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Some Veterans Day Thoughts On Jazz

A U.S. soldier entertaining troops in Mosul, Iraq. iStockPhoto hide caption

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A U.S. soldier entertaining troops in Mosul, Iraq.


We often use the term "veteran" to describe jazz musicians who have been around a long time. But plenty of jazz musicians served (and still serve) in the U.S. military, in pretty much every war of the 20th century and beyond. Today, on Veterans Day, that's worth special recognition, and our gratitude.

I think about it especially since I've been knee-deep in Randy Weston's new autobiography, African Rhythms. (Ahem, ahem.) Like most jazz musicians of the 1940s, he was loath to join the war effort when the world of music was just opening up to him. Really, there was little desire for many African Americans to join a segregated military to fight for worldwide democracy when they were still treated as second-class citizens at home.

But Weston was conscripted, and eventually went to Okinawa as a supply sergeant. As he relates, his white colonel realized he couldn't be discharged, and abandoned the unit, and it took a month for Washington to realize they had arrived and furnish proper supplies. "I've gotta believe this could only have happened to a black unit," he dictated. He spent a year in Japan serving in the Army.

Weston mentions that he met masters like saxophonists Bill Barron and Ernie Henry while in the service, and indeed, a lot of great musicians wound up meeting great musicians in military bands or just jamming while off duty. The U.S. military still employs lots of jazz musicians to be musicians, in marching, concert or even jazz bands — it's probably the country's largest employer of musicians, often full-time with benefits. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note just presented guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel with an award "on behalf of the entire United States Air Force."