Jun 22, 2016

With big fights swirling around Congress in recent weeks ranging from gun control to Supreme Court vacancies, it might have been easy to miss a brewing debate over the future of US Armed Forces music ensembles.

The branches of the US military have included bands since their inception, but the cost of that music — the Defense Department is estimated to have spent $437 million on its ensembles in 2015 — has come under fire from some Congressional budget watchers.

Across all branches, there are almost 6,000 military musicians in 137 ensembles, making the Department of Defense one of if not the largest employer of professional musicians in the country. Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel on the Armed Services Committee, has led a charge to downsize that part of the military budget. Earlier this month, that committee voted to restrict military bands from being used as entertainment at military dinners, dances and social events.

McSally and others argue that entertaining high-ranking officers at events is not part of the core function of the military (fair) while band supporters argue the ensembles make up only a tiny fraction of a $602 billion budget that includes plenty of questionable line items (also fair.)

Regardless of where you fall on that current debate, US military bands have played a larger role in American music and classical music life than many often realize. Particularly in the later 19th century and early 20th century when US classical institutions both in the professional ensemble and education sectors were still being established, the military and the church were both training grounds and performance venue.

With that in mind, here is a look at some of the notable classical musicians and composers who came through the enlisted ranks of US military ensembles.

1. George Ives


Charles Ives is often thought of as an American modernist maverick who presents something of a challenge in music history classrooms. In musicology, composers are usually introduced as a part of a larger musical movement — who influenced them and who they influenced. While he studied music under perhaps the most renown American composer of the day, Horatio Parker, Charles Ives is often mythologized as something of an outlier: A composer earning his paycheck as an insurance salesman who somewhat independently explored radical ideas of harmony and the way music interacts with the natural world (doing so before those concepts received mainstream attention from more formalized classical music composition schools.)

Ives received formal training from Parker, but the greatest musical influence in his life was his father, George Ives. George Ives had training from another composer in Danbury, Connecticut, but he never attended college and got some of his earliest experience as a bandleader in the Union Army during the Civil War. Taking that position at the age of 17, George Ives was the youngest bandleader at the time, and it is reported that Ulysses S. Grant told Abraham Lincoln that he was the best.

George Ives built on his experience in the Army to pursue a career as a (not very successful) professional musician, and he passed many of his ideas onto his son and pupil, Charles.

As composer and author Jan Swafford writes, “George Ives was [a] man fascinated by sounds and by the human element in music. He would march two bands around Danbury Common in opposite directions playing different tunes, to see what it sounded like as they passed. He would have Charlie sing a tune in one key while he accompanied in another. In the 1880s, his father told Charlie that any combination of notes whatever was acceptable, as long as you had a reason for it. Surely that was the first time anybody had said such a thing to a young composer.”

2. Samuel Barber

Corporal Samuel Barber (left) with conductor Serge Koussevitzky 

Samuel Barber was one of many American composers who wrote music for the WWII war effort, but he was one of a few who was enlisted. Barber was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942 at a time when he was already well known as a composer. He wrote a handful of pieces for armed forces use including his “Funeral March” and “Commando March” for military band. Those two pieces updated the traditional Sousa march form with an updated more modern and sophisticated style, and “Commando March” has become something of a staple for the modern concert band. While those pieces might serve a direct practical use in military ceremony, he also wrote works meant more for the concert hall including Four Excursions for piano and Capricorn Concerto for chamber orchestra.

Barber’s official duties were clerical in nature, but he was given a lot of support by his commanding officers to write music. Barber was commissioned in 1943 by the US Air Force to write a “symphonic work about flyers,” which turned into his Second Symphony. For that work, Barber rode along with airmen doing training missions on the B-24 Liberator. At the request of a general to use “modern devices” in the piece, the symphony also made use of an electronic tone-generator from Bell Telephone Laboratories to represent radio messages meant to guide night missions. The piece was completed and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944.

