By Mark Schmeltzer
The saying is popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. He could have added, “If you use words, try playing a little music to go with them.”
At least that’s the approach Rich Daniels has taken over the past nine years in sharing the story of the Lord’s Nativity with capacity crowds of faithful Catholics. December 10 at Holy Family Church in Chicago, Daniels and The City Lights Orchestra will once again provide musical accompaniment for Cardinal Blase Cupich as the Archbishop reads from the Gospel of Luke on the birth of Jesus. The annual Cardinal’s Christmas Concert is open to all and begins at 2:00 p.m.
“Music brings the Gospel together in a special way,” Daniels said. “It inspires the faithful and reinforces what they’re there for—how Christ is at center of our lives.”
Music has been at the center of Daniels’ memories from a very young age. His father was a music lover whose old swing-era records filled the evening air of Daniels’ childhood home on Chicago’s Southwest Side. As a toddler, his lullabies were recordings by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, as well as stories narrated by Danny Kaye and accompanied by orchestral music. By age 10, he took up the saxophone. As a freshman at Brother Rice High School in 1974, he and two friends, Quigley South sophomores Mike Moore and Paul Seaman, started the Big Band Machine. Moore, who went on to become a writer and English professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, played drums. Seaman, who is now a Catholic priest in Chicago, played alto sax. But Daniels followed his passion for music to soaring professional heights, including his work in providing music for network television.
But Daniels’ success owes to the inspiration he received from the recordings of the 1930s and 40s. “As horn players, we gravitated to this music as horns were prevalent instruments in the great music of the big band era,” Daniels said. “For us, the sounds of the big bands expressed the highest level of musicianship.”
Daniels lists jazz influences that include Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rogers and Hart, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. But there were other sources that contributed to the group’s musical development.
“As I grew, I also discovered the classical greats, like Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Copland, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky,” Daniels said. “And the work of these masters also helped us all become more well-rounded musicians.”
The group also benefitted by having an attentive mentor in Mike’s father, Jim, a talented amateur trumpet player who nurtured the boys’ musical pursuits. The friends rehearsed in Moore’s basement for about a year, before moving to the Daniels’ family home nearby.
While horn and brass instruments became increasingly incorporated into popular music thanks to acts like Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Tower of Power, Daniels’ little big band grew into its name and out of the basement—all while remaining rooted in swing. Within a few short years, the troupe included as many as 18 teenagers from area Catholic schools including Brother Rice, Mother McCauley, Quigley, St. Laurence, Marist, and St. Rita and they were playing paid professional gigs.
By Daniels’ senior year in 1978, the group was featured on the local news by legendary CBS2 Chicago anchor Harry Porterfield as “Someone You Should Know.”
In 1990, after years of supplying live entertainment for events, the band changed its name to The City Lights Orchestra. By the end of the decade, the organization was playing more than 200 corporate, concert and charity functions at year.
Today, the 45-piece City Lights Orchestra is Chicago’s premier concert and event orchestra, performing for corporations, associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations and social galas both locally and around the country. It has also appeared with or backed up such musical giants as Ray Charles, Mel Tormé, David Foster, Paul McCartney, Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, the Four Tops, and so many more.
Daniels is grateful that he has been able to make a career doing what he loves. “The blessings it has given me have been wonderful,” he said. “And we’ve been able to provide work for thousands of musicians over the years. The amount of opportunities it has provided in an industry where they can be hard to come by has been truly outstanding. But it takes hard work, tenacity, and good luck.”
He also leverages his orchestra’s popularity to help non-profits and Catholic charitable organizations raise the support they need to benefit the community, including performances at galas and events for Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, where he is also a board member.
In 2008, after performing his saxophone at the home of then Archbishop Cardinal Francis George for his annual Christmas party for 250 people, Daniels proposed holding a larger performance of sacred and secular Christmas music with the full orchestra. The Cardinal liked the idea and recommended that he host it on behalf of the entire Archdiocese at historic Holy Family Church and that it include his reading of the Christmas Gospel of Luke accompanied by the orchestra.
“Both Cardinals have been very giving, kind, gracious, and supportive,” Daniels said. “They have been such gracious hosts to the congregation, our musicians and to myself.”
Daniels said the formula for the event mixes music and memories to stir emotions. “We like to give a strong dose of holiday tunes that bring back memories,” Daniels said. “We all seemingly experience a wide range of emotions during the Christmas season. Sometimes they are about loss. Or about our childhood. But music touches our minds and our hearts in an almost magical way,” Daniels said.
“Music is an integral part of our Catholic Mass and other liturgies,” said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago. “It enhances our spiritual experience and brings the words of Jesus Christ to life in a different way.”
In addition to the Christmas Gospel of Luke, the orchestra will play holiday favorites such as “Sleigh Ride,” “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Additionally, the concert will feature a choir of seminarians from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. And as it does every year, the concert will conclude with an old-fashioned Christmas sing-a-long. Featured vocalists will include Suzanne Palmer and Irish Tenor, Paddy Homan.
Doors open at 1:15 p.m. at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd., on Chicago’s near West Side. No tickets are necessary—the free concert is offered generously by The City Lights Orchestra with assistance from the Music Performance Fund.
For more information on the Cardinal’s Christmas Concert, go to archchicago.org.
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer who works in non-profit communications.