When I graduated high school I looked at three choices, basically: Accept a music scholarship, go to work or join the military. Since it was the beginning of the so-called, Vietnam conflict era; and the draft was in place, my second option took a back seat. Me and a school band mate—Ricardo Hatton– found out from an Army recruiter that we could get into music (band) and avoid a probable combat assignment if we volunteered. And although the draft was for three(3) years of service, signing up would mean four(4)–including active reserve status. So, since I was promised and guaranteed that after my basic training I would be assigned to the Army Element at the Naval School of Music, I felt like I could do more growing up doing that and getting college later, with the G.I. Bill footing most of the costs too. So, I enlisted.
My music career in the service started with an audition with the post band’s Bandmaster at Ft. Jackson, SC. He would decide whether I would go to the Naval School straight away, after completing my ‘basic’ or to a post band in the interim.
After I completed my training and my first leave, I reported to the Army Element at the Anacostia NAS (Washington, DC). The Naval School of Music was a prized assignment. It was a hub for the best military band training and musicianship studies. We studied theory, applied instrument and military music history, and of course military secondary specialties—after all, it was the Army. Just as having to know the ‘general orders’ in boot camp, knowing how FM 22-5 related to the band was pertinent also. An interesting side-note here is that I encountered several South Vietnamese sailors training (non-musical) there when I would, on occasion, run into them at the gedunk/beer hall while off duty. I remember seeing their arm patch—Republic of South Vietnam Navy– and thinking: What is this all about(?).
One of the most interesting and rewarding things about being stationed at Anacostia was that the Army was drafting so many great musicians. Many were established players and artists. Some had ‘connections’ that allowed them to get to DC after their basic training even though they were draftees—they were the lucky ones. I can’t begin to count the number of fantastic players I encountered or heard about that were drafted and assigned to other fields and duty assignments. Some were in infantry or other combat units, others motor pools, and a few admin. areas such as quartermaster a/o AG units, etc. Anyway, I met players that became lifelong friends or we played together after our service. I’m going to name a few because I just can’t remember them all. Here is a sample: Andy Ennis and I reunited years later when we were members of the Ray Charles Orchestra; Thurman Green and I worked together many times when I moved to L.A., as I also did with Fred Jackson. George Davis turned me on to a lot of players that passed through DC. Vince Prudente also came into one of the bands. There were several bands at the station and since some were Navy (Marines) and others Army; a lot of players never got to meet there in person, but we knew who was there by word of mouth and jam sessions. We had players from symphony orchestras, concert solo artists, cats from all the major big bands and touring groups like Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Gerald Wilson, Maynard Ferguson, Fats Domino, Basie, etc. The band unit I was assigned to played several official functions in Washington also. When I got off-duty time, it was Baltimore—Andy Ennis was my connection there; he introduced me to guys like Mickey Fields and Jimmy Wells, along with his sister Ethel; and Philly, NYC or wherever, that were fairly close and within my budget to check out some music a/o sit-in. In DC the Howard Theater—shows there included Miles Davis’ sextet w/JJ Johnson, Herbie Mann, Johnny Griffin and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Shirley Scott and Stanley Turrentine, etc., there was a bar across from the stage door–called Celia’s, I think– where I met many who hung out there; then the Orbit Room– Buck Clarke led the house band and shows, and Bohemian Caverns—the JFK Quintet was the house band there w/weekly jam sessions; I Met Cannonball and his band there, and reminded him of that when he frequently passed through Tallahassee when I was in school there several years after my discharge. Clarke and I would play together with Freddie Hubbard years later when we were in CA. All were hot spots for me.
