The realm military brass
Washington, D.C. — The tuba players, the drummers, the products of those countless high school marching bands have an unlikely patron -- the United States military establishment. The four services pour roughly $60 million into more than 100 bands here and abroad, opening their ranks to nearly 6,000 people. The Coast Guard also runs a 45-member ceremonial band plus three volunteer groups, and the merchant marine has its academy band at King's Point, N.Y.
In interviews with spokesman for military bands in the Washington, D.C., area the word "high caliber musicians" crops up continually. Spokesmen cite graduates of the prestigious Julliard and Peabody Schools of Music as well as celebrities like Steve Lawrence, Eddie Fisher, and Gene Kelly, who have played in a military unform.
The musicians, for their part, speak appreciatively of the chief advantage military patronage gives them -- security. "I got a 30-year mortgage as a member of the band," one gloats."Even people working for symphony orchestras can't do that."
"Some of these guys stay in the bands for their whole career," an Army spokesman, Maj. Lee DeLorm, says, "and every single one of them volunteered for the job."
But he confirms what musicians tell me: Strict discipline seems to be the exception during nonperformance hours. Musicians wear their "civvies" most of the time; many live off the base and find their friends outside; saluting is kept to a minimum. "I wouldn't have survived three days in the Regular Army," former band member Harold Evans says of his comrades-in-horns. In fact, some musicians seem surprised to find themselves among the military at all.
"I was playing for an officers' club," one says, "and this general motioned me over to his table. He asked me where I'd gotten my training, so I told him the name of my university.
"He said, 'No, no, no, I mean where'd you get your Armym training?'"
The Army, Air Force, and Navy (But not the Marines) require its musicians to undergo "basic" training. Asked if the basic training teaches the musicians to hold a trumpet in one hand and a weapon in the other, Air Force Maj. Nevin Lantry, a band spokesman, replies, "If Bolling Air Force Base is attacked, we're in a lot more trouble than can be fixed by a bunch of musicians."
The musicians audition for jobs in the military -- either by tape or in person, and are usually placed with one of the base or fleet bands (The Navy calls these a "place for musicians with growing skill"). Only the best are chosen for the so- called "premier" bands attached to the Washington, D.C., area , where literally hundreds of musicians may compete for one position.
Once the musicians have made it through basic training, they usually spend a few months at the Army's or Navy's school of music learning ceremonial techniques. Then, depending on their background and expertise, they are slotted for one of the mind-boggling range of musical groups the military supports.
There are quartets, quintets, and ensembles playing strings, brass, and golden-throated herald trumpets. There's a Dixieland combo doing hot New Orleans jazz, a bluegrass group, two country and western bands that have made it to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, a classic jazz group that appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival during the US Bicentennial, and a variety of pop, rock, and disco groups whose main work is to drum up recruits.
In addition to the instrumental groups, there are dozens of slots for vocalist, ranging from an all-male chorus doing Schubert to a mixed group doing Barry Manilow.
Then, of course, there are the bands to which all these musicians are attached -- four symphonic bands which perform for Washington dignitaries.
These dispatch the "hello and goodby" minibands to lend proper pomp to ceremonial circumstances (the Army does the bulk of the meeting and greeting in this town) and dance bands play at the White House -- everything from popular music for Luci Johnson to the classics (the Marines normally cover these late-night jobs).
Then, during state dinners, military musicians play what they irreverently call "potted palm music" -- the kind that blends into the background.
One part of the job for military banks has been around since 1775, when the first fife and drum team literally drummed Americans into the corps -- the Marine Corps, at that. A congressional act in 1798 made it official, calling for "32 drums and fifes . . . with a proper distribution of the . . . musicians to each company or detachment."
In their present form, the premier bands were brought into being within the last 100 years, two by acts of Congress (Navy and Marines) and two by authority of the military (Army and Air Force).
Bolstering recruiting has always been one of their functions. They "open a door to areas we normally can't get into," Major Lantry says.
When it comes to enhancing the military's image, he adds, the bands are without an equal. "For about the cost of one prime time TV commercial," he believes, "we can run a whole tour, with the band performing free concerts for thousands of people. When the Air Force band comes on, people pay attention."
The tours, coordinated by the Department of Defense, include performances at military bases and for the general public throughout the US. Following a list of no-nos that stretches over four pages, the Department of Defense does not assign the bands to functions intended to support political campaigns, religious ideology, commercial ventures, or individual profit.
A typical tour may hit 50 or 60 different towns in as many days, and include up to three performances per day for Jaycees, Girl Scouts, hospitals, libraries, and community centers.
At this hectic pace, band members learn quickly to "adjust to each other's style of life," says Marine Maj. Charles P. Irwin, a member of the band.
