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To swing is also to serve

The Air Force's jazz band flies its own route to the wild blue yonder.

November 12, 2002|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

You suspect from the outset that this isn't going to be your typical jazz set: a room full of gold braid and epaulets, patent-leather dress pumps, Air Force service caps -- and nary a soul patch in the house.

But what really hips you to this being something very different is that at a shade after 3 p.m. -- exactly when the program says it will -- things actually start rolling.

"I'm not used to such efficiency!" marvels Helen Borgers, the KKJZ (88.1) DJ and the afternoon's emcee, standing behind a microphone at the lip of the Wadsworth Theater stage.

On this Saturday afternoon, with Veteran's Day approaching, Borgers and a couple hundred folks have braved the gray and damp to support and celebrate "America's classical music" -- jazz in its many meters and colors -- by listening to the musicians who perform it to serve their country the best way they know how.

The 18-piece Airmen of Note, one of eight ensembles that make up the organization known as the United States Air Force Band, has its marching orders: to spread the word about both the history and the influence of jazz. The "Note" (as the outfit is commonly known), grew from the grand tradition of Maj. Glenn Miller's Army Air Forces dance band and has been performing, educating and -- any member is quick to tell you -- providing regular paying gigs for musicians for more than 50 years.

Spread across the stage on risers in big-band formation, the members of the Note look like they're in a sepia-toned mantle photograph, all attired in the khaki uniform of the period -- "down to their brown shoes" -- as one long-timer points out with an approving nod.

While artists and arts advocates have long complained that the government spends more on military bands than funding the National Endowment for the Arts, this focus of service and its dedication to one of America's oldest art forms is largely a secret.

"This is just one of the 150 career choices in the Air Force," Sgt. Maj. Dudley Hinote tells the audience, in the only overt recruiting moment of the afternoon. But, embedded within the feel-good performance outreach, as band members spread the word about "America's music," they definitely see this as a sure-fire way to improvise on the tune of investing in one's country.

Particularly in this time of uncertainty, as the country prepares for a possible war, being a part of this ensemble has made many of the members think deeply about their role in the nation's conflict by connecting it to its past.

"People see this uniform and immediately think, 'Oh, the Ugly American.' But then the music starts and the foot gets tapping ... " says tenor saxophone player Senior Master Sgt. Saul Miller Jr. "I know it's a cliche, but really, we see it all of the time. Music is the universal language."

With a one, two, three, they swing into a brisk set of compositions that segue into one another as in an old-time radio broadcast. A bright, ringing brass section sinks us into into a pair of Duke Ellington tunes, "Take the 'A' Train" and "Cottontail," followed by Count Basie's "April in Paris." Before the end we'll be romanced by Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York" and be reminded again why life is so grand by Louis Armstrong: "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."

At the piano, Master Sgt. Steve Erickson tears up on "Cottontail." Next, Tech. Sgt. Darden Safley teases her way through "Too Close for Comfort," in a voice that is as elegant and no frills as her navy blue evening gown. And Miller heats everything up on Glenn Miller's arrangement of "Anvil Chorus." After a solo, each player takes a polite, stiff-backed bow.

An open chair in the band is hard to come by, turnover is almost nil and that makes those 18 spots some of the most coveted in the country.

"Some of them put in a good 15-year career. It's a tough spot to get," says Chief Master Sgt. David Nokes, former singer and now director of public affairs for the Air Force Band. "For many, it is a permanent duty assignment of 20 years or more."

It's a full career that boasts high-profile perks -- White House gigs, music festivals and showcases that have featured guest artists such as Clark Terry, James Moody, Doc Severinsen and Bill Watrous.

Some, indeed, move on to careers outside, including arranger Sammy Nestico (who was responsible for keeping the Note's sound current, or "Tonight Show's" Tommy Newsom, who has also, over the years, done arranging and composing duties.

Sometimes, openings are advertised in show biz trade publications, says trombonist Master Sgt. Joe Jackson, 37, who happened to hear of an empty chair via word-of-mouth and was invited to Washington to audition. He's been playing in the band since 1991.

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