150 Years Of 'Taps' : Deceptive Cadence Retired Air Force bugler Jari Villanueva gives us a glimpse of the fascinating history behind these 24 somber notes.
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150 Years Of 'Taps'

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150 Years Of 'Taps'

150 Years Of 'Taps'

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Tomorrow, just after noon at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington D.C., 200 buglers assembled across the burial ground will begin playing this.


GREENE: "Taps" marks its 150th anniversary this year and here to talk about the song is the man who you just heard playing it, Jari Villanueva. He joins me in our performance studio here in Washington. Welcome to the program, Jari.

MASTER SERGEANT JARI VILLANUEVA: Well, thank you. Great to be here.

GREENE: Tell me how you first came to know how to play this song.

VILLANUEVA: Well, I started off as a Boy Scout bugler when I was about 12 years old playing in Scouts. Then I studied trumpet the Peabody Conservatory. Then I auditioned for and was accepted by the United States Air Force Band. And part of my duties was sounding that call at Arlington National Cemetery for 23 years.

And it has taken me on a wonderful journey that has now ended up with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of this very special tune.

GREENE: Wow. Well, take us along on that journey. Where did this song come from?

VILLANUEVA: Well, 150 years ago, of course, during the Civil War. And in late June and July of 1862, the Union Army is camped all along the James River, especially at a place called Harrison's Landing. Now within that big army is a brigade commanded by General Daniel Butterfield, and Butterfield doesn't like the regulation call for lights out. That call, like most calls in the Army manual at that time, was derived from the French. And that call sounds like this.


GREENE: OK. So Butterfield is leading this brigade. This is the call, this French song that's supposed to be lights out. He just doesn't like it.

VILLANUEVA: That's correct. So he calls his brigade bugler, a 22-year-old private by the name of Oliver Wilcox Norton. They sit down and Butterfield gives him music to a new call that he asks him to play it that night. The next morning, Norton is approached by other buglers from different brigades, asking: what was that you played last night?


VILLANUEVA: And he says it's a new call that general had asked for, and he then furnishes copies of the music to the other buglers, and pretty soon everyone is now sounding this new call in place of the old regulation lights out.

GREENE: And is that the "Taps" that we know today?

VILLANUEVA: That is correct. It's the 24 notes that we know today as "Taps."

GREENE: Wow. So this spreads through the Union Army, but as I understand it, part of the Confederacy picked it up as well, which is so extraordinary to think of this song crossing enemy lines, in a way.

VILLANUEVA: Well, it's not so extraordinary when you think that both armies shared the same manuals, so bugle calls on both sides were the same. And the Confederates were close enough to the Union camps where they probably heard that new call being sounded and pretty soon Confederates are using it.

GREENE: So 150 years ago it becomes lights out for both the Union and the Confederacy. Is "Taps" used in today's military the same as 150 years ago?

VILLANUEVA: "Taps" is used in today's military, two ways. The first one is that it is still used as the regulation call for extinguish lights at the end of the day. But then of course the second and most important usage of "Taps" today, that we know, is the use of "Taps" at military funerals, wreath laying ceremonies, and memorial services. At Arlington National Cemetery you'll hear the call performed about 30 times every day.

GREENE: And for 23 of those years you were playing it there, almost every day, with a number of other buglers.

VILLANUEVA: That's true. For 23 years it was my honor to be part of a ceremony where we honored our fallen veterans. I can remember the first time at Arlington back in 1985, and I will tell you I was very nervous, because I knew that I was in America's most sacred grounds, and that when I would perform "Taps" everything would stop.

The ceremony would come to a complete halt and that all the attention would turn to the bugler to sound those notes. And I knew that that was an awesome responsibility, because it was the one piece of music that those people coming to Arlington would hear and that they would go away with. So I was striving, of course, to make it as perfect as possible.

GREENE: You know, Jari, one funeral in particular that featured "Taps" that many people remember, was the funeral for President John F. Kennedy. Can you play for us how "Taps" was played that day and then give us a sense for what happened?

VILLANUEVA: Sure. "Taps," of course, was performed that day by a bugler Keith Clark and he was the principal bugler of the army band at that time. And when he heard the news of the assassination, the first thing he thought of was to go get a haircut because he thought that he might be the bugler actually called to sound "Taps."

He got the call. He went into his spot and stood for about three hours in the cold waiting for the procession to arrive. And then finally, without much of a chance to warm up, he sounded the call. And he missed the note on the sixth note, and I'll try to miss it. It's kind of tough to miss it.


GREENE: You know it so well.

VILLANUEVA: I'll play a little bit of it and you'll hear where he cracked the note.


GREENE: How did he react?

VILLANUEVA: He recovered and just went on to finish the call, saluted. True professional.

GREENE: What a window, though, into the pressure that is on you at some of these occasions.

VILLANUEVA: It certainly is, and for weeks afterwards people would talk about that note, how, perhaps that Clark had missed it on purpose as a tribute, you know, the nation sobbing for their lost president. And Clark even remarked that for weeks afterwards in the cemetery, buglers kept missing the same note. It must've been a psychological thing.

GREENE: Wow. Jari, thank you so much for coming in and bringing your bugle along with you.

VILLANUEVA: Thank you.

GREENE: That's retired Air Force Master Sergeant and bugler, Jari Villanueva. He played at Arlington National Cemetery as an Air Force bugler for 23 years and today he oversees military funerals for the state of Maryland.


GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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