WEST ORANGE, NJ — Steve Kimmons was waiting in line to talk to Mayor Robert Parisi during his office hours during the winter when he realized that the person in front of him was complaining about snow removal and the person behind him was complaining about potholes, so he knew that his proposal to start a community concert band would at the very least stand out.
Within a couple of weeks, the former high school band director and former musical director of the Maplewood Concert Band had a partnership with the West Orange Recreation Department, a rehearsal space at Liberty Middle School and more than 40 musicians — many of whom either live or work in West Orange — who wanted to play music together. The West Orange Community Band has been rehearsing for a couple of months now, and their first performance is scheduled for July 16 at the South Mountain Recreation Complex’s Clipper Pavilion.
“When we moved here in 2003, my wife and I did a lot of research,” Kimmons said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on May 24. “We wanted our girls to attend a school with a good music program and West Orange really stood out in that area.”
Kimmons started his career in music as a high school band director before joining the U.S. Air Force and spending six years as a band commander. He then started working in college alumni relations, but never really put his horn down, occasionally playing with different area community groups and acting as a longstanding guest director with the Chatham Community Band. After four years as director of the nearby Maplewood Community Band, Kimmons decided it was time to start a group in West Orange.
“With the fact that West Orange has such a wonderful music program, you have to figure that the parents are supportive and there are a lot of musicians in the area,” Kimmons said. “There are alumni who stayed and are maybe looking for an outlet. If you go to Livingston there’s a symphony, go to South Orange there’s a symphony, in Maplewood there’s a band. But there was neither in West Orange.”
So Kimmons talked to some people he knew would be interested, worked with West Orange High School Band Director Lew Kelly and West Orange School District Director of Visual and Performing Arts Louis Quagliato, and put the proposal together. Parisi passed the idea on to Recreation Director Bill Kehoe, who said the department could sponsor the group and pay LMS for rehearsal space.
There are approximately 46 musicians in the band now, with a list of reserves who can be called upon as needed. Almost all band members either live or work in West Orange, and they are a mix of musicians who play consistently and those who are picking up an instrument after it’s been sitting in its case for a while. Bill Sullivan, a lawyer who is based in town, is an example of the latter.
“I played a lot in high school and college and then put the horn down when I went to law school,” the euphonium player said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 24. “Then my kids started learning instruments and I picked it back up again. I was looking for a local place to play.”
Sullivan has been back at it for about three years, but said before then he hadn’t played since 1982. The weekly rehearsals are a welcome change of pace for him.
“It uses a totally different part of your brain,” Sullivan said. “It can be a relief from all of the daily stresses in your life. It’s definitely work, but I think I’ve been picking it back up again and doing well.”
Kimmons certainly thinks so. Sullivan is one of the band’s two euphonium players; the other is Redwood Elementary School music teacher Andrea Rommel. She is normally plays the flute, but the front row of the West Orange band was already full. So she picked up a euphonium and is filling another need.
“Euphonium is one of those instruments that’s really hard to fill because, unless you’re playing in a band, you don’t play,” Kimmons said. “There’s no euphonium in an orchestra. So there are very few positions for euphonium players and they kind of melt into the background. For a community band to have two euphonium players right out of the box is unheard of, but to have two pretty good euphonium players right out of the box is unbelievable.”
Some of the musicians have followed Kimmons from Chatham or Maplewood, or both, simply because they like playing with him. That’s how he built up the number of musicians in the West Orange group, in addition to ads and social media recruiting. Clarinet player Dorothy Panhorst met Kimmons through the Chatham band.
“We met in Chatham, and I really enjoyed playing for him,” she said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 25. “It’s been so much fun. We’ve played some fun music and he’s a terrific conductor. He loves community bands and that really comes through.”
Kimmons is a walking encyclopedia of concert band and community band knowledge. His living room walls are filled with photos of groups he’s either played with or has historical knowledge of, and he can list the many benefits of a community band so quickly that it appears he was just waiting for someone to ask about it. His expertise is not lost on the charter members of the West Orange community band.
