They gather around on Saturday mornings from asparagus season until the last pumpkins are picked. Each gets a turn to select and lead a piece as they go around a circle, which shrinks and expands from a dozen up to 30 musicians, depending on the weekend. Some are seasoned veterans. Others, not so much. But it doesn’t matter. All are welcome.
The Farmers’ Market Band, which began in 1982 as a promo for the now-defunct Lake Street store Guitar Fun, comprises people from all walks of life. They get free doughnuts, which some like and others find heavy and greasy.
But, it’s the music that brings them together, according to Geoff Tillotson, longest running member of the band, who joined just one year after it began. He plays banjo and fiddle.
“What’s special is the connections I’ve made over the years through the music and the friends I’ve made,” said Tillotson, former middle-school language arts teacher, turned paraprofessional at Riverside-Brookfield High School.
It all started when Mike Casey, a teacher of multiple instruments at Guitar Fun, formerly at Lake and Ridgeland, and Rich Harris, the owner, set up at the nearby farmers market. They put out a display with brochures and would play music while shoppers selected fresh fruits and vegetables.
Casey died in 2014 but played music until the very end, according to Ben Stark, who joined the band in the mid-1990s. The band’s music is strictly acoustic and ranges from “old timey” music rooted in the early 19th century along to bluegrass, which Stark said is rooted in the Scotch-Irish music of Appalachia of the 1940s, to Americana, folk, country and commercial music.
Stark, professor emeritus of biology from Illinois Institute of Technology, plays guitar and banjo.
He also brings his science knowledge to Beye Elementary seven times each school year through Oak Park Education Foundation’s Science Alliance, something Stark has been doing for more than 25 years. He said when students spot him playing in the market band, he is an “extremely minor celebrity in a tiny, minor pond.”
Eric Zorn, whose main instrument is fiddle, and Charlie Meyerson, a flute player, may be the closest thing to celebrities in the band. Zorn is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist and also plays guitar, banjo and mandolin. Meyerson is an award-winning broadcast journalist and internet news publisher.
The group plays outside near the Pilgrim Congregational Church parking lot off Scoville Ave. from 8:30 a.m. until noon. The “music junkies” as Stark calls them, meet downstairs at Pilgrim and begin at 7 a.m.
“If you have the nerve to sit in with us, you can,” said Tillotson, “That’s kept it going, that open policy. The delightful thing is watching people grow musically.”
Frank Vozak, joined this year and plays the acoustic bass guitar. He said the group has been “generous with knowledge, time and support.”
“I played bass guitar in my youth, then let it go,” said the retired licensed clinical social worker and president of the Oak Park Model Railroad Club. “I started playing again since retiring, and playing with this incredible group of musicians has greatly improved the quality of my playing.”
Mary and Jim Grosso are 30-year veterans of the market band and also play in the Grosso Family Band with their sons. Mary primarily plays upright bass and Jim strums the guitar or a Dobro, a resonator guitar. Both retired, Mary was an occupational health nurse and Jim was an information systems consultant.
Another musician is David Swain, who is multi-talented and has played with the band since 2010. He plays fiddle and rhythm guitar, sings lead and harmony vocals and has added the bodhran, a Celtic drum and hand percussion instruments, such as jawbone, tambourine and spoons to the mix. While the senior analyst in IT at the University of Chicago primarily focuses on fiddling, his first introduction to the band was on a different “instrument” at a performance at Buzz Café.
“They started playing ‘Arkansas Traveler’ and I couldn’t help but tap my toes,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I had a pair of spoons in my hands and was playing a rhythm to the beat of the tune.”
Another market regular includes longtime guitarist Len Palombi, who has sat in the circle since the mid-1980s. He is a Pilates teacher, receiving his certification at age 60 and works at Village Pilates Studio in Forest Park.
Don Sibley learned guitar from Palombi, who taught at Old Town School of Folk Music. Sibley, a retired school psychologist who now teaches future school psychologists as a faculty member of Loyola University Chicago, has been playing at the market since the mid-1980s.
“It’s great therapy,” he said of coming to play on Saturday mornings. “It fits into self-care. It recharges my batteries.”
Guitarist Ron Lipton joined the group in the mid-1990s.
“I have loved folk and bluegrass music since my teens,” the Fermilab physicist said.
What keeps the musicians coming back each Saturday, according to Stark, is an addiction, “that warm feeling when the music is really good.”
Stark said scholars and philosophers have opined on what draws people to music.
“It is a kind of communication,” Stark said. “You can communicate in a way you can’t on a page or device that is better, different, richer, fuller or more nuanced.”
When the farmers market closes at the end of October, the musicians splinter off. Some play Americana music on Saturday mornings at Oak Park Arms. Another group plays old-timey music and bluegrass at Buzz Café. Some musicians are in groups that play various venues throughout the year, like Art Harrison’s Bluegrass All-Stars, of which Swain, Tillotson and Stark are members.
“It’s a mainstay of my life, that one day a week, getting together, socializing and learning new things,” said Tillotson. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than that.”