19 Jun 2017
Tuneful TravelTuneful Travel

Flying high with the Shades of Blue US Air Force Jazz Band

Shades of Blue, the jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force of Mid-America, performed jazz standards, swing and Big Band favorites, and patriotic medleys to close out the 2017 Glenn Miller Festival on June 11, 2017 in Clarinda, Iowa.

The final concert of this festival, held annually in the city where Glenn Miller was born in 1904, was presented by the musicians of this ensemble—two trumpets, two trombones, three saxophones, double bass, electric guitar, keyboard, drumset, and female vocalist—who are all enlisted Air Force personnel stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, outside of St. Louis. The musicians also perform other duties in the military, and they are part of the Air Force’s Rapid Global Mobility operations, which supports the service’s 2000 missions flown each month worldwide.

There was a large audience for this free concert, which was scheduled to be held outside on the city square but was moved inside the high school gymnasium due to the excessive heat and high winds. This band is a repeat performer at this festival, and it seemed especially appropriate that an Air Force band should play at the festival since Glenn Miller volunteered for military service at the height of World War II, serving in the United States Army Air Corps (the Air Force was not a separate branch until 1947) from 1942 until December 15, 1944 when his plane disappeared crossing the English channel.

Major Glenn Miller

The Shades of Blue ensemble opened with the National Anthem. This was closely followed by Anvil Chorus, which I learned originated as a chorus in the opera Il Trovotore written by Italian composer Guisseppi Verdi in 1853. Years later Jerry Gray wrote a jazz arrangement of the music for the Glenn Miller Orchestra which reached No. 3 on the US Billboard charts in 1941.  Here is a recording of the Glenn Miller Orchestra playing the tune:

Technical Sergeant Quincy Garner, who played trumpet and flugelhorn, served as leader and announcer for the ensemble and provided history and context for the songs they performed. As was true of all the band members, TSgt. Garner is an excellent musician and in fact earned a Masters in Music from the University of Miami before he joined the Air Force in 2003.

Technical Sergeant Quincy Garner
Technical Sergeant Quincy Garner

A female vocalist, who had recently retired from active duty, joined the ensemble for the next couple of tunes, starting with Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm which also featured solos on the piano and alto saxophone. She also sang one of my favorite romantic Hoagy Carmichael songs, The Nearness of You.

“Fascinating Rhythm” performed by the Shades of Blue Jazz Ensemble

The band played the familiar Glenn Miller standard String of Pearls,  then featured an alto saxophone solo on Billy Strayhorn’s composition Isfahan, part of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite.

Here’s a video of the tune played by the Duke Ellington Orchestra featuring Johnny Hodges on alto sax:

Next on the program was the slow-paced and lyrical For All We Know, which featured both trumpet players on flugelhorn, followed by Bolivia, which also featured a trumpet solo and was made famous by Freddie Hubbard (check out his 1990 performance in Tokyo):

The female vocalist returned for the next few songs: Straighten Up and Fly Right and Stardust, which began with guitarist Alberto Cosano and later featured tenor saxman Cody Brown soloing on flute.

The ensemble continued with a Big Band era crowd favorite, In the Mood, followed by I Love Being Here with You.

Shades of Blue concluded their performance with a medley of Armed Forces’ hymns. During this piece, veterans of each branch of service stood up when their branch’s anthem was played. Sitting near me was a Navy veteran who had served during World War II. Despite his age, he stood proudly when the band played the Navy hymn Anchors Away. When these medleys are played at concerts, I always feel a slew of emotions ranging from thankfulness to the veterans for serving to sadness thinking about servicemen and women who have lost their lives during their service.

Overall this was a fantastic, fast-paced performance. Thank you to the Air Force musicians for sharing your musical talents with those of us at the Glenn Miller festival!

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