Perspective: Your Students’ Military Band Career May Be a Thing of the Past

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 15, 2016

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As an educator, your job is to prepare your student for their next step in their musical career – for those talented enough to take the next step. One avenue many students take right out of high school is to take their musical talents to the armed services. Well let me tell you a little story…

This past July 4th, I went into the City of Franklin, to its historic town square, where festivities celebrating our nation’s independence were well under way. Among the food trucks and vendors was a stage, and on that stage sat the magnificent 129th Army Jazz Band, headquartered at Houston Barracks in Nashville. They held a captivated audience’s attention as they worked their way through patriotic jazz arrangements as well as the kind of big band tunes you’d expect from this astounding outfit. These cats make it look so easy. I mean, “Wow! They were just killing it!”

Not only does the 129th Army Band deliver an outstanding performance of great repertoire, their appearances at events for the public such as holiday celebrations does a world of good for the community.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email entitled “Congressional Proposal to Ban Military Band Performances” just nine days later warning me that Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) sponsored an amendment to H.R. 5293, the proposed military funding bill, banning the use of U.S. military music for “social” performances to include international partnership events, all parades, and even national holiday celebrations. It was reasoned that, as a nation, we could not afford such luxuries. Rep. McSally (R-AZ), Air Force Col retired, said of her time in the military while attending parties and functions, “We would have active duty military members entertaining us and it bothered me then.”

Rep. McSally is a Republican. This voice vote to accept her amendment, which would have devastated the performance opportunities for all military bands, was not challenged or debated and was passed by the GOP. Save money? Let’s do it, damn the consequences.

I found this infuriating, frankly, as a U.S. citizen, as a musician, as a patriotic American who thinks military band performances show the best of our best to those kids who are our future, while showing respect for those who’ve served this great country. Make no mistake, this was a Republican bill, an amendment by a Republican, and sent up to the Senate, who thankfully rejected the entire bill as-is.

This begs the question, though, “Why is it seemingly always the GOP who rush to cut funding for the arts?” I always thought military band performances, in all their patriotic service, would be out of the line of fire for these zealous politicians, but I see I was wrong.

I personally contacted Rep. McSally’s office and asked for an interview on the topic. They declined to reply with a comment or to grant the interview. In fact, I asked all of the Republican members of congress from my own state of Tennessee to comment as to whether or not they were aware of this amendment, its impact, and about their support since they each agreed to the voice vote. Only one representative’s staffer was willing to comment, and that was Rep. Scott DesJarlais’s office, who stated that this amendment was not serious enough of a problem for the congressman that he would withhold his vote for the entire spending bill. The others were, I’m guessing, too chicken to comment on the record about either their lack of support for public military band performances, their support for this amendment, or their understanding of just what it would do had it passed.

This issue is not over. The bill was kicked back from the Senate. That doesn’t mean this amendment won’t be offered again for the next one, and again blindly allowed on there by representatives who either don’t care about the harm it does to our military bands and their cultural impact, or are completely ignorant as to what they agreed to via a voice vote supporting the amendment.

Keep an eye on what they are doing with the military spending bills now, because clearly our centuries-old military band traditions are now at risk of knee-jerk cost-cutting measures that won’t actually save us anything while hurting our historic culture of public military band performances. Any time opportunities are lost for performing musicians it hurts all of us in the arts.

Please, contact your congressmen and senators and tell them not to allow this kind of travesty to be attached to a future critical spending bill for our military. We need our military band performances, and our military bands need us.

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