Saturday, December 27, 2008

MUCM James D. Thumpston, 1933-2008

Tonight, I am particularly glad to be a part of the Navy Musicians Association. Because I belong to that community of MUs, I know I'm not alone in pondering the loss and remembering the life of a friend, teacher and shipmate.
MUCM Jim Thumpston passed away a few days ago in Orlando, Florida. While "Thumper" spent much of his career in fleet bands, his greatest influence on Navy music, no doubt, came from his tours at the School of Music in the '70s and '80s. As Head of Advanced Courses, Master Chief Thumpston trained hundreds of MUs, some of whom rose to the top enlisted and officer billets in the Navy Music Program. 

Speaking today with NMA President Terry Chesson, I mentioned that Thumper achieved a fleet-wide measure of respect and admiration.

"Jim Thumpston was everybody's chief," Terry said. 

No sailor makes his or her mark alone. We are each the product of those who trained us, who showed us the ropes, who praised us lavishly when we succeeded and chewed us out mercilessly--we thought--when we fell short. Sea stories about furious reprimands from Thumper are as numerous as waves in the ocean. Yet, it is a mark of unusual respect that so many stories of being chewed out by Master Chief Thumpston conclude with these words: 

"And it was just what I needed."  

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Funeral services for MUCM James D. Thumpston are private. Messages of condolence for Jim's family may be left online at the funeral home's website by going to Newcomer Funeral Home & Cremation Services and clicking on "View messages." 

Friday, December 12, 2008

If you want a job done right...

Somebody high up, one of the chiefs, wanted acoustical tiling on the bulkhead of the rehearsal spaces. I suspected it was Master Chief J.J. Connor, whose office was on the second deck, directly above the saxophone section.

MU1 Doyle Church was in charge of the working party.

I was the working party.

"Why me?" I asked Doyle as he showed me the tools and stack of tiles.

"You're the junior man." This was true. I was the leading seaman of Navy Band San Francisco; in fact, I was the only seaman.

Doyle handed me a putty knife and pointed to a can of dark brown gunk next to a pile of acoustical tiles. I was aghast. My leading petty officer expected me to do menial work, the sort of low-skilled, high-mess labor generally performed by janitors and convicts.

And seamen.

The thought of working was intolerable. I am a Mullen, a special race put on the earth for a special purpose. Mullens do not perform manual labor. We are idea people, thinkers, not doers.

"Doyle," I said. "You'll get in trouble if I put up these tiles."

"Me? You've got it backwards; it's you who will be in trouble if you don't."

I shook my head. "You just don't understand," I sighed.

"What's to understand? A petty officer tells a seaman what to do, and the seaman does it. What have I missed?"

"The obivious," I said. "If I do this work, I'll screw it up. Royally. You'll be p.o.'d at me, sure, but still, you'll have a crappy job on your hands." I jerked a thumb at the overhead. "And Master Chief Connor will be p.o.'d, too." I thought for a second and added, "But not at me."

"Who will J.J. be p.o.'d at?"

"You," I said. "Think it over: I warn you that I'll screw up this job, but you bullheadedly go ahead and make me do it. When I'm finished, it looks like hell, and J.J. goes ballistic. Now, ask yourself: who does J.J. blame? The moron seaman who, everybody knows, can barely clean a toilet? Or the career-minded petty officer who used poor judgment in assigning a difficult task to a worthless bozo like me?"

Doyle pondered the situation.

"Prove to me that you're incompetent," he said.

"Let's see," I said, sticking the putty knife into the can of tile glue. "I guess I use this spatula thingie to get the brown gooky stuff." I yanked out the knife, catapulting globs of dark brown goo onto the bulkhead, my dungarees and the carpeting. "Then I put it on one of these white tiles."

"Be careful," Doyle said. "That's the front of the tile."

"Whoops, too late," I said, applying a generous dollop of brown, pasty glue to the wrong side of the tile, creating an object that looked like a turd on a serving platter.

"Let's put it here," I said, smooshing the nasty object against the bulkhead, waist-high at a rakish 32-degree angle to the horizon.

"That was sort of fun," I said as I reached for another tile.

"Stop," Doyle said, taking the encrusted putty knife from me. "I get it."

"What the hell is this mess?" came a gruff voice from behind. Master Chief Connor's eyes swept across Doyle and me, settling on the lone, crooked tile, which popped off the bulkhead and fell face down on the deck.

J.J. looked at the putty knife in Doyle's hand. "Church, who taught you to put up tiling?"

"Well, actually, master chief, uh,-"

"Give me that," J.J. said, taking the putty knife from Doyle and dipping it into the can. "Here's how it's done." He applied a thin layer of glue to the back of a tile like a master chef spreading goose liver jelly on French bread.

"I see," Doyle said, reaching for the tile.

"No, let me show you," J.J. said, bending down to slide the tile squarely into the lower left-hand corner of the bulkhead. "You have to start at the edge and work horizontally in rows."

I took one pace backwards.

"And don't use too much glue," J.J. continued, reaching for another tile.

I took another pace backwards.

"You can apply the glue straight to the bulkhead, if you're careful," he said. "That's how we did it back in ComNavCruDesRonLantMedPac."

At least that's what I think he said. By this time, I was sliding out the door, and Doyle wasn't far behind me.

I've always thought that my remarkably high sense of self-esteem was a morale-boosting plus for the Navy. It certainly was true in this case.

I, of course, got out of doing actual work, a skill I would later develop to magnificent proportions.

J.J. Connor got the satisfaction of passing along his hard-earned skills to a new generation of sailors.

And most important, Doyle got the right man for the job.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Call me a liar, call me a fool; just don't call me "sir."

One morning in Newport I was sitting at the admin desk, thinking about my future in the Navy and testing out various forms of address. I liked "Good morning, Warrant Officer Mullen," although "I'll get right on it, Lieutenant" had a reassuring ring. I was about to try out "Lieutenant Commander" when the phone rang.

I began the standard greeting: "Northeastern Navy Band, Petty Officer Mullen speaking. This is an unsecure--"

"Give me Chief Warrant Officer Waldron," a voice growled. "Now."

"May I ask who's calling, sir?"

It was the base captain.

I saw a blinking light on the intercom. "Mr. Waldron is on the other line, sir; would you like me to--"

"Do you understand what 'now' means? Give me Waldron. Now."

I jogged to the bandmaster's office, interrupted Mr. Waldron's call and explained the situation. He pressed a button and said into the phone, "Good morning, captain."

That was pretty much the last complete sentence I heard for a while.

"Yes, sir ... no, sir ... I--yes, sir ... right away, sir."

He hung up and said, "It's Smith again," referring to the most undependable sailor ever to wear a lyre on his shoulder. "The captain says he was drinking on the bandstand again at the 'O' Club last night."

