The sun sets over a beautifully landscaped park in Denver on a warm summer night.
Families spread blankets on the grass and start unpacking picnic-style dinners. Neighbors sit on low-back lawn chairs in small groups, chatting about local goings-on. A cyclist pauses for a few moments to listen to the sounds from the stage. Children happily dance to the music of the Denver Municipal Band.
“These evenings in Denver turn into a wonderous time,” said Bob Shaklee, a longtime Denver resident. “It just becomes magical.”
The Denver Municipal Band recently announced it will be performing a regular concert series this summer, which includes a number of free concerts in city parks across Denver.
“What we like about it (attending Denver Municipal Band concerts) is that it’s a great way to build community within the city,” said Barb Shaklee. She and her husband, Bob Shaklee, have served on the Denver Municipal Band’s board since the mid-1980s.
The Denver Municipal Band has been part of the city’s fabric for about 160 years. It formed when people were coming to take “a shot at finding silver and gold in the mountains,” said Joseph Martin, the Denver Municipal Band’s conductor, executive director and artistic director. Martin, a trombone player and professor at the University of Denver, has been involved with the Denver Municipal Band for about 22 years.
Having earned the accolade of being the longest, continually performing band in the U.S., it got its start in 1861 as the Denver City Band to bring culture to the Wild West city of Denver. About 30 years later, the city of Denver guaranteed funding for the band to perform regularly at city ceremonies and summer park concerts, and the band changed its name to the Denver Municipal Band.
In the mid-1980s, the city faced a budget shortfall, so in 1985, the Denver Municipal Band became a nonprofit and formed its board, which consists of volunteers, the Shaklees said.
Barb Shaklee is a pianist, but using her background in law — she is a retired attorney — she helped with the legal filings for the nonprofit. Bob Shaklee “only plays the radio,” he said, but has always been a music fan and feels it’s important for all to be able to experience the joy of music.
Today, the Denver Municipal Band collectively consists of a number of bands — the 40-piece Concert Band, the 20-piece Jazz Band, the eight-person Show Band and a combination of smaller groups such as trios, quartets and quintets.
The band members are professional and include the Denver-metro’s top-of-the-line musicians, Martin said. In fact, many also play with other well-known ensembles such as the Colorado Symphony, the Colorado Ballet Orchestra, Central City Opera, Denver Brass and the Queen City Jazz Band.
The Denver Municipal Band continues to be the cornerstone for major city celebrations, Martin said.
Staying true to its original mission of providing free access to live music for all, the Denver Municipal Band performs all over Denver, and its suburb cities, at all sorts of events.
One can see the Denver Municipal Band at the Five Points Jazz Festival, Littleton’s Western Welcome Week, northeast Denver’s Taste of Ethiopia and the Westminster Latino Festival, to name a few.
These are not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands, of free concert-in-the-park events that have taken place through the years.
“We’re here for the people of Denver,” Martin said. “This music, of the highest quality, is here for everybody. It’s who we are as Denverites.”
Equity, and being able to share music with all, is important to the organization, he added.
“Music has the power to bring in issues of social justice,” Martin said, “and be a vehicle to open up those conversations of moving forward as a community.”
The Denver Municipal Band did not have the large-gathering concert in the park events in 2020, but it continued provide music to local communities. For example, small groups of musicians would perform — socially-distanced and unannounced to the general public — in parking lots of nursing homes, and the facility would air the music through its PA system for its residents.
Though all the Denver Municipal Bands make their way around the city for free concerts, the mainstay band is probably the Concert Band.
The Concert Band performs a variety of music that appeals to a broad audience — Broadway tunes, jazz/swing, patriotic music and marches, and movie themes, for example. This year, the Concert Band has something special in store for concert-goers, said Dan Leavitt, the principal trumpet player for the Concert Band who also serves as the Denver Municipal Band’s manager, and director of the Jazz Band, Show Band and brass quintet.
New this summer, Leavitt said, the Concert Band will feature the music of James Reese Europe, who helped form the Clef Club — a union of African American musicians — and was the first African American to conduct at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the Clef Club orchestra, Leavitt said. Europe, who lived from 1881 to 1919, is “extremely important to the history of American music transitioning from ragtime to swing and jazz,” Leavitt said.
But his music has been lost for about 100 years, Leavitt said, adding that arranging Europe’s music is a project that he had been wanting to do for a long time. Leavitt was finally able to dedicate more time to it during the COVID-19 shutdowns, he said.
Music brings people together, enriches peoples’ lives and has the ability to engage people in culture — that of their own, and introduce them to other cultures that exist nearby, Leavitt said.
“We’ve been doing this for over 150 years. It’s a strong tradition long supported by the (Denver) mayor and parks and rec,” Leavitt said. “Music, and art in general, can define a culture. The more people who participate in music, the richer the whole culture is.”