Washington’s Best Kept Military Secret

September 24, 2010

Washington's Best Kept Military Secret Groucho Marx is credited with the observation that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. Clearly, the great comedian never heard the US Army Blues, or its sister jazz big bands the Navy Commodores, the Airmen of Note, and the Jazz Ambassadors; for if he had, this chestnut might never have seen the light of day.

As the distinguished writer Doug Ramsey observes in his historical chronicle of the big band published in the Oxford Companion to Jazz, the elite military ensembles deliver a sound that is “distinctly unmilitary.” Although perhaps not as adventurous as such exponents of big-band modernism as the Maria Schneider Orchestra or Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra (to be fair, the bands include both Schneider’s and Brookmeyer’s arrangements in their books), the military ensembles perform novel arrangements of jazz and pop standards, as well as original compositions, that venture rhythmically and harmonically off the beaten path. All are played with a technical precision that is at once virtuosic and light of touch. And most important, the Blues, the Note, the Commodores, and the Ambassadors, as they are known familiarly, swing as hard as, for instance, the Basie “New Testament” band or the Blanton-Webster Ellington ensembles did in their prime. This is toe-tapping music for an age decidedly in need of emotional up-lift. Put another way, they are a Washington rarity a federal program that really does work.

Delivering the Goods

I had the opportunity to confirm my impressions in August when three of the groups (the Ambassadors were absent) held their annual Joint Services battle of the bands at the Carter-Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, DC. (All of the bands are based in the nation’s capital, where the musicians are permanently stationed, although they perform across the country and around the world.) This free event is the only time during the year that the bands play together, each performing a 30-minute set of tunes drawn from their extensive repertoire. The evening air was reasonably cool and dry, at least for the District in the dead of summer, and the audience a mix of military vets, local jazz fans, and even some younger listeners, who may have been enticed away from their strolls in Rock Creek Park by the sounds emerging from the band shell.

Washington's Best Kept Military Secret First up were the Commodores, followed by the Blues, with the Note bringing the concert to a rousing close with a tribute to the servicemen in the audience and overseas. While the bands may appear difficult to distinguish on first hearing each of the sets featured arrangements of densely woven colors, with shimmering solos washing over tight horn accompaniments and unshakeable rhythmic support differences became apparent. Most obviously, the Navy and Air Force ensembles featured vocalists, with Yolanda Pelzer taking the lead on the old Marlene Dietrich tune “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It),” and Paige Martin on “It’s a Brand New Day,” a composition written by Note pianist Steve Erickson. (All of the musicians, it should be noted, are enlisted men and women.) More important, the Commodores’ saxophone section, in particular band leader Philip Burlin and Luis Hernandez on tenor, seemed especially confident, precise, and full-bodied on this night. The Blues has a particularly strong trumpet section, and the arrangements selected for this performance were carefully written to exploit each musician’s distinct sound. For instance, Graham Breedlove, who grew up physically and musically in Louisiana, brought his funky down-home plunger mute work to the Basie band’s “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” while Kenny Rittenhouse’s peppy and pellucid lines captured beautifully the emotional underpinnings of Michael Brecker’s “African Skies. Most striking about the Note were the unexpected voicings and rhythmic colors contained in Alan Baylock’s arrangement of Joshua Redman’s contemporary standard “Jazz Crimes” and original compositions by members of the band, including the set opener, “Everyday Adventures,” by trombonist Ben Patterson. The final number, a medley of the several armed forces theme songs Wild Blue Yonder, Anchors Aweigh, the Marine Corps Hymn, The Army Goes Rolling Along literally brought the audience to its feet. The good vibes continued even after the music stopped, as the crowd was sent home with free copies of the Note’s latest CD. (Audio downloads of selected tracks from all of the bands recent recordings, along with their concert schedules, are available gratis on the groups’ Web sites: www.navyband.navy.mil/commodores, www.usafband.af.mil/ensembles, and www.usarmyband.com/blues.