Mr. Waldron grabbed his cover and stormed out the door.

I went back to the admin desk and resumed thinking about my future. I wasn't sure how much Lieutenant Mullen would enjoy taking the heat for every trombone player who forgot to pay for his skivvies at the Navy Exchange, every drummer whose urine contained too much of the wrong chemical, every pianist who eyed the skipper's wife a little too long at a reception.

In other words, my career as an officer would rise or fall on the behavior of people like me.

A pleasant form of address occurred to me:

"Aye, aye, Chief."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Back when we were old men

School of Music Faculty Lab Band, c. 1979

Dave Jacobson, an old army friend, sent me this photo. It was taken early in my tour as piano instructor at the School of Music. What strikes me about remembering those years is just how old we weren't.

I was a 31-year-old MU2. I felt old, past my prime. And the two CPOS I was the closest to--Roy Mahoney (the leader, standing in front of the drums) and Hank Agnew (baritone sax, next to piano)--were waaay older than me. Roy and Hank were ancient mariners, crotchety old men who, I was convinced, had been in the band that played honors when the floods receded and Noah stepped off the Ark.

Within a year or two of this photo, Roy Mahoney and Hank Agnew celebrated their 40th birthdays.

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You can see this photo with a (sort of) complete roster by going to My Bands and Shipmates, which I've reorganized into separate pages for easier viewing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Robert O. Carlson - Bandsman on USS Oklahoma, Dec. 7, 1941

We were both Navy musicians. We both moved to the Fredericksburg, Virginia area after leaving active duty. No doubt, we walked the same streets.

But Robert O. Carlson and I never met. The loss is mine.

According to his recent obituary in the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Free-lance Star,

Bob spent 26 years in the Navy. He began as a musician, playing saxophone in the band on the USS Oklahoma as "The Swede." While stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941, he had just come on deck to play morning colors when he saw the first Japanese Zeros attacking. When the Oklahoma started to list, Bob jumped off and swam to the USS Maryland, where he stayed for the remainder of the attack. After the attack, he helped to free the trapped sailors in the hull of the Oklahoma. Unfortunately, they could save only 32 men and 429 perished.

The stories of the bandsmen during the attack on Pearl Harbor--those who died and those who acted heroically--are legend to Navy musicians. I would have been honored to meet Bob Carlson, sailor, musician, hero.

But how could I know that we walked the same streets? Veterans of his generation did not wear their decorations on their chests or shout their accomplishments to passers-by.

Heroes leave us to tell their stories for them.

Rest in peace, brother.

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Robert O. Carlson became an aviator later in the war and retired from the Navy in 1964. LCDR Carlson will be inurned with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 21, 2008.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A reminder from a former president.

From the remarks of President John F. Kennedy to the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy, August 1, 1963:

"Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worth while, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.'"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Get Well, Arnie

Arnie Carruthers uses a wheelchair and has the use of only one of his hand. If that's all you knew about this member of the Navy Musicians Association, you might not guess he's a talented, progressive jazz pianist.

But if you've played with him at an NMA reunion, or sat in the bar while the band was wailing, you know that Arnie still has a lot to play.

You may know that Arnie was in an automobile accident a while back. He's undergoing rehab in a Spokane, Washington heath care facility. Arnie's shipmate from the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard band, Jim La Flame, has given me Arnie's address--you can send an "Ahoy" to Arnie at:

Arnie Carruthers
The Gardens on University
414 S. University, Rm. 12
Spokane, WA 99206.

Monday, October 27, 2008

When Frank Came Marching Home

Here in small-town Middle America, the safe return of a local soldier is a big deal. We hang flags on street corners and nail "Welcome Home" signs on phone poles. Alert residents track our hometown hero's approach by cell phone, and by the time his or her motorcycle escort crosses the county line, we're lining the streets.

There were no parades when I came home from my first tour back in the '70s. No loudspeakers blasting "Anchors Aweigh," no motorcycle escorts, no speeches from the mayor.

Things were different back then. People just didn't understand the sacrifices we MUs were making in San Francisco.

Big Band rehearsals, sometimes as often as two a day. Showband trips with pit stops at California wineries. Bumpy cable car rides to clubs where Mose Allison was playing. Arduous evenings at the EM club where one of the trumpet players worked as a bartender.

Nope, they didn't shoot off fireworks when Frank Mullen came home. They must have thought a two-year tour at Navy Band San Francisco was some sort of extended party.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Remembering My Mentors

"E=MC2" may not be Count Basie's best album. But it's the one I grew up with, the one I found in my father's record collection and listened to so frequently during my high school and college years that I memorized each pop and scratch along with each shout chorus, solo and punch figure.

The album's arranger, Neal Hefti, who helped shape the sound of the postwar Count Basie Orchestra, died last week. He has always been my favorite arranger. In a sense, he was my first arranging teacher.

Just as composers of the Baroque era learned their craft by hand-copying the scores of the masters, I learned about Big Band music by sitting at the piano in the living room for hours, gradually learning to plunk out and harmonize every note of "The Kid From Red Bank," "Li'l Darlin'" and "Teddy the Toad."

Unlike the Baroque composers, I didn't write out the scores; I couldn't figure out how to notate jazz rhythms. The ensemble chord on the downbeat of the third measure of "Li'l Darlin'" came, somehow, before the downbeat but after the last 8th-note of the second measure. Jazz education hadn't arrived in high schools and colleges in the Sixties, so I had no way to learn about jazz notation. Swing sounded to me as though it should be written in 12/8, but every book about jazz said swing was "in four." I tried writing out the opening trumpet line to "Flight of the Foo Birds" using dotted 8ths and 16ths, but the result looked like the tracks of a wounded pigeon.

After college, I gigged for a few years as solo pianist and with small groups, learning tunes by ear and from fake books, but when I joined the Navy in 1974, I'd never played in a Big Band, still never seen how swing is notated.

On my first day in the Basic Course at the Navy School of Music, I sat down at the piano in "C Band," the beginning-level ensemble into which all new arrivals were funneled. The director, MUC Ed Rodgers, started the rehearsal by asking the sax section to play their opening section. After the conglomeration of Army and Marines had thoroughly butchered the first four bars of "Brownsville Station," the chief stopped them and said the words that live in me to this day:

"Remember what we talked about yesterday? Swing is written with regular 8th-notes, but you interpret them with a swing feel."

My ears became as focused as the latest active listening devices.

"You lengthen the downbeat 8ths," the chief said, "and shorten the offbeat 8ths."

My mind began to envision the rolling trumpet line of "Flight of the Foo Birds" as a pure string of 8th-notes.

