Greater Kansas City American Legion
Band Plays Throughout History

By Cynthia L. Horn, Publicity Coordinator
American Legion Auxiliary, District 5

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. 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. Below is a photograph of the band preceding the dedication of the Liberty Memorial in 1926.

Photo courtesy of The National World War I Museum and Archives, Kansas City, Missouri

Today’s Band

The American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City, with members from Missouri and Kansas, has continued a phenomenon that has disappeared from most U.S. metropolitan areas. At one time, cities across the nation sponsored and supported “Legion Bands,” each active in civic and American Legion-sponsored performances and contests. The traditional military concert band has been part of our nation’s history and many feel that it needs to be preserved for its beauty and pageantry.

Approximately 65 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, high school and university students. Some are World War II Veterans and Korean War Veterans. About 30% 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; Stillwell, Kansas; to Butler, Odessa, Kearney, and Parkville, Missouri. They practice every Monday night in the Presbyterian Church in Overland Park, Kansas.

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 will be a senior this fall at Odessa High School. Our oldest member is Gerald Hamilton who is 87 and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. 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. William E. Hall, trumpeter dates back to the early days of the band and is the beginning of four generations of Legion Band members.

“We pay part of our own costs for car and gas expenses, air flights to national competitions, sheet music, music stands, uniforms, and instruments,” explains James Gillingham (Gilly), horn player who lives in Leawood, Kansas. “The uniforms are provided but they cost the band $300. The band members don’t have to be an American Legion member; but in order to compete, we have to have 20% membership in the American Legion family and we have 30%.”

Gillingham goes on to explain that, “The members furnish their own instruments. A French horn costs around $2,500 and a tuba cost $5,000. There’s a lot of driving once a week for rehearsals at the Overland Park Presbyterian Church and to all of the events. We play from March to Veterans’ Day. I figure I drive 800 miles per year, not counting playing in the ensemble. The transportation is paid for by the band members but the rest is subsidized by $200-300 donations. We don’t charge for our performances but if the organization or public cares to donate towards our expenses, that’s okay by us.”

Belinda Johnson 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 in Overland Park.”

Memorial Day photograph at the Liberty Memorial in 2005

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, President Bill Clinton and Missouri Senator Kit Bond both received the 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 Old 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, member of the American Legion Band, “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, Missouri 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 1990’s, 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, Kentucky. They took second place in that competition.”

The group also includes the Brass Ensemble of the Greater Kansas City American Legion Band, which performs year-round. They play traditional brass quintet arrangements, Dixieland and jazz. They also have a Color Guard.

The band playing at the 50th Anniversary of The Vietnam War at Truman Library, September 2009. Photograph courtesy of Cynthia L. Horn

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. She had taught middle school band for five years and private woodwind lessons for ten years. After graduating from the Conservatory, Ms. Pickett studied law at UMKC and graduated with her Juris Doctor in December 1997. She practiced products-liability law for nine years at Shook, Hardy, and Bacon L.L.P. before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Mr. Charles Bacon, a partner of the firm, was the first Missourian to be elected to the office of National Commander for the American Legion in 1961. As Chairman of the Liberty Memorial Association, he received an award from the Kansas City Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution in 1976 for ensuring that the steps and fountains of the Liberty Memorial were renovated. (From “Lest the Ages Forget” by KC Star).

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. I also remember in the 1930’s when I was seven years old, that my family took me to the Elmwood Cemetery to decorate the grave of his uncle who had been killed in World War I. I remember seeing a band in a parade which would march from 15th and Cleveland near the old Sears Retail Outlet down Truman Road to the Elmwood Cemetery. The Spanish American War soldiers and World War I soldiers marched in the parade with the band. They would sometimes play a funeral dirge while they marched two blocks inside the cemetery. I don’t remember if it was the American Legion Band or not. Elmwood Cemetery was the main place in the Kansas City area for the Memorial Day Ceremonies from the 1930’s to the 1940’s.” Clyde also believes that the Heart of America Letter Carriers Band in the 1930’s was the mother of the American Legion Band, according to past World War II veterans to which he has spoken. After the Letter Carriers Band faded away, some of the members formed the American Legion Band. We have sheet music stamped with the Letter Carriers on it. Doug Hall’s great grandfather played in the Letter Carriers Band. The National Postal Museum has a photo of them on the Internet. Doug, from Overland Park, Kansas, remembers going with his grandfather to Portland, Oregon at age 20 to compete in the American Legion National Competition. William E. Hall, trumpeter, is the beginning of four generations of Legion Band members.

