Daniels directs music and life with faith and spirit

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, June 19, 2011

There’s a moment each Christmas season that Rich Daniels, one of the Chicago area’s most accomplished musicians, feels the weight of the performance upon his shoulders.

For the 50-year-old Daniels, head of the City Lights Orchestra, a variable 45-piece band Daniels has played in and directed since 1990, this moment occurs at the annual Christmas concert at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. There, playing in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the environment and opportunity annually humble Daniels.

“It’s hard not to feel a sense of inspiration, awe, and even anxiety,” Daniels said, of the chapel where cardinals have said Mass and archdiocesan priests have been ordained. “My faith grows because of this experience.”

Indeed, faith and music often touch for Daniels, a composer, saxophonist and bandleader who understands music’s power as well as its personal and spiritual connections.

A life set to music

The only child in Richard and Virginia Daniels’ South Side home, Daniels fell asleep at night to Big Band records. At age 10, he picked up a saxophone, beginning a love affair with music that remains strong four decades later.

In the 1970s, while his contemporaries gravitated to rock and roll, Daniels couldn’t escape his fascination with Big Band. While in high school, he found a number of like-minded teens, all graduates of Catholic grade school band programs. Together, these 13 teens formed the Back Beat Boogie Band in 1974.

“And we looked to the Big Band era, which was still a popular genre given the nostalgia so many of our elders carried for the music,” said Daniels, who attended Brother Rice High School.

In 1976, the group expanded to 18 members and changed its name to the Big Band Machine. Fourteen years later, the band morphed again, this time into the City Lights Orchestra.

Today, City Lights tackles about 200 events each year, sharing the Big Band tunes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman as well as songs from Hollywood films and Broadway shows. Many performances are corporate gigs for the likes of McDonald’s, General Motors and the Chicago Cubs; some are charity functions; and others have religious overtones that remind Daniels that his faith never veers far from his musical profession.

Giving it back

With Daniels’ musical success have come personal relationships and a dedicated sense of giving back.

In 1989, Daniels’ longtime friend Mark Mroz pulled him into the mission of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, the near West Side organization that serves neglected and troubled youth. Visiting the home, attending events, and learning the home’s mission, Mercy Home quickly became an intrinsic part of Daniels’ life.

Over the last 22 years, Daniels has performed at key Mercy Home fundraisers, helped the facility institute a musical therapy program and brokered music industry internships for Mercy Home youth. He has also sat on Mercy Home’s board of directors for the last 15 years, including a three-year stint as its chairman.

“Rich is anything but self-serving and always has a broader understanding,” Mercy Home president Father Scott Donahue said. “He realizes the gifts he has are God given and gives to others with a spirit that’s hard to match.”

Daniels is also board chairman for the DePaul University School of Music, which he described as “an entirely different faith-based journey because you’re helping students develop their God-given gifts.”

Faith and music

Save some teenage jobs, music is the only occupational world Daniels has ever known, a reality compelling Daniels to count himself both blessed and fortunate.

“When I take a long look at what I’ve been able to do, there’s nothing but thankfulness,” the father of four said.

Though the music Daniels performs is not sacred, he nevertheless champions music’s spiritual elements, its ability to touch individuals’ hearts in profound ways — if even for a fleeting slice of time.

“Music has this tremendous way of transporting people to a different time or place they might not otherwise visit,” Daniels said. “You do not touch music, hold it, or see it, and in that way there’s such a mystical quality to it.”

Over the years, Daniels, a parishioner at Most Holy Redeemer in Evergreen Park, has performed dozens of times at Cardinal George’s residence and is a regular at the cardinal’s Christmas concert at Holy Family Parish, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, as well as various charitable functions for local faith-based entities, including Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society — all of which have reminded Daniels how music and faith coexist.

“The older I get, the more faith plays a role in all facets of my life and guides my work,” he said.