"So, it's like 12/8?" asked a young soldier.

"Sort of," Chief Rodgers said. "But written only with 8ths." God of All Things That Swing, You have saved me. "You add a little lift to the offbeat 8ths," the chief added. "That's what really make swing swing."

The earth shifted beneath my corfram shoes, and room 2-B-5 swayed around me. In a second, everything fell back into place. I now knew everything I'd joined the Navy to learn. There was no reason to stick around this silly school any longer. I decided to put in my papers for early retirement so I could head for L.A., New York, or any other musical hub where my skills were in urgent need.

Chief Rodgers and the Training Officer, however, wanted Seaman Mullen to stick around the Navy a little longer.

I'm glad I did.

In my first band, Navy Band San Francisco, I worked for MU1 Doyle Church, a recent graduate of the Advanced Course. I wanted to arrange, and Doyle was willing to help. Even after working hours, he'd sit down with me and pass on his knowledge of swing lines and chord voicings.

Eventually I became the band's staff arranger, a job I also held in Navy Band Newport, where Ed Rodgers was now running the Show Band. He was not only glad to use my arrangements, but willing to pass on tricks of the trade that arrangers can only learn from experienced band directors. By the time I returned to the School for the Intermediate Course, I couldn't imagine what anyone could teach me.

MUC Jim Miller walked into arranging class on the first day and told us he would test our knowledge of chord spelling. Ooh-rah, I thought to myself--another chance for MU2 Mullen to demonstrate his expertise.

"Take out a piece of paper," the chief said, "and write down the pitches in each chord symbol I show you." He held up a flash card: F#min7b5.

Piece of cake, I thought, and began writing the pitches: F#, A, C--

"Next," came Chief Miller's voice. I looked up and saw he was already holding up another card: Abdim7.

"Slow down, Chief," someone called from the back of the room.

"This is slow," Chief Miller responded. "Now we'll pick up the pace." EbAug7. C#maj6. Amin/maj7. The cards came faster than I could think. It was small comfort the next day to learn that I'd failed the test with a 2.2 and still got the highest grade in the class.

But I eventually learned what Chief Miller wanted us to understand: the arranger must know the basics without thinking, so he can concentrate on the art instead of laboring over elementary things.

MUCS Roy Mahoney became a mentor during my tour as piano instructor at the school. I could walk into my Branch Head's office at any hour with a question, and Roy would drop what he was working on, which was usually a Big Band arrangement for the Faculty Lab Band.

"Is it okay to use parallel minor seconds in the inner voices of a section?" I once asked him.

"What the hell kind of question is that?" he asked through the cloud of cigarette smoke that always filled his office.

"An honest question?" I replied. You had to observe the formalities with Roy.

"Weren't you paying attention in Lab Band rehearsal yesterday?" he bellowed. We'd run down an arrangement of "Satin Doll" Roy had recently completed, a chart that added some welcome tension to that old favorite. Roy now fired up an unfiltered Camel, pulled the score off the top of his piano, spread it on his desk and jabbed his forefinger at a spot on the first page.

"Here, parallel minor seconds between trumpets two and three," he said. He flipped a few pages. "This whole phrase is filled with parallel minor seconds between tenor saxes."

Roy was not the gentlest of mentors, but the most direct. He encouraged me to write for his Faculty Lab Band and treated me as his peer during rehearsals.

I did four tours at the Navy School of Music as a student and instructor. I learned a lot as a student and teacher, but never more than when I engaged in the Navy's oldest and truest method of training, one sailor showing another the ropes.

Tex Waldron told me I didn't need augmented-flat-diminished 15th chords in every measure, and passed on the proof: copies of arrangements John Fluck had written for the U.S. Navy Show Band. Jack Miller taught me there is a difference between G# and Ab, no matter what the trombone players think. Dave Johnson showed me that the best way to identify a problem with your concert band arrangement is to have someone else conduct it.

In 1986, the Seventh Fleet Band was heading to Australia on a destroyer, and I had commandeered an empty rack in an unoccupied storage room. I was lying down one afternoon when one of my guys walked in, a young trumpet player and budding arranger.

"Got a minute, Chief?" he asked. I'd been up half the night before and was about to take an afternoon snooze. Before I could chase him away, he said, "You know your arrangement of "Waltzing Matilda" we rehearsed this morning?"

Yeah, yeah, I thought, the kid's gonna bitch about the music. That's what they all do.

"I was wondering," he said, "how you made that quick modulation from F to Ab at letter "C."

I slid out of my rack and located the score. "Simple," I said, my forefinger pointing to the phrase in question. "It's a simple two-five progression."

"But you wrote it in the chiefs' mess last night without a piano. How did you know the modulation would sound right?"

"Let me show you something," I said. "Pull up a couple of those chairs while I find some manuscript paper."

I was a little slow--the kid was already dragging the chairs into place.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I may have to change political parties.

During the presidential debate tonight, John McCain took a question from a member of the audience who identified himself as a retired Navy chief.

The senator began his response with the line every politician gives to every vet: "Thank you for your service to the country."

But he didn't stop there. "I want to say," McCain added, "everything I ever learned about leadership I learned from a chief petty officer."

Now, that's the straight talk I've heard so much about.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sinatra, that Old Realistic and memories

In my other life, I write a weekly column for a newspaper group in the Illinois/Iowa Quad Cities.

This week's column deals, in part, with my Navy years. You can read it online at the Rock Island Argus, or right here.

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Sinatra, that Old Realistic and memories

Rock Island Argus 09/25/08
Frank Mullen III

It's cleanup week in my town, time to haul out the unused, the derelict, those gewgaws whose last-century luster has faded. In a few days a truck will collect from the roadside whatever has survived the parade of bargain hunters.

A half-hour ago I put my old stereo system out by the driveway, and it's gone already.

I hope a kid took it.

I was a young sailor when I bought the Realistic stereo components at a Norfolk, Virginia Radio Shack in 1979. The turntable plugs into a metal amplifier with three--three!--tone controls. The bookshelf speakers are the size of microwave ovens and the weight of Toyotas.

Old Realistic still works fine, but its retirement date has come.

Enjoy it, kid, but be forewarned:

My stereo was factory-wired for melancholy.

I've always been a fan of Frank Sinatra. I bought the setup because my portable record player was too small to reproduce The Voice. Listening to "Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie" on this new rig for the first time was like sitting on stage with the band. I swore I could hear the third trombone player snickering at Frank's lame jokes.

But it wasn't this ring-a-ding, hipster Sinatra that sounded best on the Realistic; it was the late-night barroom balladeer. The stereo came into my life just as my first wife left it, and many a night I slid a record on the turntable, and suddenly it was fifteen minutes until closing time and Sinatra was asking the bartender for "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)."