In the 1950’s, after the landscaping was finished at the Liberty Memorial, the Memorial Day services were held there. Mr. Rayburn continues, “After playing at the Liberty Memorial, the caravan of band members was escorted by a policeman so we would make it in time to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence. The members would get separated from the line of cars because there weren’t enough police officers so they stopped having police escort. The Patriotic Council stopped having a Memorial Day ceremony at Woodlawn about three years ago.

Five years ago, on Veterans’ Day, after playing at the Liberty Memorial, we started playing at the Resurrection Catholic Cemetery at Kansas City, Missouri at noon before going to John Knox Village to play in the evening. We used to play in the building on Linwood and Paseo. The Depression hit and the Scottish Rite couldn’t keep the building up. World War II was over and the soldiers returned and increased the American Legion membership. They bought the building in 1950. Then, in the 1970’s, the American Legion sold it back to the Scottish Rite. We also played at the groundbreaking ceremony at the KCVA Hospital.”

Dan Kasmerchek, from Independence, Missouri was called Quarter Master in the 1950’s, (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. After I returned to school, the teachers would ask me to share with the other students what I had learned on the trips. From 1953-1957, I learned to control the lights when the 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 Scottish Rite 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, My most favorite experience was when he and three other American Legion Band members were asked by David McCullough to portray a band in a movie made in 1995 called Truman based on his book starring Gary Sinese. We played “Hey, Look Me Over” as Truman got off the train before he became involved in politics. I also remember playing in the band at the train station when Truman returned home from being president.”

Clyde Rayburn said Jerry Dobel, from Independence, Missouri, was the Drum Major in the 1950s, and would strut and toss his baton in the air. See below photograph which was taken in Los Angeles, CA.

National Competitions

Since 1951, the ensemble has represented Missouri in all 58 American Legion National Conventions as a competitive concert band; the only band in the nation to earn this distinction. It has also been honored with the title of “National Champion” several times. They won 1st place at competitions in 1983, 1984, 1999 and 2005. The band also came in second place in 2009 in Louisville, Kentucky and second in 2007 in Reno, Nevada. The band came in third place in 2008 in Phoenix, Arizona. In the fall of 2010, the band will be traveling to compete at the National American Legion Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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.

But, as Mark explains, the story has a fascinating twist:

“In order to transport our band the nearly 4800 miles to Honolulu in the most economical manner, we had to split up the group onto a couple of different flights. The majority of our people were traveling on Northwest Airlines. All of them had to make a connection after departing Kansas City. Unfortunately, Northwest Airlines experienced a "work stoppage" while our groups were in transit! Attempting to accommodate them, Northwest thought to further split up our people and move them to other Northwest gateway cities or put them on other airlines that would eventually deliver them to Honolulu.

I had traveled a day ahead of the band in order to attend the Legion's Contest Meeting in Honolulu and to finalize some of the logistical details prior to their arrival. To make a long story short, on contest day, I was in Honolulu with our director and two fellow officers and the rest of the band was scattered about the continental United States still trying to get to Honolulu.

Fortunately, all but two members eventually arrived in Honolulu but it was about 12 hours after our scheduled competition time! Our director had notified the contest officials of our predicament in advance of our contest time and they agreed to allow our band to compete if we could assemble the band within a specified time frame. It ended up that we bussed the band directly from the airport to the contest stage to perform. No rest time, no meal time, no time to change into our band uniforms, almost no time to warm up our instruments! We stepped onto the contest stage and placed first in the contest once all the scores had been tabulated!”

Mark also shares that his father directs an American Legion Band in Joliet, Illinois.
Sometimes the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City ends up in a friendly competition with Mark’s father’s band.

The American Legion Band on the USS Missouri in Hawaii after winning the
National Championship at the American Legion National Convention in 2005.


In the forties and fifties the uniform was the standard Legion uniform, black with a yellow strip on the legs and cuffs of the coat. The hat was standard, trimmed in yellow and had a white plume. New uniforms were purchased in the early sixties. The pants had a red stripe. In addition to the coat, an overlay of white and red was used. The hat was tall with a white plume. The overlays were very hot, hard to keep clean and difficult to handle. This uniform was worn until 1972 at which time new hats were purchased, and overlays were discarded. The coats and pants remained the same. After almost 40 years of wear, the American Legion District 5 assisted the band in replacing most of the uniforms in 2005, returning to a traditional military style.

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.

If you are interested in having the American Legion Band of Greater Kansas City play for your organization, please contact Conductor Heather Pickett at .

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