The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City could be considered a member of an endangered species. 

The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City could be considered a member of an endangered species.  As the only marching/concert American Legion Band still active in Kansas or Missouri, it represents a tradition going back more than 60 years. Over the years, they have played for presidents, commanders, generals, governors, senators, congressmen, mayors, Medal of Honor recipients, Gold Star mothers, veterans, servicemen and servicewomen and the general public.

The American Legion Band was formed shortly after World War I. There is a photograph of the band preceding the Liberty Memorial Dedication in 1926 in the National World War I Museum archives.

Today’s band

Approximately 67 volunteer amateur and professional musicians from throughout the Kansas City region, including many sons and daughters of veterans and American Legion members, contribute personal funds for the privilege of playing in the Band and participation in national events.  Over the years, the economics of maintaining a viable organization has forced many such bands out of existence.  Through perseverance, dedication, and the sacrifice of individual members, the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City continues to honor veterans of all wars, represent our metropolitan area, and preserve a unique form of musical expression.

The band represents a range of professions from accountants, managers, chemists, executives, engineers, attorneys, music educators, to stay-at-home moms and high school students.  Some are World War II Veterans and Korean War Veterans. About 30 percent of the members belong to the American Legion family (Legion, Sons, or Auxiliary).  Everyone in the group simply enjoys the opportunity to support veterans and our service men and women through music.  The members are volunteer amateur or professional caliber musicians living within a fifty-mile range from Highland, Kansas to Stillwell, Kansas to Butler, Odessa, Kearney, and Parkville, Missouri. They practice every Monday night in the Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kan.

The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City is a multi-generational organization that range in age from 17 to 87.  According to Belinda Johnson from Odessa, Missouri, and the band’s Webmaster and Historian, the youngest member in the band is Sarah Ragsdale. She plays the French horn and trumpet and is a junior at Odessa High School. Our oldest member is Gerald Hamilton who is 87 and lives in Kansas City, Mo.  He has been a member since 1968 and plays saxophone, flute and reeds.

There are about ten family combinations playing in the band: father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, and mother and daughter.  There are several sons in their eighties whose fathers also used to play in the band.  Jeremiah Hall’s great-grandfather, William E. Hall, trumpeter, dates back to the early days of the band and is the beginning of four generations of Legion Band members.  The news would often feature him on Memorial Day playing taps at the Woodlawn cemetery.

Belinda Johnson who plays the clarinet, drives six members who live in Odessa, Missouri. She emphasizes that, “Many of us clock well over 2000 miles each season just for rehearsals. It’s a 100-mile round trip for us Odessans each week to the rehearsals at the Overland Park Presbyterian Church and to all of the events.”

The gift of music

The American Legion Band’s gift of music causes the audience to reflect on the challenges of veterans and historical figures. The concerts also commemorate various community events and national holidays. The band performs annually at the Liberty Memorial for the Memorial Day Ceremony and for Veterans’ Day. They have played for other patriotic and civic functions, such as events honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, The Vietnam War 50th Anniversary, the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and when the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton received their  Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service, all at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.  They play at the John Knox Village Pavilion in Lee’s Summit every Flag Day and Veterans’ Day and at Shawnee Days every year.

They even played “The Star Spangled Banner” in September 2009 at the American Legion Day at Kansas City’s Royals Stadium.  According to James Gillingham who plays horns and lives in Leawood, Kansas, “We played for free, received free ball game tickets but had to rent a bus for $455 to get everyone there.”

The band played for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Korean War Memorial in Washington Square Park in Kansas City, Mo., on September 18, 2008; at the dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Overland Park in September 30, 2006; Harry’s Hay Days in May at Grandview the last three years; Swan Lake Cemetery twice; the Butler Sesquicentennial on September 18-25, 1999, in Poplar Bluff; the American Legion Kansas Department State Convention at Topeka on several occasions; the Amelia Earhart Festival in Atchison in the early 1990s, at most of the July 4th celebrations in Independence; and occasionally marched in the American Royal Parade. They also played at the groundbreaking of the KCVA Medical Center in 1951 and at the train station when Truman was welcomed back from Washington D.C. after his term as President in January 1953.