I wasn't the only Frank who knew heartache.

Old Realistic also played my high school favorites: the Beatles, yeah, yeah, yeah, and the Beach Boys, whose harmonies splashed around my apartment like an endless wave.

But the stereo's finest sounds came when moonlight washed over the speakers, when "In the Wee Small Hours" was playing and Sinatra's heart was breaking mine.

Through the '80s the stereo accompanied me to naval bases up and down the East Coast. It has outlived many of the performers it brought into my living room. Two Beach Boys and two Beatles are gone. In the '90s, I hooked up a radio tuner to the stereo just in time to hear that Frank Sinatra had died.

My rock 'n' roll idols were big stars, but Sinatra was a giant. While the young Beatles were still learning to tune their guitars, Sinatra was showing that an album can do more than promote a few sappy songs; it can take the listener on a journey.

Perhaps you've never heard one of his recordings. But every time you hear a singer sell a love song so hard that you can't help buying it, you're hearing the echo of the man who taught generations of singers how to phrase a lyric. Think J. Lo has been around forever? Sinatra had a hit record in every decade from the '30s to the '90s, his voice growing deep with time, ripe with age.

CD players didn't exist when my stereo was designed, but you can plug one into the amplifier, kid. Crank it up.

But some evening while your favorite rock group is rattling the bedroom walls, you may unconsciously shake your head as though you heard something.

You did. It was Frank Sinatra under a streetlight on a distant corner, singing "I'll Never Smile Again."

Take care of Old Realistic, kid. There's a lot of good music hidden in that metal box, if you'll just listen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ah! Men!

Now and then I search the web for videos of the USS Blue Ridge, on which I served with the 7th Fleet Band.

And I find them: sailors climbing down ladders, joking in the passageways, streaming down the gangplank for liberty call.

The old tub looks just like she did two decades ago, with one exception: a lot of those sailors are women.

I don't object; whatever makes the Navy better and stronger is good. Women have come a long way since my day, when most bands had only a few junior women. Those of us who enjoyed the Navy Band's performance in Memphis this year noted that many of the senior sailors, the MU1s, were women. If the Navy has decided that including women on ships at sea makes for a better fighting force, I'm all for it.

Still, I've always got a kick out of Martin Mull's viewpoint on ships and gender. Here's his psuedo sea chanty "Men," dubbed over some movie footage.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Picking the Commander-in-Chief

In these dangerous times, you hear the question everywhere: when choosing a president, how important is military experience?

I think it's crucial. In fact, it's the only thing that matters. 

Frank Mullen for President

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Navy Hero is Recognized

(Springfield, Ill.) The Illinois Department of Motor Vechicles has issued a new license plate honoring former Chief Musician Frank Mullen III, United States Navy.

"Every hero doesn't have a chest full of medals," said Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich during a ceremony on the Statehouse steps. "The Frank Mullen Unsung Hero License Plate honors all veterans whose heroism was more of a state of mind than an actual accomplishment."

The license plate, shown below, depicts one of the highest honors won by Chief Mullen.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NMA Geezer Rock

This morning I took my guitar out of its case for the first time since the reunion in Memphis and found the set list for the rock band's Saturday night performance:

"I Get By With a Little Help from Depends"

"You Are the Sunshine of My Life-support System"

"Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Walker"

"Sixty-six Candles"

"Papa's Got a Brand New Colostomy Bag"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Give this guy a medal

[Update below]

Sometimes it's not Carnegie Hall. Sometimes you don't have a state-of-the-art sound system. Sometimes you aren't swarmed by thousands of excited fans.

But every audience deserves the best you've got. The full show. That's what you get paid for. That's what professionalism demands.

Here's a guy who knows that. He's fronting the Fleet Forces Band in the Philippines during the 2007 Pacific Partnership humanitarian cruise. He's not saving his best for a TV show or concert hall. He's giving his all.

This is Navy music at its best.

Update -- In an earlier version, I misidentified this band. Thanks to Bob Marquart for passing on corrections.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Leo Leary back in action

Many of us learned last fall that NMA member Leo Leary had suffered a serious stroke.

A few days ago Bob Marquart ran into him at a Norfolk Tides baseball game. Leo was puttering around on a three-wheeled scooter, as Bob says, "about 60 pounds lighter and just lookin' good."

Bob adds that Leo still has some arm and leg issues, but he's "bouncing back strong." He's been on a few cruises with his wife and is now back to work full time at his bar, Dockers.

Leo attributes his recovery to obeying a strict therapy regimen. On behalf of all who know and love him, may I say that it's good to see Lieutenant Leary finally doing what he's told.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Don't let bigotry sink the ship

Every Navy Musicians Association reunion builds a stronger sense of friendship. In Memphis we wrote down each others' email addresses on NMA notepads and cocktail napkins, brought them home and updated our address books and mailing lists. Email is a great tool for keeping camaraderie alive.

Email is also a great tool for spreading racism and religious bigotry. Since the reunion some shipmates have started sending me jokes about encouraging Muslims to commit suicide, pickaninny jokes about a black presidential candidate and other such crap.

Please stop.

The NMA--like the USA--is white, black, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jew and None of the Above. Yet we in the NMA are blessed with something special and unifying, a history of service and a common bond of experience that draws us together.

Please, my shipmates, do not weaken that bond with bigotry and bias. Hate is corrosive, and rust can sink a ship.

It's a free country and you can send messages of division to whomever you want. But let me be clear: when you send such demeaning trash to me, you only demean yourself.

Please don't send me bigoted garbage. I don't want it.

Not in my inbox.

Not in my Navy.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

1986 - USS Blue Ridge visits Sydney, Australia

My old shipmates from the 7th Fleet Band will remember this party. The USS Blue Ridge joined ships of navies from around the world in the visit to Sydney, Australia, for the 75th Birthday Celebration of the Royal Australian Navy.

You'll see the manning of the rails and the doffing of covers while "hip-hip-hooraying" Prince Phillip during the massive nautical Pass in Review. The XO of the Blue Ridge made a training video of this maneuver that was broadcast endlessly continuously over the ship's closed-circuit TV station. The crew finally had the dialogue memorized and would greet each other in passageways saying, "Remove your cover and wave it in a clockwise motion," "Try to show some enthusiasm," and "Now, let's look at that from another angle."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lexicon Update

I've updated the ever-popular Navy Musicians Lexicon. If you haven't been there in a while click here and refresh your vocabulary.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Importance of Navy Ratings

Four sailors stand on the deck arguing about the merits of their ratings.

"We hull technicians keep us afloat," says the first.

"Quartermasters get us where we're going," says the second.