“He’s fantastic,” Ann Pollack, a clarinet player, said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 24. “There’s no one who knows more about band music.”
Because there is not much of a budget, Kimmons is using music that he has played with other groups and bringing it to West Orange. Kelly is sharing his high school library with the band, and free music from the public domain will also be played to build the collection of scores. The July program features marches by George Gershwin, Percy Grainger, John Philip Sousa and Russell Alexander. An Aug. 21 show at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center will feature some of the same composers with the addition of music by Johannes Brahms and William Schuman.
“Most community bands are throwbacks,” Kimmons said about the older marches. “Some will do popular music, but most do the overtures and marches. A lot of us grew up hearing them and are now realizing what it was because they were in Bugs Bunny cartoons and things like that.”
West Orange prides itself on being an artistic town that champions theater and visual arts, with a thriving school music program, especially at WOHS. It was that foundation Kimmons was considering when putting his community band proposal together,
Horn player Zach Arenstein, a product of the local program, said, “West Orange has a great music program and that was a big part of my life in school. It was a good foundation for sure.” In a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 24, he added, “I was looking for an opportunity to start playing again but there weren’t too many around here. Livingston has one, but they were established and not really looking for anyone, so this was great.”
Arenstein didn’t take a 30-year break like Sullivan did, but the West Caldwell Tech math teacher said his chops are coming back.
“I hadn’t played in a while but the muscle memory came back,” he said. “I had to get my embouchure set again, but once I started it’s been going well.”
Arenstein is just one example of the homegrown talent that Kimmons has seen in West Orange, so he’s surprised that it took until 2019 for the town to have a community band.
“Lew Kelly has been there a long time, but it predates him,” he said of the high school’s band. “He’s upholding a tradition that’s been around for a long time, which makes it baffling to me that no one’s ever tried this before.”
Tuba player Nick Licitra grew up in Verona and still volunteers with the Verona High School marching band in the summer. He has a bachelor’s degree in music and works in marketing, but hopes to eventually work in music promotion.
“There’s an energy to it,” Licitra, who now lives in West Orange, said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 24. “Everyone is there to play and learn. It’s good for a change of scenery and to do something new. And the first venue is exciting; it’s a cool place to play and definitely different from anywhere else I’ve played so that’s definitely a reason for people to come out and see us.”
Virginia Blacker is returning to music after not playing for a while due to a nerve problem, and she is excited to have an audience. Blacker has two music degrees but now works as a Realtor in West Orange.
“It’s a place where people of all different levels can come together to make music,” the piccolo player said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on May 24. “I’m a performer, so I love being on stage. I love being there and creating all this music. It makes everyone there wants to play better. I think the town is looking forward to it, and I think it’s a cool thing for people to see what we’re doing.”
Sullivan is confident the public will embrace the band when it performs this summer.
“There’s a lot of tremendous talent and it fits in well,” he said. “I hope the town residents will embrace it and support it like they have with so many others.”
Being the first to do something is always celebrated, and this is no exception. Panhorst is excited to be one of the first people to sport the navy and white uniform the band will wear and can’t wait for an audience to be sitting in front of her.
“To be there at the beginning and build it from the ground up is cool to see,” she said. “I thought it would take some time, but there are only a couple of sections that are short on players. It’s a good group. There’s a lot of fun and laughs and people want to be there and share their music.”
From the very beginning, at the very first rehearsal, Kimmons stressed the importance of creating music for the community. He wants to make sure this band lasts long after he and the charter members are no longer around.
“My goal is that many years from now they’re going to be very proud of the fact that we decided early on that we were going to be aware of our history,” Kimmons said. “Community bands are a passion of mine. I’ve worked with students, I’ve worked with professionals and I’ve worked with volunteer community musicians, and I’ll take the latter any day of the week. There are no grades, there is no pay. They join a community band because they love to play music.”
Photos Courtesy of Steve Kimmons