Gary Pace, Commander of American Legion, Tirey J. Ford, Post 21 in Independence, shares that “the Band and Brass Quintet performs at such functions as the Post Christmas Dinner, the Post Birthday Dinner and the District 5 American Legion Dinner.  They are very good and represented the American Legion, Department of Missouri in the Legion Band competition at the last National Convention held in Louisville, Ky.  They took second place in that competition.”

The players

Heather Pickett has been the Band Conductor for three years, since April 2007, and Assistant Director in 2005. She joined the band as a saxophonist in 1998.  She comes from a musical family and has many musical accomplishments. Heather is the band’s first woman conductor. Ms. Pickett studied saxophone and music education at the University of Missouri at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, graduating with a Bachelor of Music Education in 1995.  

Clyde Rayburn, long-time past president, age 78, from Lee’s Summit, plays trumpet and his father played saxophone with the band before he passed on. “I remember when I played in the American Legion Band at the train station when Independence welcomed Truman home after he had completed his presidential term in January 1953. There were WWI veterans in the band when I started playing.”

Dan Kasmerchek, from Independence, Mo., was called Quarter Master in the 1950s, (Librarian of Sheet Music and Equipment), and played in the band from 1950 to 1972.  Don, his son, explains, “You have to remember that the men that served in the military, were proud, and in less than ten years of being home, they wanted to be involved in veteran organizations. The band played at many events at the Truman Library, over many years. He taught the ROTC from Van Horn, along with other members of Legion Post 21, all of the military honors for funerals.  He taught the buglers echo tap and when and where to insert the music in the funeral burial. The American Legion Band, while attending the national convention in Los Angeles, was one of the first groups that played at Disneyland in 1955.  My dad would take me out of school for two weeks so he could compete in the band at the National American Legion Conventions.  I remember my dad would drive along Highway 66 where we would stop and read many historical markers.”

American Legion Band practiced and played at the building on Linwood and Paseo.”   According to the Kansas City American Legion Band book, after they left the Masonic Building, they practiced in the East building or Memory Hall at the Liberty Memorial and several other locations.

Richard Clutter, from Independence, Missouri, who played for the band for over 50 years, said his most favorite experience was when he and three other American Legion Band members were asked to portray a band in a movie made in 1995 called Truman based on the book by David McCullough starring Gary Sinese.  We played “Hey, Look Me Over” as Truman got off of the train.”

National competitions

Since 1951, the ensemble has represented Kansas City in all 58 American Legion National Conventions as a competitive concert band; the only band in the nation to earn this distinction.

Mark Drake, from Stillwell, Kansas and the President of the Board, said his most memorable contest with the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City was when they traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2005 and played on the USS Missouri battleship. The band was honored with the title of “National Champion” and several other times.

Upcoming performances

The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City performed for the ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Library on May 7th at 7pm when Kit Bond received the Harry S. Truman Award for Public Service. On May 15th, they played at Harry’s Hay Days at noon in Grandview.  On May 30th, they will play for the Korean War Veterans ceremony at Floral Hills Cemetery.  The band will also be playing at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Liberty Memorial on May 31 at 9:00am.  They will march in the Old Shawnee Days Parade and play in a concert at noon at the bandstand in Old Shawnee Town.

The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City is organized as a Missouri nonprofit corporation and has been determined by the Internal Revenue Service to be exempt from income tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.  Donations to the organization may be deductible as charitable contributions on the donor’s Federal income tax return.  Additionally, the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City has been reviewed and approved for donations through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

Perhaps the greatest donation the band receives, however, is the passion each member devotes to expressing their patriotism through marches and songs.  

Their performances feature many perennial favorites and moving melodies.  It’s no wonder that the band has been an integral part of the Kansas City Region’s and the American Legion’s history for more than 60 years.