As the disbursing clerk and electrician's mate join the fray, the ship hits an iceberg, sinks, and all hands are lost. In seconds, the four sailors find themselves standing on a cloud before the Pearly Gates.

"What's the problem?" St. Peter asks the unruly group.

"We can't agree on which Navy rating is the most important," answers the hull technician.

"That doesn't matter here," says St. Peter. "All are equally treasured in heaven."

The sailors grumble for a moment. The quartermaster finally says, "We're not coming in until we find out which is the most important rating."

"Very well," says St. Peter. He raises his arms wide and a dove descends from the skies carrying in its beak a glistening white paper. A harp glissando resounds as the dove lands on St. Peter's shoulder. The saint takes the sheet of paper and reads the message aloud:




The Navy's mission depends on the effective integration of all its ratings. While some may require more rigorous training and hold its members to higher standards than others, all ratings are honored in heaven. Accept this and enjoy your eternal reward.



Friday, July 4, 2008

Thursday, July 3, 2008

In Thanks to St. John of Branam

I once asked my bandmaster why he'd stopped rehearsing a certain piece. The showband had been working on it for days, but progress had slowed.

"You have to know when to stop," Chief Warrant Officer Waldron said. "Eventually, you hit the point of diminishing returns."

Like so many of Tex's teachings, this one was a lifesaver when I became a bandleader. The time comes when you have to put music aside, imperfect, unfinished, and move on to the next piece.

John Branam had abundant opportunity to face this challenge during the reunion. As the new rehearsal director for the Navy Musicians Association reunion, John faced the built-in conundrum of this unique position: the NMA rehearsal director can't spend much time rehearsing.

We've got hundreds of charts to play through. One will obviously never sound right, no matter how much work we put into it. Another lays well the first time through and needs no further polishing. A third is fun to read but sounds like hell. A fourth would be great if we just had time to woodshed our parts.

So many charts, so little time. We've got a dance coming up on Saturday. We just want to play together for the enjoyment. We also want to develop our ensemble sound. "Could we take five? I gotta make a head call." The pianist hasn't shown up yet. The second alto doesn't have page two of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore. "Hey, man, can't we just read through this one more time?

Sound familiar?

Thanks, John, for volunteering to be the guy who stands in front of the band at the end of a swing tune that needs just a little tinkering here, a bit of tampering there, looks at his watch and says:

"Put that one away and get up #179, "Girl Talk."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Navy Lyres June Report

At the beginning of June, visits to Navy Lyres amounted to 5 or 6 visits per day. I was happy with this small readership, considering how little work I put into keeping the site going.

Then, as I saw the Navy Musicians Association reunion approaching, I improved my product and promoted it.

Improvement was simple: I provided frequent updates. Websites need fresh content like bands need new arrangements.

Promotion was more difficult. I contacted former MUs with functional email addresses and told them about my plans to "live-blog" the NMA reunion.

In a few days, Navy Lyres got 15 visits in one day and I was astounded.

Then word of mouth kicked in--NMA members told their friends and I began to hear from former MUs who haven't yet joined our organization. The day before the reunion started Navy Lyres had 41 visits.

Activity grew through the week: the last day of the reunion brought 68 visits.

Yesterday was the high point, with 76 visits, and that single-digit daily average has grown to 66. If this rate stays steady, I'll have 2 billion visits per day by the middle of next week.

That won't happen of course. The reason for yesterday's spike is simple: members have returned home from Memphis and are turning on their computers to check on the reunion coverage.

I'm not going to strain too many muscles patting myself on the back. Compared to YouTube, this site is a flyspeck. I'd be happy to hang on to even half of the current traffic as the year goes by.

But this has shown me the power of promotion. And promotion is exactly what it takes to grow an organization such as ours. It doesn't take a website or technical Internet knowledge. All it takes is an occasional phone call to an old friend. That's how Terry Chesson sucked me in a few years ago.

We already have a tremendous product in the Navy Musicians Association. As this year goes by, let's remember to promote it to those who haven't yet joined.

Monday, June 30, 2008

On the Optional Nature of Spirits

Looking back, I see that my posts from Memphis frequently refer to evenings in the lounge.

For those who have not yet attended a Navy Musicians Association reunion, let me emphasize that our get-togethers are not mandatory drunk fests.

Whereas some reunion organizations have hospitality rooms somewhere in the hotel, NMA members traditionally gather in the lounge at night. Rhythm section equipment is always available, members bring their axes, and we fill the joint with music and fellowship.

There's plenty of spirit, but alcohol is absolutely optional. Many of us enjoy the fun without drinking. I, for instance, hit the lounge nightly and--this will lift the eyebrows of those who knew me in the good old days--I haven't had a drink in decades.

This is not to say there aren't a few bleary-eyed MUs wandering the hotel lobby in the morning. But, as we used to say, if you're going to hoot with the owls . . .

Almost Home

I'm in a motel in southern Illinois. Only a few more hours and I'll be home, ready to go online and wrap up the reunion coverage.

Here's one thing I know for sure: after a few days in the Marriott, a night in the Super-8 Motel has lost its thrill.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Crackerjack Performance

LT David LaTour conducts Navy Band Mid-South in "Army of the Nile" during the patriotic opener for the Saturday night dinner/dance.

NMA President Terry Chesson thanks Navy band Mid-South with the highest possible accolade one musical organization can offer another: an invitation to dinner with head-of-the-chow-line privileges.

As much pride as we former Navy musicians take in our service, our history and our musical abilities, today's active duty MUs are without equal.

Of course, these youngsters have an advantage. Nowadays they use these new things--"dynamics," I believe they're called-- that really add interest and variety to marches. If we'd had such gizmos back when I conducted the 7th Fleet Band, we might have given them a run for their money.

Goodbye, Memphis

Goodbye, geezers playing "Mustang Sally."

Goodbye, "Li'l Darlin'" played at the right tempo.

Goodbye, young sailors in laser-white uniforms playing a rendition of "Anchors Aweigh" that brings bent-over old men to ramrod attention.

Goodbye, bartenders who scuffled each night to keep things flowing.

Goodbye, volunteers whose sweat made this go so smoothly.

Goodbye, Marriott, hotel by whose high standard of service all our future venues will be judged.

Goodbye, Tex and Dee and Terry and Howard and Bill and John and Mel and Lee and Ralph, Merv, David, Bob, Kim Debbie Chris Doyle Wilbur and an entire boatload of friends who have made this and unforgettable week.

I'll be home tomorrow and resume posting. There's a lot to add.

Goodbye, shipmates.

Memphis 2008: taps

The equipment is torn down and stowed for departure tomorrow morning.

Last goodbyes are going down in the lounge.

There is much to say about tonight's banquet. And I will say it. I plan to provide a wrap-up report when I get home. More pictures. More sea stories.

