The Chatham Band, which transports audiences back in time, kicked off its 85th season this summer.Text and photography by Debra Lawless
At about 7 p.m., Rebecca Arnold, a clarinetist in the Chatham Band, ties her red, white and blue necktie in her home. Dressed in a bright red blazer with blue trousers, Arnold then picks up her clarinet case and music book, and walks two blocks to Kate Gould Park and the Chatham Bandstand.
For 85 years, Chatham residents and visitors have been enjoying the sound of the Chatham Band, which performs every Friday evening in the summer.
On Main Street, a line is already forming at Buffy’s Ice Cream Shop. Outside the Chatham Candy Manor, which will do a brisk business this evening, a stranger recognizes Arnold’s uniform and says, “Thank you for tonight.” Arnold smiles. She first tried to join the band in the 1960s, but she was denied entry as a woman. In 1992, gender barriers came down, and women now make up about a third of the band.
Benjamin T. Nickerson and seven other masons from St. Martin’s Lodge are selling balloons outside the entrance to the park.
“I want a red one,” says a young girl.
“You got it,” says Nickerson.
Across the path, Boy Scout Troop #71 is selling glow sticks and light sabers. The grass in the park is already checkered with colorful blankets anchored with stones. The aroma of fried food from nearby restaurants wafts through the air, and the park is filled with an expectant buzz. By 7:38 p.m., families are arriving in earnest, pushing strollers and leading small dogs on leashes.
Friday evenings in the park have a timeless quality. While new music is mixed with old favorites, something about sitting on a blanket while watching the band basking in the golden light above the crisp white bandstand lends itself to nostalgia. Adults who were brought here as young children eagerly bring their own offspring.
“We try to keep it as old-fashioned, as old-timey as possible,” says bandmaster Thomas Jahnke. “It is quite magical.” These traditions reach back to the years of the Great Depression. Back then, the band was called the American Legion Band and it was directed by Thomas Nassi, an Albanian emigrant teaching in the Chatham schools.
Inside the trumpet section is David L. Boyer, who joined the group in 2014. Boyer became so enthused about the band that he wrote a book about it: “We Can Hear You On the Hill: The History of the Chatham Band” (more info below).
During World War II, concerts ceased for four years. 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.
Since 1931, the musical group 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. Tileston, who directed until 1994, initiated “The Bunny Hop” and was known for opening concerts with his catchphrase “hi-dee-ho.” The bandstand was dedicated to Tileston in 1995, after his death in February of that year.
Band members, visible in their red blazers, walk up the grass toward the bandstand. Benjamin K. Goodspeed, a member since 1937, arrives on the arm of his son Benjamin C. Goodspeed, and both settle in among the trumpeters. For the Goodspeeds, the evening is a family affair: Benjamin K.’s late father George Sr. joined the band in 1931 and his brother George Jr., who joined the group at age 12, is still here, playing alto saxophone. Also performing tonight is Kenneth Eldredge, 93, who joined the band “in year one,” as he puts it. After nearly 20 years as maestro, he returned to the percussion section in 2014, turning the baton over to Jahnke.
By 7:53 p.m., almost all of the blankets have been claimed. People are photographing the bandstand as the sun sets behind the trees.
“It’s going to be a good concert tonight,” says Jahnke, speaking through a microphone. He tells the audience he has a few rules. “Sing like nobody’s listening, dance like nobody’s watching and the third is have a lot of fun. Are you ready?”
For the next hour and a half, young and old alike are transported to a happy place by their beloved Chatham Band. Tonight they sing, they dance “The Bunny Hop,” they reminisce and, like all the nights that came before, the evening ends with the audience singing along to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Concerts run on Fridays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 1.
HISTORY OF THE CHATHAM BAND
Fans of the Chatham Band will want to read David L. Boyer’s comprehensive history of the band in “We Can Hear You On the Hill: The History of the Chatham Band” (2016).
For many years, Boyer wouldn’t miss a Friday night band concert during summer vacations with his family. After he retired, he took up the trumpet and qualified for the band in 2014.
In “We Can Hear You On the Hill,” a lavishly illustrated, 118-page book, Boyer tells the story of the band’s 85-year history. The band was originally called the American Legion Band; male band members wore blue blazers and white trousers. During the Great Depression, the band grew in popularity and would play anywhere. But with World War II, band concerts ceased for four years. Many of the players served overseas; trumpeter Roland James was killed in action in France.
After the war, in 1946, tourism picked up and Whitney Tileston took over from Thomas Nassi. Tileston initiated “The Bunny Hop” and opened concerts with his catchphrase “hi-dee-ho.” His Fourth of July concert in 1966 drew more than 12,000 to Veterans Field. The year 1992 marked a milestone when Sharon Ferguson became the first woman to join the previously all-male band. Kenneth Eldredge took up the baton in 1995 followed by Thomas Jahnke, the group’s fourth director, in 2014.