From the opening chords of Alone Together – a cut from the West Point Band’s Jazz Knights’ album At First Light – I knew they had me. This highly acclaimed jazz band is about to celebrate its 40-year anniversary, and for decades jazz aficionados have appreciated this group’s growing popularity. The unique sound of the Jazz Knights has come from years of tweaking and honing the talents of the specially selected musicians. The strong, sonorous brass, tasty saxophone riffs, melodious flutes, and the crisp, catchy drum rhythms make your ears smile when you hear them play the music of greats like Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
When we see this 18-piece premier jazz ensemble, it’s a very different experience: not only are they a slick performance group, they also represent our military who are dedicated to serving their country – only in this case it’s a bit untraditional, especially when we see members in full military regalia rolling out a jaunty jazz tune. As in any military group, the Jazz Knights function as a cohesive team during rehearsal and on stage. But that’s not all they do. All musicians are involved with managing the band’s busy schedule of performances, teaching, and playing special military functions. It means everyone has to pitch in; everyone wears a few different caps.
“Everyone in this band does everything,” says band guitarist Staff Sergeant Mark Tonelli, who is also a publicist for the band. “Everyone takes on extra duties to make it work. That way the band is self-sustaining.”
Some members write original work and arrange different versions of traditional jazz songs. The fact that Sergeant Major Scott Arcangel is the group’s pianist, musical director, and program director is a prime example of how the musicians multi-task. Arcangel is regularly referred to by his colleagues as the “vision” of the Jazz Knights because he prepares the band for performances, develops concert themes, and programs individual concerts.
“We’re developing our sound,” Arcangel explains. “I’ll tailor a song to the group to highlight their strengths. The band has a unique and original sound — it’s something that continually evolves.”
The Jazz Knights are also fortunate to house a number of music arrangers within their ensemble. For example, the most recent concert featured arrangements from saxophonists Sergeant 1st Class Mike Reifenberg and Staff Sergeant Derrick James, as well as Staff Sergeant Tonelli. It’s their special touch that shapes and develops the group’s distinct sound.
When Arcangel works with Jazz Knights vocalist Staff Sergeant Alexis Cole, they work on arrangements together. In the cut Joy Spring from their CD Turning Points, Cole belts out her scat singing with incredible punch, redolent of Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a snappy song and Arcangel’s arrangement shows off the depth and range of Cole’s rich and versatile voice.
Sergeant 1st Class Scott Drewes is the band’s drummer and also the tour manager. “I do the business side of it [the band], the operations,” says Drewes. “I arrange one to two tours a year either to jazz festivals or at universities where we give music clinics. We’re good-will ambassadors. We can get into a college or university and show a different face.”
The history behind the Jazz Knights is fascinating. The group is part of the West Point Band, which is the U.S. Army’s oldest active band and the oldest unit at West Point. Think of the few fifers and drummer in the Revolutionary War stationed with the minutemen on Constitution Island who in 1778 crossed the Hudson River with General Samuel Holden Parsons and established West Point. After the war only 55 men were left at West Point and among those only one drummer and one fifer – the meager beginnings of what is today a top military band.
In 1802 the United States Military Academy was formally established and joining the fifers and drummer were buglers. In 1817 the ensemble was named “The West Point Band,” and by this time there were more instrumentalists, including two bassoons, two Royal Kent bugles, a tenor bugle, ten clarinets, three French horns, a serpent (an early bass horn), cymbals, a bass drum, eight flutes, and two trumpets. In 1866 the group was officially named “The United States Military Academy Band.”
Today’s band consists of four components: the Concert Band, Hellcats (the drum and bugle field music unit), the Jazz Knights, and Support Staff. They combine to form the Marching Band that supports the United States Corps of Cadets’ ceremonies, parades, and sporting events at West Point.
