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Keepers of the Flame

James M. Rohner | January 2019

    I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but I started 2018 with a modest goal. I wanted to achieve full instrumentation for the Dixieland band I coordinate each July 4th. The group, founded by World War II veterans who played in my grandfather’s band and orchestra at Evanston High School, has performed for the Evanston 4th parade since 1946. The original players were so thrilled to return safely from the war that they were determined to make Independence Day 1946 the greatest ever. They rented a truck, wrote some quirky arrangements, and rode to glory down the Central Street parade route.

    The tradition continued year after year and became one of the most popular entrants in the parade. My father got roped into playing in high school and later took over handling the administrative duties for the group which include recruiting players, filing the application with the parade committee, and buying the beer. A few years ago, he passed these duties on to me. 
    I joined the group in 1987 as a high school senior enjoying the peak of my playing career. There were still original members playing at the time, and the raucous trombone section welcomed me to their ranks. There have been times when I have thought of parade day as similar to Christmas – lots of work in the build-up and tons of fun on the actual holiday. Plus, you have a whole year to forget the stressful parts.  
    In 2017 I faced a real struggle to find players for some parts. Working with a member of the trumpet section, we tried mightily to fill out our trombone, sax, and clarinet sections. Efforts to find a tuba player also proved fruitless. Local directors often help us find players, but that year, everyone came up empty. We ended up covering all of the key parts, and the parade went smoothly with our legions of fans cheering enthusiastically from their lawn chairs. However, I promised myself I would do better next year.
    Normally, I start contacting potential players in June, but after the struggles of the previous year, I knew this was not enough. I started thinking about recruiting in January. In addition to filling our sections, I also wanted to include players for two parts that had not been played in many years: bass sax and banjo. 
    I wasn’t quite sure how to find a bass sax player. Although the instrument was used in jazz in the 1920s, it gradually fell out of favor. Its enormous size and weight may have factored into this decline. One of the arrangers of our original parade music played bass sax and wrote his own parts. When he passed away some years ago, his part fell silent. I figured that if I could find somebody who owned a bass sax, that person probably had waited for decades to hear from me.
    A colleague told me of a saxophone reading session that drew scores of players from around the Chicago area. I emailed the organizer, who volunteered to forward my information to the players on his list. Within an hour, my phone rang. I heard from a local player who knew our original bass sax player and had heard stories of our group. He was selected instantly. The email blast also produced a tenor player in the first afternoon. I smiled.
    Finding a banjo player took more work. I emailed some local banjo instructors and did not hear back. One Saturday morning, I headed over to a dusty local shop that sold and repaired all sorts of plucked instruments. I explained my mission to the owner, gave him my card, and left with high hopes of finding a player. When my phone did not ring, I found another guitar shop and emailed the owner. He called me back and said that the instructor at his store would be perfect for the gig. By the time I emailed our new banjo player, I was smiling again. He wrote back: “As a lifelong Evanstonian, I’ve been seeing the band as a spectator for decades, so I know what it’s all about. The banjo part will be no problem at all, assuming the chords are halfway legible.” He told me that the only possible obstacle was getting a paying gig elsewhere on the 4th.
    The last big job was finding a tuba player to give the band’s sound a solid foundation. I contacted a woman who organized a TubaChristmas group about an hour away. I hoped to strike gold just as I did with the saxes. She called back and said she would play the gig herself unless she found someone better. I emailed her the parts and tried to persuade her that she was the right person for the position. 
    We hold one rehearsal on the Sunday before parade day. I have never gone into a rehearsal with less of a clue about who would show up. Slowly, old friends and new email acquaintances starting filing into my kitchen. About fifteen players made the rehearsal. Because rain forced us to rehearse inside, the sections were crammed elbow-to-elbow. As we read through the first number, the sound was breathtaking. Our motley crew of professionals, semi-professionals, and spirited amateurs blended together and recreated the magic from earlier generations.
    Parade day proved equally rewarding. We filled every inch of seating space on the truck with musicians. I heard sounds and colors in the music that had been missing for years. As we rolled past the Northwestern University football stadium at the end of the route, I breathed a sign of relief, paused, and then started thinking about next year.

–James M. Rohner, Publisher