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Interview: Tom Kowalczyk, Director of Lakeside Pride Symphonic Band

By Matt Wood in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 8, 2007 7:59PM

chicagoist_200703_TomKTrumpet.jpgMany people know them as the band that marches each year in the pride parade. But each year they do much more than just walk down Halsted and Broadway. Lakeside Pride is a musical organization committed to the education of the public at large about the diverse aspects of the metropolitan Chicago gay and lesbian community through musical performance, workshops, and non-musical events.

Openly gay Director of the Lakeside Pride Symphonic Band Tom Kowalczyk joins us to talk about the organization.

Chicagoist: You are a native of Michigan. Tell us how you first came to Chicago. How did you get here?

Tom Kowalczyk: Well, I had a wonderful teaching job in Michigan until they found out about my lifestyle, and then I was asked to leave. It was part-way through the school year, so it's not like a teacher can find a job that readily.

My family wasn't too keen in me staying in an area that was going to have issues with the situation, so we found the next closest city that had ordinances and certain protections for gays and lesbians. We investigated this city and a few others. I chose to come to Chicago because it was still close to my family but far enough for a little bit of freedom.

C: So you got to Chicago, and you knew you were in music, coming here to pursue it even further. How did you get connected with the Lakeside Pride group?

TK: After I got to Chicago, obviously not leaving Michigan under the greatest of terms, it was very difficult to get another teaching job. When I finally did get one two years later, it lasted about two years until they found out. The Superintendent said, "Sorry, you are too much of a risk, you need to go." I didn't have tenure, so after the second time of losing my job because of my lifestyle, I became quite frustrated, packed up all my music and instruments, and put them in storage.

I tried the business world and stuck it out for about five years. Very early in 2000, I think it was the first Gay Chicago issue of January 2000, I noticed an ad in the back. A community band, a gay and lesbian band, was looking for a director. I gave them a call, and here I am today.

C: In 2000 what was the group like? How big were they? What sort of group did you come into?

TK: At that time I think the group had, if I remember correctly, maybe about forty playing members. Everything from very rusty players to part-time musicians. That's one of the mantras of the group, to be open to all levels of players. And they were still trying to get things rolling because as you know, being a not-for-profit in the City while trying to find a place that you can rehearse and all those kind of overhead things was a bit of a struggle.

So we had probably forty musicians, and it was a little bit of rough playing the first year because if people don't play their horn for twenty or thirty years, they get a little rusty. Over the years it's grown, and in this upcoming concert I believe we will have seventy-three people on stage.

C: And they're all 100% volunteer?

TK: Totally volunteer, at every level. Even people who help out with our board positions such as our treasurer, the marketing and PR, the directors, all the players. We're all volunteer, top to bottom. These folks give up a lot of their time, and they're very dedicated. We have people that drive almost two hours one-way to come to rehearsal on Sunday evenings to rehearse with the Concert Band, or the Symphonic Band I should say. We use to be called the Concert Band, but since we've grown so large we decided to keep up with the proper terminology for the ensemble.

The playing level of the group, as you can imagine by playing each year, has gotten progressively better. We've attracted other people too, such as master's students from DePaul. Over the years we've had players that were semi-professionals who would gig around the city join us. We've even had people who were subs for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So we've had all levels, and people work together really well.

We divide up parts and share the majority of the responsibility so we don't have one person playing the lead all the time. And we also share in running the organization to do what it takes to advertise the concerts, help me get music, distribute the music, and so on. It's a wonderful group of very dedicated people.

C: Early on you touched on a couple of different facets, such as Symphonic Band and other ensembles. What are some of the other groups in the organization, and did I hear something about color guards?

TK: Oh yes, It's very diverse. It really is. I'll back up even further because we've kept saying it's a gay and lesbian group but we have everything. GLBT, straight, and in fact one of the people that helps with the marketing is a straight gentleman who has worked in the business world for years and loves playing his trumpet, so he joined the band. We've got another woman who handles her baby at home and still does our newsletter every week to keep our members posted on what's going on. We run the whole gambit.

And as far as ensembles in the organization go, we have several. We've got a saxophone ensemble that covers the saxophone family, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone sax. We've also got a clarinet choir, a brass choir, brass septet, a jazz ensemble, the marching band which you mentioned, and now in the last year we have a color guard that's been quite active. They'll actually be at the Museum of Modern Art downtown in a few weeks.

C: Wow, so all these great people are coming together to do this. As you mentioned, it's all volunteer work, and you expanded on how radically diverse they are. These people are very dedicated to the group. What do you think they get out of it?

TK: I would like to think that it does something for their soul. It really does. If you really love music, at least the way I do, I couldn't imagine living without it. It can take a really rough day at work or a really rough week at work, and by getting together Sunday evening and sharing these great musical moments, you walk out with this fresh new feeling on life. And it's a joy. It really, truly is a joy to have this ability to be able to perform one of the true human expressions left.

C: Why do you think it's important to identify this as a primarily gay and lesbian organization? Is it something that we need? What do you think it does for our community?

TK: Well, in the sports world, there are a lot of people who wait until they are out of the professional league to come out of the closet. What good does that do the gay and lesbian community when everybody hides in the closet? We are here, and yes, we probably could have picked up a few more gigs over the years had we not had "Lakeside Pride" in the title, but we chose to stick to it because this is who we are, and we're proud. People have realized over the years that we are quite diverse, we play quite well, we play passionately, and they can see that we're really not much different than anyone else.

C: You've got an event coming soon, plus it's your ten-year anniversary of the organization. What does Lakeside Pride have in store for people?

chicagoist_200703_TomKConducts.jpgTK: We do theme concerts. This time around it's "Art in Music." One of our biggest pieces of the program will be "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Mussorgsky, which most people will be quite familiar with. The music has been used in a lot of movies and commercials. It's a piece of several movements, representing music for an art exhibition. I think the CSO just did it a few years ago. The arrangement that we're doing is a direct transcription, so the parts haven't been watered down. It hasn't been made easier for the musicians. That tells you the level of players we have in the organization.

C: Tell us some more about what you will be playing.

TK: We've got a good old-fashioned Verdi Overture from La Forza Del Destino which represents good and the forces of destiny in opera. And there are some lighter things like an Irish piece to represent the art form of dance, plus we'll be opening with a very short fanfare from a French ballet called "La Paris." We'll also be hitting the Broadway tunes because we want to make sure the program is pretty diverse. Things from Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, Rent, really quite a mixed program of things that people will be able to hear.

C: And when is it happening?

TK: It will be Saturday, March 31, at 8:00 p.m. at Northside College Prep High School at 5501 N. Kedzie (at Bryn Mawr). It's a very nice auditorium and a beautiful space. Tickets are $12 in advance. You can visit to purchase them, or they're $15 at the door.

Interview by Peter Mavrik.