THE NEIGHBORHOOD SOUND by Sue Kaplan
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Two decades of Maplewood Community Music
Have you ever wondered what became of the band nerds you went to high school with? Where are all those dedicated musicians who spent most of their waking hours making and thinking about music? Well, many of them are still at it – or are at it again – living and working among you. Musicians from Maplewood, South Orange and beyond have picked up and dusted off their instruments and are happily making music together.
Twenty years ago, Susan Williams was a young mother of three active boys. She’d moved from the city and given up her career in publishing for life in the ‘burbs. An avid musician all her life, Williams found herself longing to play again in a musical ensemble and noted the dearth of a community band in the otherwise culturally-rich Maplewood.
Jim Buchanan, then Cultural Affairs Supervisor for Maplewood and Arts Maplewood, a now-defunct arts organization, had been teaching and conducting music for 34 years and was well-known in and around Maplewood for his deep commitment to music and musical education… and later as a frequent patron of the Parkwood Diner (so much so, the owners of the Parkwood named a room after him).
Williams and Buchanan met at a local concert; she approached him with her idea of starting a community concert band that would provide local adult and student musicians an opportunity to join a community ensemble and share their love of playing and performing while providing music to the community. Buchanan jumped onboard as director and conductor. Maplewood Community Concert Band started with a handful of musicians and has grown to nearly 50, about a dozen of whom have been with the group since the early years.
Terrific, thought Williams, a community band will be great for Maplewood, but there was also a need for a community jazz group, so she told Buchanan she’d manage both ensembles if he agreed to the idea of a jazz band. Thus, with Buchanan’s blessing, was born Swing Town, a 20-piece jazz ensemble (with vocalists) performing early big band, swing, and dance tunes
From the start, the Maplewood Recreation Department supported both ensembles, providing space for them to rehearse in the community center at DeHart Park every Wednesday night. As their membership swelled, so grew their sense of purpose, not merely to bring music to Maplewood, South Orange, and local communities, but to perform outreach to support student musicians and inspire our youth to enjoy and possibly play an instrument. What had started as simply two bands with some overlapping players became Maplewood Community Music (MCM), an umbrella organization with the ambitious mission of partnering with other organizations to bring music-related events to the area while being a home to the smaller splinter groups that would spring from the original two.
While the Recreation Department generously supported the bands, after seven years it had become increasingly clear that Maplewood Community Music was becoming its own entity. Moreover Buchanan, who had generously given his time every week to direct both the Concert Band and Swing Town in alternate weeks, was becoming tired and needed to cut back.
Buchanan asked Ben Williams, a renowned trombonist who played baritone with the Concert Band, and whom he had known for years, to take the reins of Swing Town. Ben, who happens to be married to Sue Williams, had never before directed an ensemble, though as a professional musician he’d played in many. Ben saw the need and accepted the challenge. As he points out, “‘Amateur’ means ‘one who loves,’ and the members of Swing Town love to be there, playing together, and they have the best attitudes.”
Meanwhile, seeking to give MCM a professional identity, saxophonist Kerrie Hurford took on the painstaking project of incorporating the organization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, recruiting a Board of Trustees. She also created a website as a repository for all things MCM, from mission statement and policies to recruitment of new players and news about performances.
The Concert Band has had several directors since Buchanan’s retirement in 2010. The Band’s current director is Michael Jedwabnik, who, in addition to his role with MCM, is the lead music teacher for the Livingston School District, assistant director of the Lancer Marching Band and director of the bands at Livingston High School and of its pit orchestra.
Over the years, several musical ensembles have formed and dissolved and re-formed under the auspices of MCM: Jackson Square, a Dixieland jazz group, and Bones Unlimited, comprised of four trombone players, still play together occasionally. Five years ago, MCM produced another musical sibling known as Porchfest, the brainchild of local pianist/vocalist Bill Tally. For years Tally had attended Jamaica Plain’s Porchfest in Boston, so he brought the idea to his hometown and put together a committee of musicians from MCM to run the event. The committee chose as Porchfest’s venue the Hilton neighborhood for its convenient layout, easy walkability, and its many porches.
Held each year on Labor Day Sunday, Porchfest kicks off with a “honk parade” in which all – old and young, those with and those without musical talent – are encouraged to join a parade and play whatever they’ve got. That includes drums, kazoos, real instruments and trash can lids. Then the music begins, with porches in the Hilton neighborhood hosting various musical performances in timed slots to avoid noise interference between bands. Porchfest performers are often joined by children selling baked goods and lemonade to raise money for various causes. Volunteers from the Hilton neighborhood offer support along with the organizing committee and the Maplewood Police Department. This year 28 porches hosted 45 performers.
As a nonprofit organization, the bands’ philosophy is to keep concerts and performances free, but they can and do receive donations to cover expenses. While the musicians volunteer their time, the groups incur expenditures such as purchasing new music, T-shirts with the MCM logo to wear during performances, etc. Swing Town receives the bulk of the money given (the ensemble performs more frequently than the Concert Band), hence providing the larger share of MCM’s budget.
The players across the bands vary in experience and ability, from professional musicians and musical educators, to hobbyists who hadn’t played since high school or college. They range in age from high school kids – some of whom are the children of the adult members – to senior citizens as old as 90. Among their community events are multiple concerts and performances each year for children, senior citizens, and veterans, and educational programming as well as other community events. Performance venues have included the Clipper Pavilion at the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange, and Memorial Park, the Burgdorff Center, the Gazebo on Springfield Avenue, and the pool in Maplewood.
Many members have left to pursue other interests and then come back. Their children have started out in the audience, participated in fundraising, concerts and events, and even joined in making music once they’ve learned an instrument. A two-decade Concert Band member, flautist Ilena Kasdan, describes the group as being “like an extended family for me...so much more than just playing music. The friendships and relaxed atmosphere surrounded by great music are exactly what I need in the middle of a busy week. My most special Concert Band memories,” she adds, “have been getting to play with my (then) high school-aged daughter, Lauren, who joined us for the past several years. She’s now moved away (and is playing in college) but can’t wait to come back and play with us for the summer.”
Neal Weiss, a 20-year member of both Swing Town and the Concert Band, marvels that “I attended my first MCM rehearsal after not playing tenor sax for 25 years. After the conductor’s first downbeat, I was right back to reading and playing music; it was like no time had gone by.” Alan Schneider, Treasurer for MCM, has been playing with Concert Band and Swing Town for 18 years “including several [times] where my three children played alongside me. MCM is probably one of the most inclusive and welcoming groups in the community.”
In the model of the traditional community band, no musicians are turned away from the Concert Band; the desire to play music in an ensemble is all a player needs to join. Its programs range from traditional tunes by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst to Sousa marches, holiday music, Broadway medleys, as well as contemporary pieces by young and less well-known composers.
Ben Williams continues to play trombone and baritone in the Concert Band and to lead Swing Town. Susan Williams still plays trombone with both the Concert Band and Swing Town and is the operations manager for Porchfest. And Jedwabnik ably juggles his duties with the Livingston School District with directing the Concert Band.
Come see the Maplewood Concert Band play its holiday concert on Dec. 15 at 7:30 at The Woodland in Maplewood. If you’d like to find out more about Maplewood Community Music, whether you’re interested in playing an instrument with one of the ensembles, donating, or just getting more information, go to maplewoodcommunitymusic.org. For information about Porchfest, visit maplewoodporchfest.com.
Sue Kaplan is a proud band nerd. She’s played the clarinet with the Community Concert Band for most of its 20 years and is a MCM Board member.