Nov 12

Navy Bands: Diversity in Action

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 12:01 AM


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During the late-19th century and early-20th century, musicians from South America, Central America, and Caribbean countries filled vacant ranks in U.S. Navy Bands, swearing an oath of enlistment that afforded a path to American citizenship. Early 20th-century Navy Band rosters prove strikingly diverse. In addition to affording citizenship, music served as a medium to help bring diversity to the U.S. Navy.

A Navy Band in front of Institute of Industrial Research.

Of the many attempts to define the American national identity, the most enlightening are those that read American identity as a synthesis of many different influences. Unsurprisingly, American musical identity is also best defined as a synthesis. Forged through a distinctly American synthesis of African-American musical traditions, Latin American rhythmic structures, martial instrumentation, and Western European influences, jazz is widely considered by many scholars to be America’s quintessential art form.

Because its foundation rests at the intersection of two bastions of Americana—jazz and the Navy—a Navy jazz band is an ideal vehicle for conveying a message of diversity, freedom, and liberty. When researching for the U.S. Navy Band Commodores jazz ensemble’s 50th anniversary, I found that the relationship between jazz and America’s Navy dates earlier than previously thought.

The conventional early jazz narrative from the First World War focuses on James Reese Europe’s U.S. Army Band Harlem Hellfighters. Europe’s Hellfighters were primarily stationed in France during the war and were tasked with both diplomatic and good-will missions. The “ragged” marches are interpreted by jazz historians as a “missing link” between the early-20th century Scott Joplin rags and the first recordings of ensemble jazz in 1917. However, recent research published by Georgetown University’s own Anna Celenza paints a more colorful picture of military jazz band. In an effort to project the impression of a strong U.S. troop presence, U.S. Army jazz bands were deployed to southern Italy during the war to juxtapose the freedom, diversity, and liberty of jazz as the antithesis of the fascism then taking hold of northern Italy.

Artist Paul Stahr shows Bandmaster John Philip Sousa leading the U.S. Navy Band in parade past the United States Capitol Building.

The relationship between jazz and America’s Navy dates back as early as 1917. Lieutenant John Philip Sousa, who at the time was leading the Navy Band Great Lakes, initiated a group called the Great Lakes Navy Yard Jazz Band in 1917. The Boston Navy Yard Jazz Band, also formed in 1917, and the Washington Navy Yard Jazz Band, formed in 1918, exist as other iterations of early Navy jazz bands. Unlike the Army bands then deployed in Europe, Navy jazz bands of the First World War were tasked with domestic good-will missions. As Army jazz bands did abroad, Navy jazz bands utilized the spirit evoked by jazz as a means to reach America’s diverse peoples and elevate esprit-de-corps.

Jazz Orchestra of the United States Navy Band, circa 1925.

In 1921, the Washington Navy Yard Jazz Band, later renamed the Jazz Orchestra of the United States Navy Band, became the first group ever—civilian or military—to perform jazz at the White House. The Harding administration hoped to reach a younger audience and opted to have the Jazz Orchestra of the United States Navy Band perform for the ground-breaking series of garden parties. On 19 May 1921, the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune read, “White House Gets First Taste of Jazz: 2,000 Attend Party.” The Washington Navy Yard’s own Jazz Orchestra of the United States Navy Band bridged the cultural gap between the two foundations of Americana: the White House and jazz.

In addition to boasting service records from all-star jazz musicians including clarinetist and bandleader Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw, the musician (MU) rating broke a number of barriers during the Second World War. The rating was one of the first opened to African-American sailors. In fact, some of the first recordings of John Coltrane are of the jazz giant performing with the Melody Masters, a Navy Band stationed at Pearl Harbor during the final years of the Second World War.

The Commodores, the Jazz Rock Band of the United States Navy Band, on board a sailing ship, in the early 1970s.

The U.S. Navy Band Commodores, the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble which in 2019 celebrates its 50th anniversary, was officially formed in 1969. One of the first engagements Navy Commodores performed was at the White House in April 1969 when then President Nixon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Duke Ellington. Ellington was both the first jazz musician and the first African-American to receive the distinguished decoration.

During a Navy School of Music manning shortfall in 1974, the Commodores were tasked with providing musical support to UNITAS, a series of diplomatic seapower training exercises in several South American countries including Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and around the Straits of Magellan. From August to December 1974, the Commodores were stationed aboard the USS Belknap (CG-26) as a good-will musical support attaché to UNITAS.

The U.S. Navy Band jazz ensemble, the Commodores,
7 February 2019.
(U.S. Navy/Stephen Hassay)

Comprising members from all over of the United States and abroad, the U.S. Navy Band Commodores are proud of their diversity. Our Navy’s premier jazz ensemble is charged with a mission of elevating esprit-de-corps through national tours reaching parts of the United States not accessible by sea and through highest-level protocol missions for military and government officials from the United States, its allies, and its potential partners.

Works Cited

1. Although outside the scope of this brief essay, consult the research of MUC Michael Bayes, United States Navy Band Drum Major and U.S. Navy Band Historian, for a complete discussion of the intersection of immigration and Navy Bands:

2. Charles Hamm, Music in the New World (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983).

3. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

4. Anna Harwell Celenza, Jazz Italian Style: From its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

5. Edward Allan Faine, Ellington at the White House 1969 (Takoma Park, MD: IM Press, 2013).

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