Early each year, Jim Latimer pulls together some 150 songs arranged for more than two dozen musicians — piles of sheet music that the Capitol City Band will perform over 12 weeks of summer.
Multiply that by 50 years, more or less, and that’s a lot of joy.
The Capitol City Band, directed by Latimer, is celebrating a half-century of free concerts in the park in a season that kicks off Thursday in Rennebohm Park. The concerts continue weekly on Thursdays through Aug. 30. A special Golden Jubilee concert at 2 p.m. July 22 will mark the band’s 50-year anniversary.
“The music is the thing,” Latimer said. “And we try to make our audiences as comfortable as possible so that they can really gain from the experience.
“We emphasize music of all cultures. So you have a waltz, you have a polka, you have some swing, you have Sousa (marches), the classics,” he said. This “entire season is a celebration of music and making people feel better through music, one note at a time.”
Founded by Elmer Ziegler
Today the concerts take place in a large open shelter that was designated “home of the Capitol City Band” by a Madison City Council resolution. But the band’s first home was Vilas Park, where band founder Elmer Ziegler led concerts in the park from 1969 to 1971.
Ziegler, who owned the Ziegler Music Shop in the 200 block of State Street and with his wife played in the Madison Civic Orchestra, formed the VFW Post 1318 volunteer band soon after he first came to Madison in 1950. Nineteen years later, he brought together 16 professional musicians, who performed their first concert in Vilas Park in June 1969.
Soprano Mary Gehrmann recalls those early days, when she was a young singer whose teacher recommended her to Ziegler. Gehrmann became a regular performer with the Capitol City Band.
“In those days we went all over — nursing homes, hospitals, everywhere,” Gehrmann said of the group, which also brought together musicians each year on Memorial Day — their day off — to perform in the Capitol in remembrance of veterans. The ceremony would include Gehrmann standing at the railing in the upper Rotunda, singing the National Anthem.
After Ziegler’s death in early 1981, Latimer, urged on by former UW-Madison bandleader Ray Dvorak, took the helm of the Capitol City Band. (The Capitol City Band Association also still operates an indoor winter band known as the VFW Volunteer Community Band.)
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Latimer is a percussionist who taught for 31 years at UW-Madison, played timpani with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and established the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ percussion program. He also established percussion programs at UW-Madison, Radford University and Florida A&M University, which recently awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
As the CCB’s bandleader, he nearly doubled the size of the band and brought in guest performers. Latimer’s wife “MJ” became an instrumental part of producing the concerts.
“It was already a good band. When he took over, he really brought in more good people,” said Gehrmann, who sang with the Capitol City Band until the mid-1990s and still sings with the Allegro Music Club in Madison.
“It was great. The people who came were great. It was just plain fun. (Latimer) is so terribly talented. MaryJo is such a help to him.”
Though she did a lot of professional singing, often in churches or for weddings or other special events, “I loved singing for the band,” Gehrmann said, adding with a chuckle, “That was one of the highlights of my so-called career.”
Volunteers run the show
Though the City of Madison grants the Capitol City Band the use of the shelter at Rennebohm Park and surrounding parking, all the legwork of setting up the shows falls to volunteers. Volunteers also raise the band’s annual $40,000 budget through donations to pay its professional musicians, buy new music, maintain and transport equipment, and cover insurance and taxes.
To keep a lid on costs, CCB is a “reading band” – meaning it doesn’t do extensive rehearsals. The musicians meet about four times before the start of the season, doing quick run-throughs of each piece, rather than an intensive, bar-by-bar rehearsal.
“You have to be on your toes all the time. We run our practice sessions as ‘You see it, you play it,’” said Latimer, who has also used that method with all of his students through the years. “It quickens your insights and your faculties. That’s very, very important.”
The conductors have to move as fast as the players, said Dave Pedracine, the CCB’s associate conductor, who takes over for Latimer when the bandleader needs a break. But most performances go smoothly, thanks to the professionalism of the musicians.
“You would definitely see a lot of them in the Madison Symphony,” Pedracine said. “A lot of them are gigging on the weekends in their bands.”
Less predictable is the weather.
Although the band plays under a roof in the Rennebohm shelter, “the weather is in control,” said Latimer, who has an assistant sit by him on windy days to turn the pages of his score — and then clamp them down — while he is conducting.
“It has started to downpour, and we have had to stop, or let people come in under the shelter,” he said.
“On the other hand, nature is so beautiful: Those swallows who are down there are accustomed to us, and they just sing right along with us.”