Just six days before Veteran’s Day, the Redfern Arts Center’s Main Theatre stage was graced by America’s big band, the Jazz Ambassadors.
Presented by the United States Army field band, the Jazz Ambassadors’ performance was dedicated to more than 100 years of jazz history. Not only was their performance filled with patriotic and historic jazz selections, but it also included student performers from Keene State College’s music department. KSC student performers included: Joseph Conti, trumpet, Zachary Joy, alto saxophone and William Wright, trombone. Founded in 1969, the Jazz Ambassadors is made up of 23 members of the United States Army that bring the spirit of jazz with them around the globe.
The evening began with the National Anthem sung by Master Sergeant and featured vocalist of the evening Marva Lewis. After, Lewis returned to perform a few other songs, including a tribute to Carole King and America the Beautiful. The entirety of the performance paid tribute to the different periods in jazz’s history, such as early jazz music from 1900 to 1930, the swing era from 1935 to 1945, bebop and cool jazz from 1945 to 1960 and modern jazz from 1960 to the present day.
Some of the songs were derived from the work of the legends of jazz, such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole among other legendary artists.
With many retired veterans present in the audience, the Jazz Ambassadors took the time to honor veterans from every branch of the United States military by having them stand and receive a standing ovation before the show’s conclusion.
The KSC student performers were recognized and invited to play alongside the band because they were shorthanded for the performance; this gave an opportunity for Joy, Conti and Wright to play with the Jazz Ambassadors.
“It was pretty nerve racking and a little intimidating because they’re the best of the best and we’re just college kids, but it was obviously a big honor,” Joy said.
Joy added that with Veterans Day nearing it made the opportunity even more special.
“Definitely with the date in my mind it meant a lot. It was an honor regardless, but definitely knowing Veteran’s Day is right around the corner made it a huge honor,” Joy said.
It was also mentioned during the show that the Jazz Ambassadors honor and support the teaching of music and music programs in and across the country in America’s educational system.
Joy said he was delighted to hear that music programs and music students like himself were appreciated by the U.S. Army.
Joy said, “I thought it was great, especially with music being shut out of most programs now. It was nice to hear from the army that they take it just as seriously and that it is important to be mentioned in school districts.”
On the topic of music in our nation’s schools, Master Sergeant Marva Lewis said it is important to keep music in schools because of the diversity of music and how it can bring people together.
“I think that it’s one of the most diverse things that we can give our kids because the young people are our future,” Lewis said. “With music…we can fight all day, but when you play a song…people tend to put their differences aside and they listen to each other… You can just put it on or just put the radio on and sooner or later, something’s going to play that everyone has heard and it forces everyone to be still and listen, and in the process while they’re listening, it brings everyone together.”
Lewis added that in today’s political landscape, which has inspired division amongst American citizens, “We need it (music) everywhere.”
The performance inspired many audience members to clap, cheer and sing along to all of the tunes played. With the band being a military band, Lewis said their charismatic performances can catch many audience members off guard, and some expect a more traditional and serious performance. Lewis discussed the band’s high-spirited nature.
Lewis said, “I think a lot of people just don’t know what to think and when they get there, we just have a lot of people out there supporting the military because they want to come out and support the military…our shows are designed to give a little bit for everybody. Even if you don’t think you like jazz, you walk away saying ‘god, I didn’t know jazz was like that.’ It’s something fun and we try to bridge the gap. We try to have something for the older people and the real young people and we do it in the only jazz way that we know how to do it. Everyone walks away saying ‘wow, I never heard that song like that.’ It’s really great… it makes us feel good watching the audience receive it. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.”
During Lewis’ interview with The Equinox, she was stopped by many and thanked for her service.
One of those who thanked Lewis was KSC alumna Norma Walker, who attended the performance with her neighbors.
Walker is a member of the golden circle, or those who have graduated from college 50 years ago or more, and works at the KSC Alumni Center. Walker’s husband fought in World War II and tragically lost his left arm in battle in Germany. Today, her grandson and granddaughter are both members of of the U.S. Marine Corps and have served in Afghanistan.
Walker said, “I haven’t heard them [the Jazz Ambassadors] before…[I] love their music.”
The show was particularly emotional for Walker because of her affinity for the patriotic and military songs played, such as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“These military songs when I was in high school,” Walker said, “we used to sing those all the time and I’m sitting in there singing and tears are coming down.”
When thanked for her service, Lewis had a message for Walker.
Lewis said, “The family always serves, so I thank you, and a lot of times it’s a lot more difficult on the family because you’re the ones that sit back waiting, but from someone who’s been there, we really appreciate your prayers and…it always make it easier…it gives us a glimpse of hope knowing that we have family waiting for us.”
Lewis has been a member of the U.S. Army for 25 years and plans to retire this year.
With this tour with the Jazz Ambassadors being her last one, Lewis said she plans on taking a trip to Italy after retirement.
“I’m excited,” Lewis said. “I’ve never been able to go.”
Nick Tocco can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org