But not now. It's late and tomorrow comes soon.

Now, taps. Taps.

All lights out.

Maintain silence about the decks.

Now, taps.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

We clean up well

I'm sitting in the lounge with my wife and the Holls. It's almost time for the evening festivities.

You see MUs and spouses wandering the hotel in their Saturday evening best, and we look pretty good.

Which is appropriate. I've just found out we're having a visit from Navy Band Mid-South this evening. Last year's performance by the CINCLANT band--or whatever it's called now--was the screaming, hollering highlight of the week, and we're expecting no less from this group.

It's good to be dressed for the occasion.

Sorry to blog in advance here, it will be a busy night. No doubt we'll wind up back in the lounge for late-night farewells.

And I'll be on the spot with the poop, the scoop and the skinny.

If I can stay awake that long.

A short note on shipmates.

I just spent some time talking with Dennis Bear. I look forward to seeing this shipmate every year.

I also look forward to Ralph Hasty's dry sense of humor throughout the year.

I never knew either of these gentlemen during my Navy days. I met them both at NMA reunions of the past.

Membership in the Navy Musicians Association has done more than reunite me with old friends; it's given me a boatload of new friends.

And it doesn't stop. This year I've met John Branam, Bob Powers, Jim Richards, O.J. Casoli. While we never served together, we share the common experience of past service and present camaraderie.

All the more reason to look forward to next year in Virginia Beach.

NMA Reunion 2010: San Antonio

The NMA annual meeting is concluded and it's official: the 2010 reunion will be in San Antonio in June of 2010. The exact date is not yet set, but there's no doubt that the eyes of Texas will be upon us.

At last night's concert, Mel Leketa performed Hoagie Carmichael's "Memphis is June." I suppose in 2010, we'll have a vocal group doing the Mills Brothers' "Across the Alley from the Alamo."

A.M Scuttlebutt

The business meeting will begin shortly, so I have time only for some quick stories.

-- It is said that at the trip to Graceland, an NMA spouse prostrated herself on Elvis's grave.

-- The veracity of this story however, is contradicted by Tex Waldron's claim to have seen Elvis at a local 7-11.

-- As yet, there is no explanation for the unplanned conglomeration of simultaneous saxophone solos during the Seven O'clock Band's performance last night. It was an intriguing moment for performers and audience alike .

Friday, June 27, 2008

Concert Band: Bravo Zulu

It was a busy day in dreamland. After a few days of nonstop activity, I finally crashed.

Which refreshed me for the Friday night Concert Band performance. This group gets better every year, and they were darn good the first time I heard them a few years ago.

More about this later. The action will continue in a few minutes with Big Band performances, in which I'll play. And then, well, I suspect one or two or a hundred of us will head to the lounge to keep things going.


Big Band Rehearsal at 0700

Director: "Get up 263, the Ellington medley."

Drummer: "I don't have a part."

3rd trombone: "It wouldn't do you any good."

Piano: "My third page is missing."

3rd Trombone: "So play the second page twice."

Bari Sax: "I gotta go to the bathroom."

4th Trumpet: "Who's got the solo at 'D'?"

1st Tenor: "I can't play at seven in the morning."

2nd Alto: "You can't play at seven at night."

Drums: "Where'd you get that coffee?."

4th Trombone: "None of your damn business."

1st Trombone: "I feel like someone dropped an anvil on my head."

1st Alto: "Is this straight or in swing?"

Bass: "What's the difference?"

Director: "One, two, one, two, three, four."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Frank Mullen: OMBC

Actually, this is all I ever wanted out of joining the NMA: a Navy ball cap.

Old men in ball caps (OMBCs) would come up to you after a concert in the park and tell you they were in the Navy in the Spanish American War, so maybe you knew his friend, Ebeneezer Smith. And you'd smile and be polite because that was your job.

And now, I'm gonna be one of those guys. Every time a military band comes to my town I'll put on my ball cap and drive the bandmaster crazy with my incessant questions.

He'll be polite to me and call me sir and say he's enjoyed talking to me; that's his job.

Excuse 43: "I haven't played in years."

"But I haven't played in decades."

Nope, the excuse didn't work."

"But I haven't played with a big band since the school."

That one didn't work either. John Johnson isn't the first former MU to be dragged kicking and screaming onto the bandstand.

And to make it easy for John, the director called up a Buddy Rich chart; you know, one of those easy-listening affairs with alternating bars of 3, 7, and 13 1/2.

No problem. We're not here to cut each other down. We're the best audience a rusty MU can play for; a room full of MUs.

Putting together an NMA reunion

NMA Executive Vice-President Bob Leketa's efforts are visible at every reunion; he's been organizing them since the last century.

Over breakfast Bob told me what goes into selecting the hotel for an NMA reunion.

Once the board of directors has settled on a geographic region for a coming reunion, Bob goes to work. He contacts prospective hotels and examines their informational packages. He weeds out the "impossibles" and creates the shortlist.

As the process narrows down, the negotiations begin. Bob gained his expertise by OJT--on the job training--and has learned to spot the b.s.

"I'll tell them, 'I'm not a rookie,'" he says. "'Just give me the bottom line.'"

Bob's double-secret weapon: nightly NMA jam sessions in the hotel lounge.

Management often balks at the unique requirement that the NMA take over the lounge for the duration of the reunion. But Bob knows how to overcome this resistance. "I tell them they'll break records on bar sales. That's all they need to hear."

This all happens months and years in advance. The board has made its decision on the region for the 2010 reunion, and Bob will soon go to work.

And that reunion will be held in . . . well, I'm not at liberty to say. The region will be officially announced on Saturday at the business meeting. As soon as that happens, you'll read it here.

Along with the regular b.s.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

NMA concert band begins

Revised Change 19.b.12e scheduled concert band rehearsal for 7PM last night, and there were concerns.

Would members get the word of the change?? Would they show up, after a long, busy day? Would the quality be sufficient to perform a concert in only a few days?

Yes, yes, and hell, yes.

Conductor Wilbur Smith had wondered how many players would come, but the rehearsal room was packed. Even those sections that are often shorthanded were full, including a luxurious four man--and--woman french horn section.

Like any first rehearsal, there were rough spots. But after the players were warmed up, things started to click.

Sure, I love the jazz, the jamming, the jive of these reunions. We all do.

But the concert band's performance always lifts us in a different way.

The audience sits back and enjoys movie themes, marches and medleys. But a point comes when things get serious. Those vital components of Navy band concerts--"The Navy Hymn," "America the Beautiful," "Anchors Aweigh"--mean more to us now.

As the recruiting posters used to say, it's more than just a job.