After finishing my training, I was briefly interested in applying for bandmaster training school; but since I had no college, no desire to commit to long-term service and few, if any, African Americans were bandmasters(warrant officers); I decided to go with my ordered assignment and report to Ft. Carson CO to be a part of the 5th Div. Band. This was a first of its kind unit. The 5th was what was called a “Mechanized Infantry Division” (The Red Diamond). We were advised that although we were a band unit, we moved as infantry. When and where the division went, so would we. This was unlike other posts bands and specialty bands. And, all bandsmen (we had no females in our units in those days) had infantry assignments and training– I was a 30 cal. machine gunner. We were actually on full alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis and took part in two major war game maneuvers: Operation Swift Strike and Operation Desert Strike; those were field war games taking place in the boonies of South Carolina, and moving a complete division from the Yakima National Park to the deserts near Flagstaff AZ via air and convoy! So much for my combat training.
I also tried out for the div. football team—anything to keep me out of the field. My old high school friend—Alfred Austin—was a member of the squad. That was short lived, however; but thankfully, I lucked my way into what some would call a gravy assignment. After all, I had paid some dues (smile). I got TDY with the 5th Army Entertainment Team (Showmobile) for my remaining time in active service.
What a relief. And, that also came with a promotion. All members of the team were E-5 (Sergeant) and above, along with being NCOs as opposed to specialists. The team was based at 5th Army Headquarters, Ft. Sheridan, IL, near Chicago. Between there and the band at Ft. Carson, I played all kinds of gigs—on and off bases, and sat in with some great local musicians. Some of the people I interacted with—because, I just can’t recall all of them—were: Bill Brimfield, Bobby Shew, John Renner, Jim Trimble, Phil Wilson, O’dell Brown—Brown and I were in one of Marvin Gaye’s bands years later, Bill Prince, Danny Long, Gary Eaklor, Bob Gray, Paul Pino, Walter ‘poogie’ Kimble, etc….…, so many good players and good people. From a cool little jazz club in Pueblo, to jazz/soul clubs in Colorado Springs and The Cave in Manitou Springs, Denver—trading duty days and giving up a few ends to take off and hear groups like Horace Silver’s at the Blue Note there and hang out with the band—Blue Mitchell was a member and my homie too. Blue and I were on a tour of Africa some years later with Monk Montgomery. And, all over the mid-west. This is how I hung out. But the military bands had interesting assignments too. The 5th Div. Band played for many official functions, both on and off post. A group of select players from our band, of which I was a part of, went back to Washington DC and played one of the many ceremonies held there after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Since we were a marching/concert/dance band, we covered the gambit; not to mention the various small combos and soloists. We played and were the first military band to march across the Royal Gorge bridge (Canon City, CO) Our band played out of state too, like Frontier Days in Cheyenne WY and played for events and dances at Camp Hale, which was the quasi Vail resort for senior officers and a post for winter combat training along with a ‘special area’ for DoD and CIA use. I should mention that there were four(4) bands centered in close proximity in Colorado–Our div. band and a post band at Ft. Carson; one at the Air Force Academy and the NORAD Band.
These are the high points, in many ways, but there was so much more to it. There were many musicians from all persuasions; both on the military side and civilian cats in the local cities. It was great crossing paths with each of them. A few of which I still have contact with, to this day, as mentioned earlier.
After my active duty ended, I served 1 year of reserve status assigned to 3rd Army Headquarters. I was called up twice to perform parade duty—once at Ft Stewart GA and one time at Ft. Benning GA. These were large graduation ceremonies and area reservists were brought in to augment the active duty post bands. Both were no more than about week or so each. After that, I was done. At the end of my reserve year, I was offered a bonus and promotion to re-up. I passed on that and received my Honorable Discharge.
Many artists and musicians, through the years, were and are veterans. I salute them, and ALL Vets. My service was an integral part of my growth, both musically and personally. I learned that service was not only combat related. It was something that represented me, the country and gave morale to those serving along with contributing to and being a part of a common esprit de corps. A time that is emphatically and forever memorable.
(Photo: My first official U.S. Army portrait–Pvt/Rct E-1 A.J. Hall, Jr.; C Double Nickle– taken the day of my first weekend pass during basic training. From the archives of Ron “COS” Hall.)