on the beautiful, small city/big town of Emporia, which preserves the tradition of community band concerts.
It sounds like Americana at its best. That may be true, but for Emporians, it’s just a Thursday evening in the summer and this is what we do. Taking this tradition for granted makes it sweet and pure and enjoyable. It is love of band, love of music, love of community: it is priceless.