Military bands are a valued part of American culture, with their musicians lending a sense of patriotism, pride and nostalgia to performances at sporting events, hospitals, small-town parades and service-member funerals.
For years, Navy Band Mid-South, based in Millington, Tennessee, played for audiences that not only enjoyed renditions of "God Bless America" or the Navy theme song, but also pieces of rock and roll and jazz music. But because of budget cuts, the Navy decided to dismantle the 30-plus member band, sending its musicians to other bands around the world and disappointing some in small towns.
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Ken Savage in Bolivar, Tennessee, enjoyed when the band would play during the town's Music on the Square concert series. But when he asked the band to come back again this year, he was told they couldn't. Later, he found out the band was disbanding.
"The thing about music is that it brings so many different emotions and memories," said Savage, a former Coast Guard member. "That's the thing the Navy band did. When you hear them play the Navy theme song, it brings back memories.
"When they closed the door on them, they closed the door on a good tradition."
The Navy Band-Mid South, and the Navy Band New Orleans, played their final performances earlier this year. Cuts to the Navy's music program led to a reduction of 122 musicians who were transferred to more sea-intensive duties, said Lt. Kelly Cartwright, director of the Navy Band Mid-South. The cut in musicians led Navy officials to eliminate the two regional bands.
Members of the Mid-South and New Orleans bands were moved to some of the nine other fleet bands in the Navy, including those in the Chicago area and Naples, Italy. Navy fleet bands also are stationed in Hawaii; Japan; San Diego; Newport, Rhode Island; Norfolk, Virginia; Silverdale, Washington; and Jacksonville, Florida.
Navy bands serve many roles. They perform for sailors on ships and formal events for prominent dignitaries, but they also fill roles of community outreach and recruiting by playing at schools, parades and festivals. Each band can have a full band for large performances such as parades, plus a smaller rock band, a brass quintet and even a jazz combo taken from the musicians in the full band. Navy trumpet instrumentalists are trained to perform bugle calls, including "Taps."
"We can communicate with the people of any country on the planet more effectively than anybody is going to speaking," Cartwright said.
While Navy bands will still likely play their brass horns, woodwinds, guitars and drums at major sporting events or other large events, officials acknowledge some of the smaller gatherings, like the Bolivar festival, won't have a Navy band.
Event organizers in the Mid-South band's former 12-state region will now have to put in a request to the Navy and hope one of the other bands can make it.
"People are disappointed, but they understand," Cartwright said. "Just with the fiscal climate that we all operate in, people understand that these types of things are going to be reduced."
On July 5, the Mid-South band played its final tunes at a home game of the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Some musicians became emotional.
"It's very disappointing for me," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jacob Stith, a 27-year-old guitar player from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, who has been transferred to Navy Band Great Lakes near Chicago. "I like this area a lot. I feel like the audiences I've been able to play for have been very appreciative."
Chief Musician Steven Peters, a 22-year veteran of several Navy bands, said he was sad to see the band break up because they are like a family, spending time together on the road and in rehearsal rooms.
"You share very intimate details, like your history, your past, your pains, your loves, to kind of get across the musical approach you want and the quality you want," said Peters, who is going to Naples, Italy.
Officials say the dismantling of the two bands is part of a wider reorganization of the Navy band system and how it deploys the bands. Ken Collins, commander of the Navy bands program, said the reductions were a Navy decision and he did not know the total amount of money that has been saved with the cuts.
But, for the first time, Navy bands will now have a travel budget to pay for longer trips, Collins said. While Collins acknowledges that smaller events in the region covered by the Mid-South and New Orleans bands will not get the service they once did, he said the cuts have forced the program to become more efficient.
"Without having any travel budget we were really constrained to, if a sponsor happened to request us and have the funding to provide for us to travel to them, we would go provide support," Collins said. "Now, we may see an area of the country where there hasn't been any presence for a while and we can take our resources that we have now and apply them to that and actually provide a presence where maybe there never was one before."
Collins says one key aspect of the Navy bands' role will stay the same.
"The most important thing we do is provide 'Taps' for our fallen that come home," Collins said. "That's probably the singular most important musical engagement that we perform and we're honored to be able to do that."