Army Band Hits High Note With Community

By Ms Kari Hawkins

News story photo
Spc. Albert Castillo of the Army Materiel Command’s 4 Star Jazz Orchestra teaches a group lesson in jazz performance on the keyboard during the Discovery Middle School band camp.
MADISON -- They came in with a big band sound " trumpets, trombones, saxophones, drums and other instruments playing the likes of Cole Porter and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Yet, the big band concert and master’s class in band performance at Discovery Middle School in Madison wasn’t typical for a band camp. Behind those instruments playing “In the Mood,” “Friend Like Me” and “Younger than Springtime” were Soldiers from the Army’s professional corps of musicians.

This year, with the move of the Army Materiel Command Band to Redstone Arsenal, the local music scene has experienced an upswing in the number of professional musicians who are willing to put on a performance, mentor young musicians and provide support for local musical school programs.

“We want the AMC Band to be a musical resource for the community and for the schools in the area,” said the band’s director, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Peter Gillies.

“We can tell the positive story of the Army through our music. This shows people that the Army is more than guns and tanks.”

In fact, the Army is the largest employer of professional musicians in the U.S.

The AMC Band is made up of more than 40 members and includes several specialty bands. They are well-known within the AMC community and the Army, and are often sought after to perform at military ceremonies and local military-related events.

But within the rest of the community, the AMC Band is making a name for itself with powerful performances for the public. The band recently played for the public during the Armed Forces Celebration in June and at the W.C. Handy Music Festival this past weekend. The band’s 4 Star Jazz Orchestra, Dixie Band and Raw Materiel Rock Band are slated to perform Aug. 15 at Huntsville’s Concert in the Park in Big Spring International Park.

Besides Army-related and public performances, the band’s musicians also teach lessons, perform with local musical groups, assist with local school music programs, judge band competitions and take classes toward musical degrees at local universities. The band’s specialty groups also travel throughout Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas to perform.

“Chief Gillies believes very strongly in our outreach to the community,” said Spc. Mark Mitchell, who plays the trumpet in the AMC Band. “He encourages us to be proactive even outside of work. The music scene is incredible in this area. It’s a lively and welcoming musical community.”

Though the band is not actively recruiting Soldiers in the community, its members do hope to make the military more accessible to the public through music. Much of what they do involves community relations.

“We don’t want the fence around the Arsenal to be a barrier to the community,” Gillies said. “There are so many opportunities here for us to share our music. As a teacher, I really think outreach is important. Our priority is Huntsville and this area. We want to get established here, and fill our schedule with performance dates both on post and in the community.”

During the master’s class at Discovery Middle School, the AMC 4 Star Jazz Orchestra performed a set that included a dueling saxophone performance on “In the Mood,” a Latin take on “Friend Like Me” from the Disney movie Aladdin and the fast, loud and aggressive tunes of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.” They introduced their pieces to the students, providing them with background information and encouraging them to listen for musical themes, melodies and nuances.

After the concert, the middle school students attended section classes with the Soldiers, learning tips on how to play jazz with their instrument in mind. The classes were filled with tidbits of advice, such as “learn your musical scales, even if it’s not fun,” “listen to all styles of music and musicians,” “play classical music, even if you are more interested in jazz, rock or blues,” “know the difference between ‘playing straight’ and ‘playing swing,’” and “dabble with lots of different instruments.”

“We want to introduce the jazz idiom to younger students who don’t get to hear it very often,” Mitchell said. “We are teaching them the fundamentals of jazz improvisation. We are giving them the tools to enjoy jazz as a spontaneous musical creation. The earlier you start with that, the better.”

Discovery Middle School band director Johnny Nash appreciated the talent and instruction the AMC band members brought to his school.

“I’ve got 55 junior high kids to learn what jazz is. What better way than to bring in a professional jazz band?” Nash said. “The AMC Band offers tons of things to help band directors in the area. This is just the beginning and an ongoing thing for us.”

For the most part, what the Soldiers teach in the classroom reiterates what the students’ teachers have been working to teach.

“There’s a certain bit of authority that goes with the uniform. We have to take that seriously, and make sure we represent what a Soldier is all about,” Mitchell said. “And we may say things in a little different way that makes their teacher’s lessons easier to understand and follow.”

The master class did not allow Soldiers to work with students individually. Rather, they worked in groups, learning general concepts from both the Soldier instructors and each other.

“We’re painting with broad strokes here,” Mitchell said. “We’re introducing concepts on how to play jazz, the terms of jazz and other things related to this unique American art form that developed in the deep South and reached a level of sophistication in the Northeast. It’s about as pure American as you can get.”

Mitchell said that he, too, often goes away from master’s classes learning something new that he can apply in his music.

“Music is a universal language. It breaks down all kinds of barriers and speaks over them,” he said. “We want to show them what to listen for, how to listen critically, and that will teach them how to play. And, we, in turn, learn from them.”

With education budgets suffering, Mitchell said it is hoped that AMC Band members can help boost school music programs without the cost of bringing in professional musicians.

“The state of music in American education is always in a tentative position,” Mitchell said. “We can provide additional support without the expense. This is an opportunity for us to get out in the community and to give back in a small way.”

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