Is the Military Good for Jazz?

Member to Member

Volume CVII, No. 4April, 2007

Steve Jones

Click for larger image.
The Navy Commodores, a military band.

Here in Washington, D.C. where I live, military bands are being used as scabs. These bands provide free music to local outdoor venues, such as open-air city parks and private summer festivals. This means that these venues or producers don’t hire musicians.

I’m a jazz pianist myself, and I recently inquired about getting hired at a local open-air stage that hires weekly bands during the summer. The producers of this venue recently decided that they would only invite bands that they could get for free. When I asked about this new policy, one of the producers told me, “When we can get top-notch bands like the Army Blues Band or the Navy Commodores for free, why should we pay anyone?”

There are several dimensions to this story.

One is that we pay taxes to support the military – and then they send these “free” musicians into our community who undercut our ability to get work.

Along with this outrageous scabbing, there’s another interesting issue: The U.S. military actively solicits recruits among the best young jazz musicians. (Indeed, many of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century, like Glenn Miller, played in military bands.)

But what does playing in a military band do to musicians? Has Wayne Shorter’s 1965 jazz tune “Angola” ever been played on a military jazz stage? (Shorter wrote the tune about the horrible Angola prison in Louisiana where 31 inmates cut their own Achilles tendons in protest of the hard work and brutality.)

Or what about Charlie Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” about the racist Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas who, in 1957, sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African-American teenagers.

These are tunes from the revolutionary movement of the 1960’s that stood for social change. What is the U.S. military teaching young, impressionable musicians about freedom, about social justice, about the interdependent nature of a free-swinging jazz ensemble?

Is “military jazz” an oxymoron? Look at a true jazz combo. Each person has a say, at times may take leadership, and has a special role in creating their own part. It’s a model for a new way of communicating in society. Jazz with its roots in the African-American community, was one of the transformational forces of the 20th century. It is not necessarily top-down, or autocratic. It is democratic in nature.

During the Reagan administration, the Republicans doubled the budget of the military bands until it became larger than all the rest of the federal funding for arts put together! What was the reason behind this build-up of military music and reduction of funding of more independent cultural resources?

It does call into question the reason for military music in the first place. Military bands inspire the troops to go and fight harder – even to be willing to risk death.

And so the question is, how much of this beating the war drum do we as a society want to subsidize?

Steve Jones is a member of Local 161-710 (Washington, D.C.) and a jazz pianist and composer. His most recent work is “Forgotten,” a jazz musical about labor history based on his own family. For more information see You can e-mail Jones at