On a steamy Sunday afternoon at the end of July, The Merry Notes took to one of the many stages at Pierogi Fest in Whiting.
With Hank Iwinski on trumpet, Rick Mlynarski on saxophone and clarinet, Tom Suroviak on accordion and Don Cipowski on drums, the group blared out polka tunes for the audience members, some of which twirled and stepped around with the songs in front of the stage.
At one point, Cipowski, of Lansing, invited two guests to perform alongside the other members: his son, DJ, of Crown Point, and his grandson, Jacob, of Munster. With three generations of Cipowski men lined up on the stage, the band performed "Helena Polka."
"I was really proud of them," Don Cipowski said.
For DJ, who grew up in Calumet City and Lansing, a Polish-heavy zone of the Calumet area, polka music was a staple among the neighborhoods and families. However, for the 38-year-old, it was his first time playing that type of music.
"We certainly had polka music on all the time at the house (growing up), DJ Cipowski said. "It didn't fall into the category of anything popular in my age group."
In the time period he grew up, the polka scene that had filled clubs like Eddie's Crystal Tap in Burnham or Club 505 in Hegewisch was tapering off. And even though DJ, who described himself as a "metalhead" when he was younger with bands like Metallica, took to the trumpet when he was in fourth grade. He said he had an "easy-going" and "fun" music teacher who helped make it enjoyable for him.
"When you first start, it's not as much fun," DJ said. "Trumpet with the music I was listening to was limited. Once I got the opportunity to play what I liked, it just took off for me."
DJ and his sister, Karen, were the next in line, so to speak, of Cipowski family members who learned music. It began with their grandfather, Paul, a drummer who passed it on to Don.
Don has played polka music with different bands since the 1960s and first performed with The Merry Notes at the Calumet Fishing & Hunting Club in Calumet City in 1990. His musical companions have performed around the Midwest at churches, weddings, anniversaries and festivals.
"(Polka) a lively dance, it's just lively music," Don said. "It's happy music. That's the way I always felt."
Now the musical interest extends down to Don's grandson, Jacob, a trombonist and eighth-grader at St. Thomas More in Munster. When Don invited Jacob and DJ to perform, he says they were receptive to it.
Although DJ says it has proved difficult for him to prepare, he noted his inner memory of hearing the music while growing up aided him.
"Whether I chose to or not, I heard polka music (growing up)," DJ said. "When Jacob and I practiced with the band, it didn't take that long for us to take to it. It came to us pretty quickly."
When performing at Pierogi Fest, DJ felt having the three generations on stage solidified a musical connection.
"The ability for us to play that music took it to another level," he said. "That one experience with Jacob and my dad was one of those awesome experiences people aren't going to get to do in life."
While driving back home after Pierogi Fest, DJ says his son, Thomas, turned to him and asked, "Dad, when do I start learning how to play the trumpet?" Thomas, a fourth-grader at St. Mary Catholic Community School in Crown Point, will start playing this year, says DJ — another child to be the next Cipowski in the musical lineage.
"Music itself is a bridge," DJ said. "When my parents pass on, the polka music is going to live inside of us. It's a type of music that stays within the culture and transcends that generational thing."