Hooting with the owls

Oy, I was up late last night.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Yowza, Yowza.

This place is jumping. The combo is jamming. Terry Chesson just took a solo. Bill Hocke, an old shipmate just arrived--haven't seen him since forever.

This is the last chorus of "Lady is a Tramp." There's the stinger. It's over. Applause.

You can hear Tex Waldron's voice over a four-horn front line. There it is again.

Lee Hudson is tuning his bass. Good, Lee. We all thank you. (Lee is my arch-enemy. I've forgiven him--sort of--for the duration of this reunion. Let's just say he's on probation.)

Now it's "Night and Day" as a Latin. Seems to work.

I'll be back later.

Plan of the Day

Something new this year: the rehearsal board, always up-to-the-minute, always accurate, always comprehensive.
Until Change 1. And then Change 1.B. And Revised Change 13 vice Change 11.C.a. which replaces Supernumerary Change 14.F.d.3.

Just like the old days.

Director: "There's something wrong at the end. Let's take the last four bars."

2nd Trombone: "Could you back it up to letter 'M' so we can try those triplets again?"

1st Tenor: "How about that unison section at 'G'?"

Lead Trumpet: "Man, we gotta nail that double-forte line at 'C.'"

Director: "Take it from the top."

Breaking in the new rehearsal director

You remember what it's like when a new man takes over. The band needs to assert itself, to let the new guy know how it's done.

And the new guy needs to make it clear who the boss is and how he's gonna do it. It can be a battle royale.

But not this morning. At 0915 our new director, John Branam, stood in front of the big band for the first time, surveyed the situation and made the right decision.

"Number 151 in the book," he said. "'Li'l Darlin.'"

A cheery good morning.

I remember this. You wake up in a motel bed, clean up, grab some coffee and ask yourself the important questions: where's the gig today and, more importantly, what did I do last night.

The gig today starts with 0900 rehearsal, right here in the hotel, of course. Because this is the first day of the reunion, we'll have to set up first: fronts, drums, piano, amps, cords, bari saxes, cases. All this accomplished by half-asleep MUs bitching about the hour, complaining about the room, the lights, the rug and the state of the Brazilian economy. Sound familiar?

As far as last night is concerned: we rocked the lounge. Lee Hudson, my former arch-enemy, now NMA buddy, brought his tuba and joined us in a few rounds of dixieland. We did swing tunes and a bumping-grinding version of "Girl Talk" that almost made me start stripping behind the piano.

Because there are no admirals looking over our shoulders, we took rather long breaks. When the MU audience wanted more music, they banged on the tables until the next set started.

I've played a few gigs in my life and I have to say--that was the first time the table-banging was a request for more music.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I'm goin' to check out the fun

I'm in my room on the 14th floor, getting ready to head down to the lounge. Members have been off to dinner--those who have tried it say Memphis barbecue is unlike any other, meaning hot hot hot.

They'll return to the hotel soon and start drifting into the lounge. We'll put a rhythm section together, they'll start playing and, before the first chorus of "A Foggy Day" is done, horns will come out of cases.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe we'll all have a glass of ginger ale, wish each other nitey-nite and be in our beddie-beds before the sun goes down.

And maybe pigs will fly.

A broken man

My old nemesis, bassist Lee Hudson, sits at the bar alone, pondering his mistakes and planning his repentance. When he finishes, he will join the festivities.

And I will welcome him, for I have learned to let bygones be bygones.

That, and we need a bass player tonight.

He tried to shoot me in the back

I'll say this for Wilbur Smith: He was fast.

I was talking with Kim Holl at the bar. It was only mid-afternoon, but the MUs had discovered the lounge.

Smitty must have thought he could outshoot me. But you don't live as long as I have without knowing what's going on behind you. I figured he'd be gunning for me, and was on my toes. Something told me it was time; I turned and, before he could draw a bead on me, nailed him with my Canon 510.

Yes, Smitty was fast.

Fast, but not the fastest.

NMA Cookbook

I got hungry just looking through this new publication, available at the NMA ship's store.

It's got everything except Frank Mullen's Sunday Morning Hangover Remedy. My famous recipe is a lifesaver when unexpected guests arrive and all you've got is a jar of pickled pigs feet, a stick of butter and of couple of raw eggs.

Early Check-in

Yep, MUs are checking aboard. Debbie Holl has opened the registration room. The ship's store is here, too, featuring new shirts and windbreakers. I've got my eyes on the shipment of new NMA ball caps.

The rhythm section equipment is now set up, ready for the early jamming that is likely to begin in a few hours.

The tide is coming in.

A quick word with the rehearsal director

These reunions aren't just about old friends. They're about new friends, too.

In the lobby I spotted John Branam. I've seen him at reunions before, but never met him. He was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That led to stories of that era, of course, but we quickly came back to the present.

John is taking over as rehearsal director this year, a job that Terry Chesson handled before his election to the NMA presidency. He says he's looking forward to the job of organizing Big Band rehearsals, and won't wait too long to begin. If we have enough players, we'll start tomorrow morning.

That's ambitious; it' s hard to predict who will be here, what instrumentation will be on board.

But our sessions are not only about musical excellence.

"It's about the camaraderie," John told me.

As I talk to the officers and volunteers, I hear that word a lot.

The Membership Grows

A few weeks ago I went through the NMA roster, separating active email addresses from old, non-functional addresses. I would have sworn I went through four or five hundred names.

My estimate was low, according to Bob Leketa, NMA Executive Vice-president.

"We're up to 620 this year," he tells me. "Our annual growth rate is 11.8 percent."

The Marriott is experienceing its own growth rate today as the MUs file in. I'm headed to the lobby to see who's wandering around.

Morning Report - Tues, 24JUN08

Waves of activity are lapping on the shores of the Memphis Marriott this morning. Navy Musicians Association President Terry Chesson tells me the registration room will open sometime today, the day before the reunion officially begins.

Terry also says a couple of my old bosses will arrive today: Tex Waldron, my old bandmaster, and Jack Dye, my first MCPOW (Master Chief Petty Officer of the World).

Also scheduled to arrive today: my arch-enemy, Lee Hudson. Hudbucket and I have been at war with each other since the Newport Wars of the mid-1980s. Seeing him for the first time in a quarter-century will be a test: can we take the high ground treat each other with dignity and respect, or will our relationship devolve into snipery, slander and barroom backstabbing?

Should things deteriorate, we know whose fault it will be . . .

The Daily Poop - Tues, 23 June

Fancy, schmancy. The lobby of the Marriott is quiet this AM. This will change as the days goes by--30 members will file in today. Four other organizations are meeting here, and scores of other guests will be in attendance.