"It's a cloistered existence," he admits, "and you learn to do anything that makes it bearable." Jogging is rampant in the ranks, he says, and many a motel lot has been converted to a football field or volleyball court.
"You definitely have to have a kind of split personality," Master Chief Musician Jeffrey Taylor says. "If you've had a bad day -- if people have been complaining about you all day -- you have to click it off on stage. It's harder with a vocalist than an instrumentalist," he believes, because "a vocalist is like an actor."
His wife, Musicians 1st Class Evangeline Bailey Taylor, left the Hospital Corps for the Navy Band in 1973 under a Department of Defense directive that opened up a host of noncombat jobs to women in the military. she is a vocalist with the Navy's jazz-rock-stage band, the Commodores.
After seven years of integration, are the bands still male bastions? "It's a chauvinistic atmosphere, sure," Chief Taylor says. "I don't see how it can't be , with 160 men and 10 women."
Old-timers like Marine Major Irwin admit they were shaken when women first joined their ranks. "When Gunny [Gunnery Sgt. Ruth Johnson] first came, I said, 'What's this? What's this?' But all she had to do was pick up her [French] horn and blow, and I knew she was as qualified as the rest of us."
Army violinist Elizabeth Evans says it was the old-timers who pulled her through. "When I auditioned, I figured everyone would be trying out for this job," she recalls."Then when I found that I was to be the first and only [woman] , it got pretty scary."
She was the sole female in the Army band for nine months. "The old-timers took me under their wings like a daughter," she says, "and chewed out the guys when they got too foulmouthed." As more women were assigned to the band, the situation eased.
Elizabeth and her husband, Harold, have left the Army band for "the scary real world," but they still think the military is great for "a hitch, maybe two. It gives young musicians a steady income while they perfect their craft," Harold says. "I had enough time and money in the Army to get two masters and a doctorate."
"And it's especially good for wind players, who might have a hard time getting a job in a symphony," Elizabeth says.
But it's important, they feel, to see the military as a stepping stone, not a stopping place. "The regular pay, regular jobs, and early retirement are really tempting," Harold says. "But I've seen good musicians go to seed in the band.There's just so much John Phillip Sousa anyone can stand."
On the other hand, Navy man Jeff Taylor, a talented music arranger who could easily step into a good position outside, chooses to stay in the military.
He points out that the Navy has given him valuable experience: graduate work (75 percent of tuition is reimbursed), conducting (he headed the Commodores for over a year), work with movies (he wrote the music for two Navy films, and was sent to Hollywood to work it into the movies), work with celebrities (including the Navy's Christmas special featuring Burl Ives).
The Navy, for its part, gets a talented musician trained in Navy ways, all for the price of an enlisted man's pay. (Unlike most college graduates in the military, band members are not given officer status, but enter the premier bands at about mid-level enlisted men's pay, roughly $8,600 for the Army, plus food, clothing, a housing allowance and health benefits.)
Most of the musicians have "something going on the side," says Elizabeth, who now handles musical lookings, relying on her old military friends to fill the jobs.
One Army members puts it this way: "Music is a great hobby, but it's almost impossible to make a living as a musician. The Army support my habit, while I take on a lot of interesting musicals gigs [jobs]."
Navy spokesman Joe Barnes, a former drummer who started during the late 1960s , says the situation is different in the Navy. "Nobody treats the Navy like a part-time job," he states.
But Ms. Evans says she books Navy people into jobs, and she believes the free-lancing is both popular and necessary among all the military bands. "One man told me, 'I'll do anything I have to do to feed my family.'"
The Evanses are not unwilling to discuss pay since they are out of the bands. But those within its ranks are close-mouthed. One query -- about the Army's share of that $60 million band budget -- sent this reporter through five different sources before a Pentagon source supplied the answer.
The reason for their reluctance seems to lie with Congress: Twice in the past five years the bands have been the subject of congressional sniping by the likes of Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin and new cabinet member-designee Richard Schweiker (R) of Pennsylvania. Both suggested that the Department of Defense could cut expenses by combining either the bands themselves or their studios and equipment.
Referring to "frivolous spending" and calling the bands "frills," Senator Proxmire suggested that such cutbacks would not damage morale since "the Army band plays mainly for social and ceremonial functions in the Washington area."
The statement is only partly true: Most White House entertaining is supplied by military bands and is paid out of the military pocket, Army Major De Lorme says.
But the majority of the bands' thousands of performances (the Army alone logs over 3,000 each year) are for the general public -- to enhance the military image and boost recruiting.
Besides, says a Department of Defense memo, "Military bands are an integral part of military life and tradition." As for the Navy, Chief Barnes says: "We're part of the Navy esprit de corps.m For many people in our audiences, the band ism the Navy."