The Jazz Knights have many feathers in their musical caps. They’ve played with Benny Goodman at Lincoln Center in 1982, performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for the 200th Anniversary of the New York State Legislature, and appeared twice at the Hatch Shell for Boston’s Independence Day celebration. Notable guests who have performed with the Jazz Knights include David Liebman, Rufus Reid, John Clayton, Eddie Daniels, Steve Turre, James Carter, Randy Brecker, Michael Abene, Steve Weist, Jon Faddis, Jim Snidero, Gary Smulyan, Scott Wendholt, and Benny Golson.
The Jazz Knights also form smaller ensembles to perform at different venues. A typical combo for a military cocktail party would be piano, bass, drums, and guitar. Other combos are put together for special military occasions such as United Nations receptions or special parties for ambassadors. “We played at the Waldorf Astoria and rubbed elbows with high dignitaries,” says Drewes. “It’s a great honor to represent the U.S. Army and West Point at these types of events.”
Recalling their performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. is Sergeant Major Ron Fleischman, who plays the trombone and is the Jazz Knights’ Group Leader, the administrator who sees to the day-to-day operations.
“The band is a well-kept secret, so when we auditioned at the Kennedy Center for the folks heading up the concert series, they were apprehensive. But after we finished they wanted to know when we could come back. We’ve played there twice.”
Each musician in the Jazz Knights is required to go through a competitive audition process just like for any other professional music group. Many are graduates from such prestigious music schools as the Eastman School of Music, Indiana University, Berklee School of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and the University of North Texas. Past and present members of the band had previously played with such icons as Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Ahmad Jamal, Chaka Kahn, Prince, Billy Cobham, and the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller Orchestras.
It took about a year to find a female vocalist, says Tonelli. “We went through two rounds before we heard Alexis sing and there were about six to nine months between those rounds.”
Musicians auditioning for the West Point band also need to meet certain physical requirements and be able to go though basic training. But once you are in, you are under a four-year contract, after which you can re-enlist. For many, being part of a military-based music group offers a wide range of incentives and for some, a sense of job security.
Four years ago, when he got hired as the band’s lead trumpet, Staff Sergeant John Castleman was glad to go through basic training. He had previously been in the Air Force and was used to a military setting, but left to pursue other musical ventures.
“I had been playing as a freelance musician and then I taught for a while. I saw the ad for trumpet at West Point in the International Musicians’ Union newsletter.”
Castleman is regarded as the band leader for the brass, and he sets the style of the sound. “If we’re playing in the style of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, my job mostly is to guide the horn players in how they interpret the beat.”
Staff Sergeant Josh Economy was a freelancing trumpet player in Los Angeles about six years ago when he auditioned for the Jazz Knights. “Playing freelance was piece meal, but I love playing and this job allows me to play the trumpet in a meaningful way.” Economy frequently sounds Taps at military funerals at West Point. “It’s the most musical thing I’ve ever done. It really means so much more to play things like Reveille.”
The sentiment that the music they play has a special significance is shared among all the band’s musicians.
“We mark passages in the cadet’s lives,” says Cole. “We also focus on building audiences and how can we expand and grow. At the end of the day, the draw is the music.”
Tonelli says for him and most of the Jazz Knights, playing as a member of the military is unique because it combines both a job and a profession.
“The magical thing is the opportunity to play on regular basis for your country – it’s a very special thing.”
The Jazz Knights give free concerts year round at West Point and in the surrounding area. Check their performance schedule at: http://www.westpoint.edu/band You can also find them on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and iTunes.
Abby Luby, author of the recently published e-book Nuclear Romance, has been in the field of communications for over 20 years and a journalist just over 10. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications/Music from Indiana University and attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City.
She is a freelance journalist for The New York Daily News, a regularly featured art critic for the Stamford Advocate/Greenwich Time and for the past five years has written for The Hudson Valley Table, a quarterly food magazine. Ms. Luby has contributed several articles on art events, gallery openings and artists in the Hudson Valley region to Roll Magazine. www.abbylu.com