"It's All Yours!"
For American troops stationed in Europe in the years after World War II, those words signaled a Sunday afternoon of big band jazz from the 314th Army Special Services Band of the European Theater. From 1946 to 1949, the band broadcast 70 programs on Armed Forces Network radio from an opera house in Weisbaden, Germany.
This weekend, 40 years after they first assembled in the tiny German resort town of Bad Schwalbach, the musicians of the 314th are getting together once again. The reunion ends Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with a concert at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
The 314th band was formed after the Glenn Miller Orchestra had completed its tour of entertaining troops in Europe. Gen. Alexander Bolling, European theater chief of special services, was anxious to form a replacement unit to entertain not only the troops but European audiences as well. Lin Arison, an assistant music officer with the U.S. 3rd Army, was invited to a special brainstorming session.
"We said, 'Let's try to show that there are flowers in the American musical garden, not just weeds,' " Arison recalled in a phone interview from his home in McLean, Va. At that time, he said, Europe had little regard for music from the States.
Special Services was sold on the idea for a new big band, and musicians were recruited from units across Europe. Arison, named conductor and chief warrant officer, was given just two weeks to put the first broadcast together. "I was in a state of shock to get something like that together in two weeks, but it turned out to be a pretty good show," Arison recalled.
And with time, the conductor said, the band got even better. "It just kept knocking me out completely. It was incredible, the way things evolved." In addition to the radio broadcasts, the band performed live concerts throughout Europe.
Another 314th veteran echoed Arison's assessment of the band. "It wasn't just another jazz band," said Jack Elliott, a pianist with the band who went on to fame as a film composer, conductor and arranger. "It really was the best of America at that time. I think the level of musicianship was very high. I think the level of Army musicianship was generally very high at that time."
Elliott, speaking by telephone from New York, said his time with the 314th cemented his choice of a career in music. "I was vacillating between going to music school and getting a general degree," he recalled. "After my experience with the orchestra, I came back determined to stay in music." Elliott said the 314th band's innovative arrangements and orchestration (the band had a large string section, unusual for big bands at the time) went on to influence him more than 30 years later, when he formed the eclectic New American Orchestra.
Other alumni of the 314th went on to successful careers in music, including Philip Springer, composer for films and Broadway musicals and author of a book on electronic music, "Switched on Synthesizer"; Red Mitchell, bassist and composer; George Masso, trombonist; Herschel Gordon, cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra; Richard White, English horn soloist with the National Symphony for 36 years, and trumpeter Warren Kime. All will be participating in the reunion.
But it was one of the band's vocalists, a combat veteran named Anthony Benedetto, who went on to achieve the greatest fame. Benedetto, who later changed his name to Tony Bennett, had been assigned to the 314th band as a librarian. "They had me sing one song a week," he recalled, and that song was usually "St. James Infirmary Blues." Conductor Arison became a big supporter of Bennett during his stay with the band. "Lin Arison was just a magnificent guy," the singer said. "That whole experience kind of pointed me in the direction of music."
A few years ago, Arison visited Bennett backstage after a concert in Washington, D.C., and together the pair came up with the idea for a reunion of the 314th. But now the singer will not be able to attend because he is touring in support of a new album with Ray Charles.
The task of organizing the event fell largely to Richard Stott, a semi-retired Laguna Beach psychotherapist who played saxophone with the 314th. In 1981, Stott had helped put together a 40-year reunion of the swing band from his alma mater, Riverside Polytechnic High School. "That was a delightful experience, very delightful," Stott said in an interview. "So I thought, 'Hell, if it can be done for a high school, why can't the 314th be put back together?' "
So Stott started the time-consuming process of tracking down the band's alumni. "I would call the musicians union. I would call friends of friends. I'd get a birthplace and call that city." Often, when his persistence paid off and he finally got through to his former bandmates, he would touch off a flood of memories. "They'd go into this tizzy over the phone while my phone bill kept going up," Stott said.