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3 generations of this pipe-and-drum band have helped Kansas City celebrate St. Patrick's Day

The St. Andrew Pipes & Drums band plays year-round at graduations and funerals. But there's nothing like the thrill of Kansas City's legendary St. Patrick's Day parade.

Iain McKee grew up listening to the hum of the Highland bagpipe. Sixty years ago, his grandfather Wallace McKee helped found St. Andrew Pipes & Drums.

"Nobody ever told me I had to play the pipes," Iain says. "I was around it, obviously, growing up and I was over at my grandparents house one day and my grandpa said, 'Hey, maybe I can show you how to play a scale.' And I said, 'Oh, that'd be kind of cool."

Iain thought the resulting sound was "pretty neat," so he showed his dad what he'd learned.

"He got really excited," Iain remembers, "and he started lining up lessons with me and my best friend and just kind of took off from there."

Now Iain McKee is the pipe major in the band his grandfather started, and Tuesday night band practice is a family tradition. Each week, around forty pipers and drummers gather in the basement of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Brookside.

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Julie Denesha
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Pipe Major Iain McKee leads the band during a recent practice at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Brookside.

Throughout the year, St. Andrew Pipes & Drums performs at funerals and graduations. They've played with the Chieftains and The Elders. And the band competes nationally and internationally, often winning contests.

But there's nothing like Kansas City's St. Patrick's Day parade. Iain says he still remembers the first time he marched with his family.

"It was the biggest performance I had ever done because, as you know, there are thousands and thousands of people," he says.

He was about 12 years old, and remembers struggling to keep up.

"But the fact that I was out there with everybody was a whole lot of fun," he says. "My grandpa was still alive, so we got to all play together — three generations — so that was pretty special."

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Julie Denesha
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After practice, drum sergeant and lead drummer Bill McKee runs through a section with Allison Hildebrand.

"I see my dad and my sister every week," Iain says. "It's been a part of my life so long that it's just Tuesday night is band night."

Iain’s father Tom McKee has been a member almost from the very beginning.

"I have been with this band since I was a little boy," Tom says. "I am now 69 years old. It is a great group of people who have gathered in Kansas City with the love and joy of celebrating Scottish music and Scottish culture and that's what we're all about."

Tom says he has vivid memories of his first performance in the late 1960s.

"I absolutely felt that to me as a young boy, that the band was bigger than life," he remembers. "To me, the idea of marching in front of thousands of people and playing our music and everything — was like a dream come true. It's like being on TV, you know, in those days. And of course, that was a big deal in the 1960s.”

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Julie Denesha
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Tuning each bagpipes as the band warms up, Griffin Hall, the band's pipe sergeant, makes certain the band sounds its best.

In the band's early days, Tom’s brother Bill was also recruited into the family pastime.

"Trying to fill the ranks, and you were a young kid with a father that was a piper. It was not what you're going to play, but you know that you have to be in the band," Bill says. "So my father and my older brother were bagpipers, and so I thought I'd do something different and do the drumming."

Fifty-seven years, later he’s the drum sergeant and lead drummer.

“It is exciting, the big get together, and I would have to admit, being older now and carrying the drum along parades don't thrill me much," Bill says. "But I mean, for the younger players and all that, it's quite exciting, you know, getting together and playing for the crowds."

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Julie Denesha
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Playing on practice chanters, pipers Joe Butler (left) Sue Speck warm up with the band before moving to bagpipes.

St. Andrew Pipes and Drums takes seriously its mission of teaching new players. Teaching the bagpipe falls to Griffin Hall, the band’s pipe sergeant. At 23, he's been with the band for ten years. Lessons are free and students arrive early to learn the music they'll play once they are inducted into the band.

"It's really rewarding because I came up through the the ranks here as a student through the exact same teaching teaching program," Hall says. "And it's really cool now to be able to pass all that on to all the newbies and the rookies here who are sounding really, really good tonight."

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Julie Denesha
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Hall, the band's pipe sergeant, walks around the room to listen to other players during practice.

This is the big season for all pipe bands in the United States and elsewhere, Hall says.

"So parades are coming up. That’s what we’re really excited about," he says. "St. Patrick’s Day is huge.”

Piper Kevin Regan says playing with this band connects him with the city and the people who live here.

"It is a part of the Kansas City fabric," he says. "And what's cool about it, during the week it seems like a weekend because of all the people to play hooky and come down and become part of the festivities and the music, the culture."

And after two years without a parade, Regan says he’s looking forward to marching down Broadway again.

"When we warm up, we warm up at Brown's Deli," Regan explains. "Then we walk down to the parade route. And you see all the floats and we're at the beginning of it."

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Julie Denesha
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Piper Kevin Regan plays during practice.

"So the mayor's there, the sheriff's there, all the Irish family’s floats are getting ready. High school bands," he continues. "You can hear the marching bands tuning up and it's a different scene every year, but it's always great energy."

As Regan notes, the parade marks the end of winter or the beginning of spring.

"It gives me an emotional high that lasts for days," he says.

St. Andrew Pipes & Drums return to St. Patrick's Day celebrations this year by performing in two parades:

The Kansas City St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 17 at 11 a.m., and the 2022 Brookside St. Patrick’s Warm-Up Parade, March 19 at 1 p.m.

An earlier version of this story reported that St. Andrew Pipes & Drums would perform in the Snake Saturday Parade. Due to cold temperatures expected Saturday, the band has withdrawn their entry in the parade. The parade will take place as scheduled. Please check parade websites for updates.

Updated: March 11, 2022 at 1:45 PM CST
An earlier version of this story reported that St. Andrew Pipes & Drums would perform in the Snake Saturday Parade. Due to cold temperatures expected Saturday, the band has withdrawn their entry in the parade. The parade will take place as scheduled. Please check parade websites for updates.
Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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