Memorial Day is here and with it, a raft of my favorite family traditions. As far back as I can remember, my father would get out early and decorate the front lawn with miniature American flags. We would consequently celebrate our freedom by watching baseball and grilling up a big barbecue-slathered salami.
Of course, Memorial Day is an occasion for honoring those who gave their lives to defend this freedom. But it’s also a day that most Americans think of as the unofficial start to summer, the beginning of beach season, the point past which it’s considered acceptable to wear sandals, drink margaritas, or go to a Jimmy Buffett concert, possibly all three at once.
At any rate, with all respect to the gravity of its meaning, we look forward to the long Memorial Day Weekend. We plan cookouts. We douse ourselves in sunscreen and bug-spray. We play competitive lawn games that require no skill or balance (no offense, Bocce champs).
Well, for all the customs that we observe on Memorial Day, we rarely stop to pay our respects to jazz.
Ok. I admit. That seems like a total non-sequitur. But as it happens, at least part of the Memorial Day weekend is set aside for this exact purpose. Back in 1991, D. Michael Denny of the New Jersey Jazz Society designated the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend as International Jazz Day. The event proved popular enough to earn UNESCO recognition in 2012. The global peace agency also moved Jazz Day to April 30th, which is when it was held this year.
But in deference to the original date, the Memorial Day weekend is often marked by civic events and festivals at which jazz plays a central role. Major jazz festivals will roll through cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville, and San Diego this weekend.
Naturally, jazz takes second billing to our active servicemen, veterans, and departed heroes, which is tough from a P.R. standpoint. Nonetheless, there are few musical genres as wholly American or emblematic of American creative freedom than is jazz. What I’m trying to say is, the connection sort of makes sense.
Birth of the Coolest Unit in the Military
Well, if you’re suddenly feeling conflicted about how much time you should spend honoring our fallen servicemen and women, and how much you should spend pontificating the difference between bop and bebop, fear not. You have time for both. As a matter of fact, since this summer also marks the 70th anniversary of the 1st Combat Infantry Band, you kind of have an obligation to consider both.
Indeed, for a great many decades, the U.S. military has effectively availed itself both for the defense of American soil and the purveyance of fine jazz. The latter imperative came about during a heady time both for our armed forces and America’s jazzmen.
The connection between jazz and army life was actually forged long before the military official recognized the relationship. Prominent among World War I servicemen was bandleader James Reese Europe, a leading figure of the New York ragtime scene and a man that Eubie Blake once called the Martin Luther King of music.
During his service time, Europe presided over his 369th Infrantry Regimen’s acclaimed Army Jazz Band. It’s also worth pointing out, just because it sounds so cool, that his regimen was alternately called the Harlem Hellraisers. Europe’s band was just one of many jazz combos affiliated with individual regimens, most frequently those comprised of black soldiers and officers. It wasn’t until the second World War kicked into high gear that the U.S. armed forces embraced jazz in an official capacity.
In 1944, Chief Warrant Officer Chester E. Whiting was dispatched to organize the 1st Combat Infantry Band, made up entirely of combat veterans. The performing servicemen began touring the nation in 1946, granting concert admission to all members of the public who purchased war bonds. Indeed, the ensemble was also alternately billed as The Million Dollar Band for ultimately raising exactly that sum in support of the war effort.
The original purpose of the military’s formal concert series was to “organize a band that will carry into the grassroots of our country the story of our magnificent Army, its glorious traditions and achievements, and of that great symbol of American manhood: the Ground Soldier.”
To be sure, few things speak to American manhood like an epic jazz flute solo.
As World War II came to an end, so too did the largest engagement of troops in U.S. history. The drawdown, which saw millions of servicemen and women returning to civilian life, also required the military to recast its public relations approach. What had previously revolved on a “support the war” campaign would now require a more active peacetime engagement of the American public.
It was thus, in 1950, that the 1st Combat Infantry Band morphed into the United States Army Field Band, and thereafter, unfolded into four distinct entities called the Concert Band, the Soldier’s Chorus, The Volunteers, and the Jazz Ambassadors. In light of the holiday double whammy, you’ll want to be particularly generous in your gratitude to the Jazz Ambassadors.
The Jazz Ambassadors were arguably the heppest of servicemen, emerging form the Concert Band’s tradition of performing a jazz and swing standards songbook. In 1969, this predilection produced a proper big band called the Studio Band, which ultimately became the Jazz Ambassadors. Today, the Ambassadors are recognized as one of the best touring big bands in the world, playing over 100 shows a year and performing alongside an impressive list of genre luminaries.
The Jazz Ambassadors have also performed at a number of the world’s most highly regarded annual jazz festivals, included the Montreux, Newport, Toronto and Brussels Jazz Festivals. In 1995, the 19 musicians in the band truly served as Ambassadors when they traveled abroad, performing in England, Wales, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic to mark 50 years since the end of hostilities in World War II.
Take Five…Minutes to Consider the Connection
So what’s the relationship between jazz and the military? The highly improvisational, ever-changing landscape of jazz seems nearly a counterpoint to the meticulous, disciplined and structured nature of military life. And yet, the instrumentation used in jazz owes a genuine debt to the influence of the military brass band. Before Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden, military brass bands performed marches, anthems and other patriotic fare using many of the same instruments that would give Big Band’s their swing, as well as those key instruments that would ultimately be distilled to produce the bebop combos of the postwar period.
It also bears noting that the relationship between military history and jazz history is absolutely inextricable. In the years leading up to World War II, swing reigned supreme on the dancefloors. But as the war trudged on and the need for manpower escalated, the draft deprived the nation’s Big Band’s of talent and personnel. Suddenly, 20-piece bands were now 5 or 6 piece bands.
Of course, necessity is the mother of invention. Smaller combos (not to mention the imperative that black musicians felt to reclaim their music from co-opting white Big Band leaders), gave birth to bebop, bop, and the whole host of musical innovations that defined the second half of the 20th Century.
And in case you think that the military is just invested in jazz for entertainment and public relations, the Department of Defense believes that jazz may hold other advantages in the area of modern warfare. The military is training robots to play jazz alongside human band members under the premise that the improvisational interplay that is central to jazz music might lend itself to general improvisational machine learning and, ultimately, more dynamic strategic collaboration between man and machine.
Those of us who have either seen the movies Terminator or Whiplash will recognize the inherent danger that a robot, driven by artificial intelligence and postmodern music theory, will undertake a free jazz solo so atonal that it will be the death of us all.
The Real Ambassador(s)
Today, the Jazz Ambassadors stand at the nexus point between the military and music. With a repertoire that includes swing, bebop, Latin, contemporary, dixieland, and even a few of their own original compositions, the Ambassadors remain active and undiminished by their long and storied history.
As to that history, a retired member of the U.S. Army Field Band named Sgt. Maj. Michael Culbertson had undertaken a project to identify each of the band’s former players. As of 2011, Culbertson had compiled roughly 1680 names.
The Ambassadors have, in fact, become the elder statesmen in a tradition that now includes a handful of military jazz combos like the U.S. Army Blues, The West Point Jazz Knights, and the Airmen of Note, the last of which has featured former longtime Johnny Carson bandleader and WWII vet Doc Severinsen.
Now, chances are you already have plans this weekend. Like my family’s traditions, yours may involve grills, lawn-chairs and flags. But perhaps you’ll consider involving jazz as well. If you’re a novice, we’ve done you the favor of compiling a Spotify playlist featuring some of the genre’s best and best-known classics. If you’re an aficionado, now’s the time to dust off a few of your old favorites for the summer.
We wish a great weekend to all and a debt of infinite gratitude to those who gave their lives to defend ours.