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In His Own Words: William Ledbetter – U.S. Navy Band Bassist

Musician First Class Benjamin Ford • America's MusiciansMarch 2022 • March 18, 2022

Musician First Class William Ledbetter

On Dec. 12, 2021, at the Eichelberger Performing Arts Center in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Musician First Class William “Will” Ledbetter played his very first concert with the U.S. Navy Band Commodores jazz ensemble. Ledbetter is just the fifth bass player in the ensemble’s half-century existence, but his own musical journey started at the age of three with some piano lessons.

WL: My father is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, so we moved around a lot as a kid, and it was hard to continue lessons on a regular basis. I mainly learned to play by ear and picked up a few other instruments along the way, including guitar. I also had a quick stint with the trumpet in middle school band until braces put an end to that. By high school, guitar was my main instrument, but I wasn’t necessarily looking for a career in music. At Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, Virginia, I had the opportunity to perform in a guitar ensemble. It introduced me to playing classical guitar which broadened my skills beyond the blues, gospel, and rock that I was already playing. And, in addition to learning to read this type of guitar music, I actually began to arrange music for those types of ensembles. 

After graduating high school, Ledbetter moved on to North Carolina A&T State University, where he started out as a mechanical engineering major with a minor in music. At the end of his freshman year, he started playing upright bass and began majoring in music full time by the middle of his sophomore year. He transferred to the University of North Carolina Greensboro and completed his jazz performance degree there in 2019.

WL: Another opportunity that contributed to my growth was my participation in an organization in Greensboro called Music for a Great Space.  MGS showcases culturally diverse ensembles in performances for the local community. I played bass in their jazz quartet, and it allowed me to perform masterclasses for schools around the area.

Ledbetter freelanced in Greensboro before auditioning for the Navy Band in June 2021. After attending recruit training, colloquially known as boot camp, he reported to the band in December 2021 and played his first concert right away on Dec. 12.

WL: It was a great feeling finally playing with the Commodores on stage, especially coming straight from basic training where I couldn’t play my bass for two months!  I only got in a couple of rehearsals with the band before our first hit, but right away I felt like I fit right in with the rhythm section.  I love that I can play upright with no amp and just mic the bass, which is the perfect sound for a big band. They even let me play my all-time favorite bass feature “Jack the Bear” by Duke Ellington which was originally written for Jimmie Blanton!  Definitely a thrill and an experience I’ll never forget!

 I joined the navy because it afforded me the opportunity to be a full-time musician.  That’s very hard and rare to accomplish today.  To be honest, I had to weigh out a lot of options, because there was certainly a lot of potential to explore some other outlets while I was living in North Carolina. I was beginning to make a name for myself as a jazz bassist doing freelance work, but when I became aware of the Commodores audition, I realized it was the best option for me. It allows me to be a professional musician while making a comfortable living. I can buy a house, start a family, and have full health benefits while doing what I love. 

Ledbetter understands he’s part of a long line of bassists and jazz musicians, and aspiring jazz musicians need to understand that as well. There is a concept of sound and the role of the bass that is constantly changing.

WL: You need to know the history of the bass in jazz and how it progressed through the years.  It’s very important to listen to how and what bassists are doing, and the context of what they’re doing with what’s happening around them. For example, in early jazz recordings, bassists were attempting to imitate the tuba. They would use the bow, play in a two feel, or they would even slap the bass.  They were attempting to project over the band without the use of an amp, which leads back to the concept of sound. My personal favorite is Paul Chambers’ Bass on Top. That’s what I would consider a “bass player’s” album. Any of the recordings by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Jimmie Blanton, so recordings from 1939-1941. I would say my top three bassists are Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, and Slam Stewart. You can’t go wrong with anything from those three players. Those guys used gut strings, which I love. The sound from gut strings is more organic and prettier, almost like singing.

Learn more about the musicians of the U.S. Navy Band at https://www.navyband.navy.mil

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