Unsung Greats

For bands that have been kicking around as long as have the Note, Commodores, and Blues, surprisingly little has been written about them beyond a historical survey the Air Force commissioned in 2000 to recognize the band’s golden anniversary. The Note is, in fact, the oldest of the three groups, having been created in 1950 to honor the legacy of the Glenn Miller Army Air Corps dance band. The Commodores were formed 19 years later, with the Blues becoming an official part of the Army Band, collectively known as “Pershing’s Own,” in 1972. The groups are not referenced in George Simon’s standard history, The Big Bands, nor in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. While Ramsey’s big band overview cited above makes passing mention of the Commodores and Note, none of the other leading jazz writers, such as Whitney Balliet, Gene Lees, Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, or Dan Morgenstern, has covered the bands in either a thematic analysis or concert review, so far as I can ascertain. Why might this be so?

Washington's Best Kept Military Secret For one thing, the Commodores, Blues, and Note have a distinctly non-commercial mission. Burlin told me before the concert that, as arms of the military services, the three jazz bands have a largely “public relations function.” “Obviously, our job is to represent the armed forces on active duty,” he said. “But beyond that, our role is education, outreach, and, not incidentally, jazz preservation.” As musical ambassadors, the bands are part of a venerable American tradition, stretching back to Dizzy Gillespie’s and Louis Armstrong’s exercises in Cold War diplomacy on behalf of the State Department in the 1950’s and #149;60s. However, unlike the earlier, well-publicized tours, the Commodores, Blues, and Note tend to travel beneath the radar, visiting small towns, playing in high school and university auditoriums, participating in jazz conferences and festivals, and bringing the nearly lost art of swinging big band music to communities that more famous orchestras simply, well, fly over.

For another, jazz improvisation and military service are not two ingredients one would naturally think to put in the same dish. In the past, most jazz musicians viewed their peers in the service bands, with their short hair, sharply pressed uniforms, and well-shined shoes, as people who sold out their aesthetic souls to work for outfits decidedly unpopular in liberal, artistic circles. But times have changed. Since Desert Storm, supporting the troops has become acceptable behavior, even for avant-garde trumpet players and drummers.

More important, a steady gig is a steady gig for any musician, especially when the economy is less than ideal. Tony Nalker, the pianist and enlisted leader of the Blues, told me that nowadays upwards of a hundred musicians audition every time a chair opens up, which, it turns out, rarely happens. Band members believe in national service, and the military and musical obligations, which include performing in parades, funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, and high-level government functions, encourage longevity. “I can’t think of a musician who doesn’t like to get paid to rehearse,” Breedlove added. The musicians are encouraged to compose and arrange their own works, and spin-off groups, such as the Blues’ Swamp Romp, a combo co-led by Breedlove and trombonist Harry Watters that performs a kind of nouvelle traditional jazz, offer another creative outlet. As a consequence, the competition for an open seat is fierce. The candidates tend to be conservatory trained many have master’s degrees are able to sight-read any style of music, and, not incidentally, can play their keisters off. Consider that the Blues held an audition in July for a trombone spot. Fifty musicians sent in tapes, and 12 were selected to perform in person. Included among them were a couple of college music professors, a veteran of the Basie Orchestra, and two players who once backed up Harry Connick, Jr. Curiously, none of them made the final cut.

Washington's Best Kept Military Secret Nevertheless, an unlikely connection between the arts of jazz and warfare can be postulated. Nalker recounted reading an interview with a former Secretary of the Navy, who said that improvisation lies at the heart of strategic operations, both on the battlefield and back at headquarters. Pre-determined plans must be modified and new tactics deployed in real time, with little guidance other than historical precedence (what has worked before), theoretical possibility (what the rules permit), and pure instinct (what feels right in the gut). That’s as good a description of what goes on during the act of jazz creation as any, and suggests, however fancifully, why the Pentagon may be so keen to promote the music admirals and alto saxophonists must think and react alike.

Of course, unlike the sounds of battle, jazz, the music Whitney Balliet once described as the “sound of surprise,” is created in performance for pure pleasure. Few bands play it as well as the Blues, Commodores, and the Note. The fact that almost no one has heard of them is evidence there is no justice in the world, military or otherwise.

Steven Marks is DC-based writer and former jazz editor of the music industry magazine, Cash Box. He has written numerous liner notes and served as a contributing writer for DownBeat and other arts publications.

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