August 2018 Cover

Magic Moments

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2018 /

Writer: John Greiner-Ferris

Chatham Band

Conductor Tom Jahnke leads the Chatham Band with precision and passion. Photo by Carol Lewis

A true Cape Cod tradition, the Chatham Band continues to strike a chord

There is more than a bit of magical time traveling that happens when the Chatham Band performs on a summer’s Friday evening. There’s something intrinsically olde Cape Cod about it all—the nostalgic innocence of a Norman Rockwell illustration torn from a Saturday Evening Post coming to life with the pageantry from Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” when the most dangerous threat to the world was a pool table. The phrase “simpler times”—that catchall phrase that can mean many things to many people—comes to mind. The skeptic and the cynic, those scourges of the modern world, might briefly look up from their screens and dismiss it all as “corny” or “sentimental.” But they would be wrong. Given how much the world has changed since the concerts started in 1932, we could probably use a few more Chatham Band concerts on summer nights.

Every Friday evening for 10 weeks, teachers and plumbers, shopkeepers and students, people you see everyday, are transformed into musicians dressed in scarlet finery, each bearing a glittery instrument. The music is standard fare for summer concerts: anthems like “America, the Beautiful,” show tunes and Sousa marches. It’s music that is light and happy or rousing and emotional but never dark or depressing. Maybe the most important thing is that it’s all so unapologetically feel-good.

One would think the transformation of a summer’s day into a magical night would be a simple matter of saying the magic words, Hip-Hip Hi-De-Ho, with a wave of a conductor’s baton. Ah, but it’s not that easy. It couldn’t be. Otherwise, how only in Chatham could this magic happen for 86 consecutive seasons (excluding four seasons during World War II)? Surely some dark stranger who arrived from over the bridge would know how to clone the magic, distill it, bottle it and sell it over the Internet. Don’t worry; it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t. The Chatham Band concerts are as safe as every memory of olde Cape Cod you hold dear in your heart.

The current keeper of the flame is bandleader Tom Jahnke. Now 53, he was born and raised in Abington. He first was introduced to the concerts when he was 3 years old visiting his grandparents, who lived in Harwich before settling in Chatham. In third grade he began singing and in fourth grade he took up the trombone. After graduating college in 1988 with a degree in theater, fitting in time to live in New York City, he moved to the Cape in 1998. “I moved to the Cape because I loved my childhood memories of Cape Cod in the summer,” he says.

Memories are at the core of Chatham Band concerts: reliving old memories, and creating new ones. On any given night it’s possible that there could be four generations sitting on the same blanket, clapping, swaying to the music—a new memory for all.

Jahnke joined the band in 2005 as a trombone player and in 2014 became the fourth bandleader in the band’s history. “One of the jobs of the bandleader is to assess the band’s musical past then put your mark on the band,” he explains. He strives for a perfect balance by keeping traditions but adding new songs that will appeal to a new generation. Concerts will always start with “Band Time in Chatham” and end with the “Star Spangled Banner.” And it’s inconceivable to think of a concert without the “Bunny Hop.” But this year you’ll also hear songs by Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, and August 25 marks the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, so to commemorate that day Jahnke has added a medley of Bernstein’s songs from “West Side Story” to this year’s repertoire.

Chatham Band

The band rehearses in the Monomoy Regional Middle School’s band room every Monday night. It’s an eclectic group of all ages and musical abilities. There’s 18-year-old Ethan Singer and Karl Fehrle, who turned 97 in July. Ninety-four-year-old Ben Goodspeed has been a band member since he was 14.

Ethan, a percussionist and a senior at Nauset Regional High School, is in his third season with the band. He plays with several school bands and orchestras, and while he likes performing, he says what attracted him to the Chatham Band is how relaxed and welcoming the band is.

The band’s manager, Anita Harris, a flutist and piccolo player who owns two women’s clothing stores in Chatham, says the people drew her in. “Both the band members and the audience are such important parts of the performance,” she says.

Sally Davol, a seventh grade special education teacher at the middle school and the band’s president, has only seen a concert from her chair in the bandstand. She plays flute and piccolo and sits at the end of a row. “No one wants to sit next to a piccolo player,” she says, indicating how holding the instrument would poke someone in the ear or eye. But her spot gives her a clear view of the audience. “It’s all just good, old fashion fun,” she says.

Euphonium player John Wilson winters in New Hampshire, where he also plays in a number of orchestras and bands. “We play before more people in Chatham on one night than I do all winter,” he says.

Tuba player and percussionist Mike Rodericks has been in the band since 1967 when he was in eighth grade playing trumpet. Referring to the appeal of the concerts, he says, “We all love music and I feel the music, and I love making everyone in the audience feel it too.”

It’s 10 days before their first concert on June 29, and at this rehearsal Jahnke clearly has work on his mind. This night the band will be working on a few pieces that are giving them a little trouble. The musicians are loose, but clearly want to please the bandleader. They launch into “Proud Mary,” the Ike and Tina Turner classic. Only a few measures in, Jahnke waves them to a stop. “You’re not listening to each other,” he admonishes. Next Jahnke tells them their rendition of “God Bless America” is lovely, but he wants to hear it again, which brings a laugh from the musicians. “This will adhere it to your memory,” he explains. The highlights to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” are simply beautiful after Jahnke’s direction to “feel it for all it’s worth.”

By ten o’clock in the morning on concert day, people will begin spreading blankets and dropping off chairs in front of the bandstand. Some families park their blankets in the same place year after year, like how they always sit in the same pew in church. Shops, restaurants, ice cream shops, pizza parlors and cafes will brace for the pre- and post-show rushes. The band members dress in their uniforms at home, meet in their own parking area near the bandstand, and as eight o’clock approaches take their places on the bandstand. The magic is about to start. At eight o’clock Jahnke will face the audience, raise his baton, and say the magic words, Hip-Hip Hi-De-Ho, two times, a tradition that Whit Tileston started, and the band will launch into Tileston’s traditional first number, “Band Time in Chatham.” The magic really is that easy.

John Greiner-Ferris

John Greiner-Ferris is a writer and playwright. He is the co-founder of Boston Public Works Theater Company and the founding artistic director at Alley Cat Theater. John has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE over the years, including artist profiles for our annual Cape Cod ART issue.