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Military Bands: Great History, Uncertain Future

Thursday, August 26, 2010 - 10:27 AM

A few years back, there were reports about how the military was overpaying its contractors for simple items - $3000 coffee pots, $600 toilet seats and $400 hammers.  So it was tempting to look at Defense Secretary Gates’ recent  suggestion that the military might cut back on some of its many bands as a step toward fiscal responsibility.

After all, how many bands do our armed forces need, especially when the soldiers themselves all have iPods? 

Some people may even ask whether the military needs any bands at all.  Especially since American military bands have not traditionally marched into battle with the troops, the way Scottish pipers or Turkey’s Janissary bands did.  The army’s stated reasons for having bands include boosting morale and advancing American interests at home and abroad, but I don’t know how many people believe any military band has done either. 

So why bother saving the military bands?  Well, here are just a few reasons: Clark Terry, Chet Baker, Al Hirt, Nat Adderley.  All of them cut their teeth in Army bands, or in Clark Terry’s case, a Navy band.  Dozens of great American jazz musicians came out of the military bands, especially in the 1940s.  And in terms of boosting morale, superstar bandleader Glenn Miller practically forced himself on the Army during WWII and brought the Army Air Force Band to troops throughout the European theater.  (The German-speaking Miller was also useful for propaganda broadcasts.)

I’m not aware of anything like that happening today – at least not in the US.  But have you noticed recently how many terrific Israeli jazz musicians have been playing in New York?  Most of them played in bands as part of their compulsory military service in Israel.  With music having disappeared from so much of America’s education system, the military bands might just represent the last government-supported music program in the country.  Seems a better investment to me than a $600 toilet seat. 

Do you think the military should maintain its band tradition?  Leave a comment.    

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