Jazz musicians have a distinguished record of serving in the U.S. military. To commemorate Memorial Day weekend, we’re bringing you the stories of six jazz musicians who dedicated a portion of their careers to serving their country. All are jazz legends, but all were heroes off the bandstand as well.
6. Wayne Shorter: U.S. Army
Saxophonist and Weather Report founding member Wayne Shorter was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956, serving for two years. While on duty, he nevertheless managed to maintain a busy gigging schedule, playing in clubs around New York City with musicians like Horace Silver, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach.
It was after leaving the service, however, that Shorter would go on to form the most important partnerships of his career, joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. From there, a successful solo career would take shape. Today, Shorter is considered one of the most visionary artists in modern jazz.
5. Tony Bennett: U.S. Army
Vocalist Tony Bennett was drafted into the Army in 1944, toward the tail end of World War II. He served as a rifleman in the storied 63rd Infantry Division (known as the “Blood and Fire Division”) in Germany in France. However, he would eventually be reassigned to the 314th Army Special Services Band, where he would sing under the name Joe Bari.
Upon his discharge, Bennett would study voice at the American Theater Wing in New York City under the G.I. bill. He has since gone on to become the recipient of 18 Grammy Awards, including a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2001.
4. Clark Terry: U.S. Navy
Known for his role in the Tonight Show Band during the ’60s and ’70s, trumpeter Clark Terry was a Navy veteran who enlisted in the military in 1942. Upon joining, he was assigned to the band at the Great Lakes Training Station in Illinois, and would play in the Navy band until 1945.
After his discharge, Terry remained in Chicago and performed alongside some of the Midwest’s most acclaimed jazz artists, joining the famed Count Basie Orchestra in 1948.
3. Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond: U.S. Army
Pianist Dave Brubeck was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, serving with the American Third Army on the European theater. However, after performing at a Red Cross show early in his military career, he was reassigned from combat duty and asked to form a band. That ensemble, known as The Wolfpack, was the only racially integrated band in the military at the time, and one of the first integrated bands in Armed Forces history.
It was while in the military that Brubeck would meet his longtime collaborator, saxophonist Paul Desmond. The pair would appear on the pianist’s landmark 1959 album Time Out, which would become the first jazz album to sell more than 1 million copies.
2. Glenn Miller: U.S. Army Air Corps
Glenn Miller was 38 when he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942, leaving behind a successful career as a recording artist and bandleader in civilian life.
The trombonist, one of the most famous big band leaders in the country, would go on to thoroughly modernize the Air Force’s band and orchestra service, restructuring his group from a traditional military marching band to a more contemporary swing and dance band. His efforts would eventually lead to the formation of the Airmen of Note, the Air Force’s premier jazz ensemble.
John Coltrane: U.S. Navy
Perhaps the most famous veteran in jazz history is John Coltrane, who was drafted into the Navy in 1945. While stationed in Hawaii, Coltrane, a Navy musician, joined a band called the Melody Masters, with which he would make two of his earliest recordings as a jazz artist (the most famous songs from that session include versions of “Koko” by Charlie Parker and “Hot House” by Dizzy Gillespie). After being discharged in 1946, Coltrane returned home to Philadelphia, where he continued to refine his sound and style. As history has already documented, he would go on to radically alter the jazz landscape as one of the most innovative musicians in jazz history.
Feature image courtesy Wikimedia Commons