Eventually, Barber grew to dislike his Second Symphony, saying it wasn’t very good and withdrawing it from circulation. Writers disagree about why Barber turned on the piece, some arguing that as one of his most stylistically complex works that wasn’t entirely well received, it made him feel exposed, while others argue that in the anti-war atmosphere of the 1960s, maybe Barber turned on a piece written from within the military. Following Barber’s death, the piece was reconstructed and has seen new performances.

3. Mel Powell

Mel Powell(From left) Glenn Miller, Ray McKinley and Mel Powell

Mel Powell was drafted to the US Army during WWII and is an alumni of the Army Air Force Band directed by Glenn Miller. Any number of notable jazz performers spent their military service years in that ensemble, which became a model for many existing military bands. Powell came from a stride piano background and became a pianist and arranger for Benny Goodman as a teenager prior to being drafted. After the war, Powell had a celebrated career writing for well-known band leaders and Hollywood.

In the late 1940s, Powell came down with muscular dystrophy, which ended his career as a performer. He left jazz and transitioned to focus on composing classical music, studying with Paul Hindemith at Yale. Powell wrote in a neo-Classical style with elements of atonality and serialism. He was the founding dean of the California Institute of Arts (now CalArts).

In 1990, Powell won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Duplicates, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra.

4. Alfred Jack Thomas

368ThinfantrybandThe 368th Infantry Band during WWI

Alfred Jack Thomas isn’t a household name in many classical circles or even in his hometown of Baltimore. However, Thomas is in many ways representative of the opportunities that military ensembles offered for African American musicians who were shut out of other musical institutions.

Black history in the US armed forces ensembles is extensive (probably best documented by the work of historian Eileen Southern) and predates the nation’s official formation. In 1738, the Virginia legislature passed a statute that required “free mulattos, blacks and Native Americans” to serve in the armed forces. The catch was that they were forbidden from actually using weapons due to fear of uprisings, meaning those who served were ushered to the drum and fife corps. By the time of the Civil War, Southern writes that one of the first acts by Union officers in command of all-black regiments during the Civil War was to get instruments and form bands that would hold public performances and parades to recruit black soldiers to the war effort.

Those ensembles and regiments were disbanded after the war, but at the start of US involvement in WWI, the US armed forces again looked to recruit both black soldiers and musicians. James Europe, who led the Clef Club, a popular ragtime and Dixieland dance orchestra in New York pre-war, established the 369th Infantry Jazz Band (the “Hellfighters”), which is probably the best-known military band of the era and had a large role in introducing jazz to Europe.

Where James Europe was recruited for his fame in the early jazz circles at the outset of the war, Alfred Jack Thomas had a career with the military since 1903 also had a reputation for playing “serious” (i.e. classical) music. Thomas attended the Army Bandmasters School between 1912 and 1914, and he was tasked with leading the band for the newly formed 368th Infantry Band. During the war, he was considered by many to have lead the best band. In 1918, conductor Walter Damrosch was in Paris and asked by General John Pershing to test the musical competency of Army bandleaders. Thomas along with his assistant bandmaster E. E. Thompson were one of only 10 army bandmasters out of 240 to pass the exam.

Following the war, many of the (still relatively few) black bandleaders returned to civilian life either as music faculty at historically black colleges or leading commercial bands. Thomas returned to Baltimore where he founded the Aeolian Conservatory, a training school for black classical and jazz musicians. An advertisement in Baltimore’s Afro American newspaper read “You cannot go to the Peabody. You don’t have to. Come to the Aeolian. Precisely equal standards are maintained.”

As a conductor at a time when classical institutions were segregated, Thomas helped found and lead numerous all-black ensembles including a military-style brass band, a jazz orchestra, Baltimore’s first black municipal band and finally the Negro Symphony Orchestra in New York City. As a composer, Thomas wrote several works including a tone poem titled Etude en Noir, which won a competition to be premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in 1941 and that he would later conduct in 1946 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the BSO’s first concert with an African American conductor.