United States Navy Band

Image by/from Stephen Hassay

The United States Navy Band, based at the historic Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., has served the United States of America as the official musical organization of the United States Navy since 1925. The United States Navy Band serves the ceremonial needs at the seat of government, performing at presidential inaugurations, state arrival ceremonies, state funerals, state dinners, and other significant events.

The band performs all styles of music – from ceremonial pieces such as “ruffles and flourishes” to classical, rock, jazz and country hits.

Since its official designation in 1925, the United States Navy Band has grown into a diverse organization of multiple performing units. The organization features six performing ensembles: the Concert Band, the Ceremonial Band, the Commodores jazz ensemble, Country Current country-bluegrass ensemble, the Cruisers contemporary entertainment ensemble, and the Sea Chanters chorus. There are also several chamber music groups. The multiple ensembles help to meet the public demand for different types of music as well as the needs of Navy recruiting.

The United States Navy Band is composed of 172 enlisted musicians and four officers, under the direction of Capt. Kenneth Collins.

The Concert Band is the Navy’s premier wind ensemble. This band, along with the Ceremonial Band, was part of the original Navy Band in 1925. The group plays concerts in the Washington, D.C. area, and performs a month-long national tour each year.

The Ceremonial Band performs ceremonies in and around the Washington, D.C. area. Their main mission is performing for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Additionally, the Ceremonial Band performs change of commands, retirements, patriotic openers, wreath-layings and arrivals.

In 1956, Lt. Harold Fultz, then the band’s assistant leader, organized a group from the Navy School of Music to sing chanteys and patriotic songs for the State of the Nation dinner. An immediate success, ADM Arleigh Burke, then chief of naval operations, transferred them to the Navy Band, named them the Sea Chanters and tasked this all-male chorus with perpetuating the songs of the sea. In 1980, the group added women to their ranks and expanded their repertoire to include everything from Brahms to Broadway.

Since their founding in 1969, the Commodores have become one of the most acclaimed jazz ensembles in the country. Many jazz legends have appeared with the group, such as Ray Charles, Stanley Turrentine, Louie Bellson, Terry Gibbs, Chris Potter, Jerry Bergonzi, Bob Mintzer, Dave Leibman, James Moody, and Clark Terry.

The seven-member group was formed in 1973 and quickly established itself in all aspects of country and bluegrass music. The group is under the direction of Musicians 1st Class Tina Catalanotto and Danny Stewart.

As the Navy’s premier contemporary entertainment ensemble, the Cruisers, feature eight of the Navy’s most dynamic performers. The group was formed in 1999.

The earliest music of the United States Navy was the Shantyman’s Song. These melodies of the sea helped soften the rigors of shipboard life. Next came trumpeters, drummers and fifers who were carried on the early frigates to sound calls, give general orders, and perform at funerals and other ceremonies. Military bands became a separate section of the crew on many Navy vessels.

The development of shore-based bands in the 19th century led to the creation of the Naval Academy Band, which grew in size and importance during the American Civil War. Other band units afloat and ashore played a major role in promoting the morale of sailors and civilians alike.

At the start of World War I many outstanding musicians left their famous orchestras and joined the United States Navy, using their talents to further the war effort.

In 1916, a 16-piece band from the battleship USS Kansas was ordered to the Washington Navy Yard to augment a 17-piece band aboard the Presidential Yacht Mayflower. The new unit became known as the “Washington Navy Yard Band” and was given rehearsal space near the power plant’s coal pile. The increasing tempo of the band’s duties led the bandmaster to seek more suitable quarters in the yard’s “Sail Loft”, and sailmakers were soon cutting and stitching their canvas to the rhythms of the music. The United States Navy Band still occupies the Sail Loft as its headquarters and rehearsal hall.

In 1923, a 35-man contingent from the Navy Yard Band accompanied President Warren G. Harding on his trip to the Alaska Territory. After the president’s unexpected death in San Francisco, the band performed the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” as his body was placed aboard a train destined for Washington, D.C.

