Across the land, strike up the band
Boston — In rehearsal rooms across the country, the music of an American summer is being prepared. In some, the unisons, the entrances, the intonations
and tempos, are under flawless control. In others, zeal often upstages musicianship.
But exemplary or merely enthusiastic, the bands of America are readying the sounds of Sousa, Broadway, Percy Grainger, Gustav Holst, and others for the annual tide of music which will fanfare itself across the nation as the Fourth of July officially opens the band concert season.
Among the elite will be the United States Army Field Band -- one of the finest wind ensembles in the United States -- under the direction of Lt. Col. William E. Clark. As with all band directors, audiences know his back better than his face. But they don't care, as his strong but sensitive baton commands burnished woodwinds and brasses that gleam so bright you almost have to shade your eyes.
Face to face, Colonel Clark -- commander and conductor of this 60-piece unit -- conveys the same sense of vibrancy and control he does on the podium. He has blond hair, slightly quizzical eyes, and a look that seems to say he's witnessed a lot of the world without losing his long-cherished values.
For a man who leads a group billing itself as the Army's musical ambassador, these values turn out to be appropriate ones -- honest musicianship, unabashed patriotism, and a reasoned dedication to the Army in general and his band in particular. The band's programs go far beyond marches -- through classical, Broadway, and pop selections -- but their basic tone is one of well-tuned nationalistic pride, and Colonel Clark makes no bones about it.
``That's what we're here for, to stir patriotism in people, to show them what the American soldier is about,'' said the 33-year veteran of military bands as we chatted backstage shortly before a recent concert here.
``We have a laundry day about every 10 days,'' he recounted, ``and once when I was in a Laundromat I heard a gentleman telling a lady about the concert the night before. After she had left I asked him, `Did you really enjoy that concert?' He looked at me and said, `You're the colonel, aren't you? I was so emotional when you did the opener, the national anthem, that water just came to my eyes.' ''
That kind of response -- which they get constantly from all kinds of audiences -- is immensely gratifying to Colonel Clark and serves as a morale-booster for him during the band's sometimes grinding tours of one-night stands. ``We all get dragged down at times,'' he admits. ``It's a long tour, and when you're out 40 to 50 days and you're doing 70 or more performances, you kind of get as a robot, just going from one concert to the other.''
But his long-term view from the inside of many bands has led him to the conclusion that ``I have never seen anything like the positive influence this organization has -- I really feel that strongly -- in touching people. A newspaper I saw the other day said that if everything in the military is in as good shape as the field band, the country is in good shape.''
His partisan zeal is more easily understood when you've heard one of the band's exhilarating concerts. In its performance here -- which ranged from Sousa to Bach -- breath-catching precision and professional verve were obvious from the moment the superbly trained ensemble plunged crisply into its numbers, displaying a spit-polished vigor that carried no excess baggage, no spiritual doubts, and also little shading. Even the opening national anthem was a revelation to many in the audience -- very brisk and up-tempo. The Soldiers' Chorus, an impressive separate group that sometimes travels with the field band, shared the bill.
The band's saber-sharp dash and aplomb are no accident. You don't happen on musicians like these in a casual check of infantry barracks or Pentagon offices. They are the final choices of a well-tuned scouting process -- inside and outside the service -- that requires a candidate to submit an application and a tape.
The resulting mix is a band composed mainly of white males but with a few blacks and several women. And the instrumentalists are all from the ranks -- no officers.
The call of military band music came early for Colonel Clark -- from a National Guard unit that used to play in his hometown of Ashland, Ky., when he was growing up there. He started taking instrument lessons in the sixth grade and in his junior year joined the high school marching band.
``As soon as I graduated from high school,'' he recalls, ``I was in the National Guard band for six years while I was going to college and teaching school. I took command of the band for five years before I came in the service and at the same time taught school. I've been in the bands program 33 years, from the National Guard till now.''
There was at least one significant break in his rhythmic march from one band post to another -- a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he served with the 199th Infantry Brigade as an Adjutant General Corps officer and received several medals. ``They didn't need an officer in a band over there,'' he smiles.
Few musical categories are ruled out for the programs, but you won't be hearing certain types of hard-rock numbers as long as the colonel's in charge -- even though the field band does have a separate touring rock group. ``Some of the popular music of today is very suggestive in different ways,'' he feels, ``especially words that I would not consider suitable. A concert band is not geared for that. About the farthest that we can go would be the big-band era -- like Glenn Miller.''
Future bookings look promising for the field band. ``We have a couple on the horizon that look like they will be very good,'' he says. ``We will probably be in the Rose Bowl parade in 1987, and we're going to be in Alaska this fall. We try to get to all 50 states as best we can.'' He also expects the band to be part of the rededication ceremonies for the newly reconstructed Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Meanwhile, band audiences are getting younger. ``At one time it was almost a sea of gray,'' he notes, ``but I have seen in this country in the last two or three years much more of a mix.
``That has to do with the country's feeling. We went through some real changes during and after Vietnam. When I was conducting at the [US] Military Academy in the '70s, the older audience was fine, but with the younger audience you could sense the hostility. Then as the country has evolved out of that, there's much more patriotic feeling. The whole attitude -- not with everybody, but the majority -- has started to change.
``People feel better about the country and about themselves.''