With the band growing in importance and prestige, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law a 1925 bill stating “hereafter the band now stationed at the Navy Yard, known as the Navy Yard Band, shall be designated as the United States Navy Band.” The legislation also allowed the band to take its first national tour in 1925.

Among those praising the early United States Navy Band was the Boston Post newspaper, which printed on 13 March 1929: “…Some folks have an idea perhaps that Navy music is made up of a few chantey choruses, a jig, and The Star Spangled Banner. To the average American Citizen the performance last night must have been a truly startling eye-opener. They performed like a company of first-rank virtuosi…”

Under the baton of Lt. Charles Benter, the band’s first leader, the United States Navy Band was featured at many historic occasions, including the 1927 return of Charles Lindbergh following his trans-Atlantic flight. Two years later, the band performed for the return of Adm. Richard E. Byrd from his famous South Pole flight.

The need for qualified musicians led Lt. Benter to found the Navy School of Music under his charge in 1935. Many of the faculty were bandsmen who taught in addition to their performance duties.

Throughout much of the 1960s the band’s leader was Anthony A. Mitchell, a classical clarinetist and accomplished composer who had joined the band in 1937. During his tenure as the Band’s director LCDR Mitchell composed the popular march Our Nation’s Capital, later honored as the official march of Washington, D.C. He also wrote a march for the yet-unbuilt National Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. The National Cultural Center March was first performed and recorded by the band in 1963, and was performed at fundraising events for the Center throughout the early 1960s. In 1964 the Center was renamed the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to honor the fallen president. The march’s title was changed to the John F. Kennedy Center March in 1964, though it is still often referred to by its original title.

On 25 February 1960, 19 members of the Navy Band were flying from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro to join the rest of the band at a reception for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek. As the Navy transport plane approached Rio de Janeiro in a dense fog, it collided in midair with a Brazilian airliner above the city’s harbor, not far from the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain. Among the 61 people killed were 19 members of the Navy Band, including the assistant leader, J. Harold Fultz, and most of the string section. Three U.S. sailors playing cards at the back of the airplane were the only survivors. The crash was the single worst event in the band’s history, and devastated the remaining members of the band. Despite their losses the surviving musicians completed their South American tour.

Among the Navy Band’s many accomplishments were weekly Monday night concerts, as well as smaller daily concerts held at the U.S. Capitol. Held on a special stage located on the east side of the Capitol, the daily and weekly concerts ran without interruption from the 1930s until the early 1970s.
In the 1960s the Navy Band began a series of popular children’s performances, known as “Lollypop Concerts”.

From 1929 to 1939, the United States Navy Band took to the air waves with Arthur Godfrey on NBC’s “Hour of Memories” radio program. During World War II, the United States Navy Band supported the sale of war bonds and assisted in national recruiting efforts, although the majority of the band’s time was spent performing at the daily funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

At the close of the war in 1945, the radio program “The Navy Hour” was born. It featured such entertainers as Lt. Robert Taylor and Lt.(j.g.) Gene Kelly, with whom the band had appeared in the film Anchors Aweigh. When it went off the air in 1968, “The Navy Hour” had set a record for one of the longest tenures in radio.

The United States Navy Band has performed at the following ceremonies and events:

The United States Navy Band Concert Band performs traditional and popular holiday music for the television special, “Happy Holidays” at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., 2001.

A group photo of the “Sea Chanters” chorus.

The United States Navy Ceremonial Band marching into position during a 2004 departure ceremony held at the United States Capitol Building during the state funeral of Ronald Reagan in 2004.

Captain George N. Thompson, commanding officer of the United States Navy Ceremonial Band, leads the Drum Major and band members as they render honors during a 21-gun salute at the swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus at the Washington Navy Yard.

The United States Navy Ceremonial Band, under the direction of the Drum Major, Master Chief Musician Joe D. Brown Jr., standing at attention as Marine General Peter Pace approaches their formation during the change of command ceremony for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The United States Navy Band along with La Musique du Royal 22e Regiment, marches off during the closing ceremony of the Quebec Tattoo at the Pepsi Coliseum, August 27, 2009.

This article incorporates public domain text from a U.S. federal government website.

News Reporter