And the combo will set up in an alcove between the lounge and the lobby. What this means is that the cozy conversation pit in the lobby pictured here will soon be prime seating for the evening jam sessions.

I'm off to see what's what and who's who. NMA President Terry Chesson is here, and I haven't seen him yet.

I'll be back later this morning or early afternoon with more scoop and poop.

Monday, June 23, 2008


What looks like an eight-hour trip on the map turns into an eleven-hour trek. This will sound familiar from the road-trip days.

But my wife and I are at the Memphis Marriott, safe, sound, and impressed by the facilities. The hotel is visible from the interstate and easy to reach. It's within walking distance of an IHOP, Arby's, Popeyes, Taco Bell, a Chinese restaurant and other fine dining opportunities. The Marriott has a restaurant, of course, but Jo and I went to IHOP for road food.

This old MU doesn't trip the light fantastic with the endurance of his younger days. Bob Leketa and Kim Holl are out on the patio having a drink. I'll join them for a few minutes and then crash.

(Bob says that we've got 30 rooms reserved for tomorrow night. Looks like it's the usual routine--the yakking and jamming will begin the day before the reunion officially begins.)

Hasta la manana, amigos.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tomorrow: Memphis.

Car is packed.

Departure tomorrow 0530.

Navy Lyres will be dark until arrival in Memphis, est. 1600.

Now Taps.


All lights out. Maintain silence about the decks.


The Daily Poop - Sun, 22JUN08

  • -- Guitar, Electric, 1 each.
    -- Amplifier, portable, 1 each.
    -- Gigbag (Cords, picks, etc.), 1 each.
I'm packing the car today, because I'll be leaving for Memphis tomorrow morning at zero dark thirty.
  • -- NMA shirts, polo, two pair.
    -- NMA shirt, tee, 1 each.
    -- Trousers, presentable, 4 pair.
The Mississippi River and it's tributaries are still flooding some roads, so my wife and I may have to alter our route as we drive.
  • -- Road atlas, Rand McNally, 1 each.
    -- Weather radio, portable, 1 each.

This site has had about 200 visits in this last week. Many MUs who can't attend the reunion this year have told me they'll get the highlights here at Navy Lyres.

  • -- computer, laptop, 1 each.
    -- Camera, digital, 1 each.
I talked to NMA President Terry Chesson yesterday. He's preparing the agenda for the NMA board of directors' meeting at the reunion, so I didn't take too much of his time. We rehashed a bachelor party that took place in Newport in 1977. It was--well, you had to be there.
  • -- Sea stories, 20,000.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Daily Poop - Sat, 21JUN08

I found sea duty difficult.

As the band's chief, I was the referee of a Texas cage match among sixteen professional wrestlers.

I was the marriage counselor for the sax player who got the bad letter from his wife.

I was trip planner who had to beg for an admiral's barge so the combo would be ashore in time.

I was the guy who sucked up to the laundry petty officer so the trio would have clean whites for the captain's reception.

I was the whipping boy for the MCPOC who hated the band and would have reamed out my boys if I didn't let him unleash it all on me.

I was nursemaid, babysitter, tour director and music theory teacher.

Sometimes I was even the chaplain, the shepherd who brought comfort to the desolate.

And when I got the call in the Indian Ocean that my father was dying, my boys did the same for me.

At times, I wanted to crawl into the nearest empty locker and hold my breath until the cruise was over.

And there were times I felt sorry for everyone in the world who was not, at that very moment, on a ship of the United States Navy in the Indian Ocean conducting this ragtag collection 16-piece bagband through "Anchors Aweigh" during unreps.

Most people, despite their love of country and their respect for our service, cannot understand this.

You, my shipmates, understand.

See you soon in Memphis.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Daily Poop - Fri, 20JUN08

I've been hearing from the OMC community.

Old Men with Computers are trying to email this blog. This cannot be done. This is like wedging a popsicle stick into an alto sax mouthpiece, blowing on it and expecting "Prelude to a Kiss" to come out the bell.

Here's how to get in touch:

To contact me: use the email link on the sidebar on the right.

To leave a message--a "comment"-- here at Navy Lyres for the Entire World to see: use the Scuttlebutt Message Center link on the sidebar on the right.

Don't be an OMC. Say hi to an old shipmate. Chew him out. Give a shout to your old band. Whatever.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Daily Poop - Thurs 19JUN08


From: Frank Mullen in Illinois
To: NMA shipmates across the country

A reminder for those who are driving to the reunion in Memphis: the Midwest is takng on water. The Mississippi River has crested--reached its highest point-- in northern Illinois. This cresting, and its associated travel problems, will move south over the next few days. Other rivers have yet to crest.

An underwater highway or closed bridge can really put a damper on travel plans, so check ahead. Here's a list of sources of travel information for states that may be affected. Click on each state for up-to-date info:

Iowa . . . Arkansas . . .Missouri . . . Tennessee . . . Illinois

And don't forget, your one-stop shop for info on all weather-related warnings.

This list is provided by my wife, St. Jo the Compassionate. She has scoured the internet for the lastest flood-related travel information. Here is her summary as of Wednesday evening, 18JUN08:


--- Interstate travel might be fine, but be prepared for closures of the smaller highways/roads.

--- Especially travelling across Iowa...I-80 is open now,but exits may be closed, so don't count on getting your Big Mac.

--- Mississippi River at St. Louis cresting above flood stage this weekend. Anticipate road closures.

--- Ohio River at Cairo (Illinois) cresting this weekend above flood stage.

--- Flooding along Arkansas River.


Remember that conditions can and will change. Save yourself headaches by checking ahead.

See you in Memphis, safe, sound and dry.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Daily Poop - Wed, 18JUN08

I heard from Dale Vanderpool this morning. Dale was a salty MU2 when I showed up at my first duty station, Navy Band San Francisco.

Packing up after a trio gig at the Treasure Island officers club, I was trying to upend an elephantine Fender Rhodes piano onto a dolly. Keeping my summer whites from contact with this gritty monster required awkward bending, arm's-length reaching, the gnashing of teeth and the swearing of oaths.

Dale looked up from the trap case in which he was stowing his gear.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked.

"What does it look like?" I said. I was very smart when I was a seaman.

"It looks like you're going to break your back and ruin your uniform."

Dale put down a cymbal stand. "You're doing it wrong," he said as he crouched on the opposite side of the Rhodes. "Don't use your back."

We lifted the piano upright. "Use your shipmates," he said. "That's what they're for."

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Daily Poop - Tues, 17JUN08

S.S.S.S. Chapter Formed for Reunion

(Special to Navy Lyres) -- Jo Knox, wife of NMA member Frank Mullen, has announced the formation of Spouses Sick of Sea Stories, a support group whose mission is "to provide spouses of former Navy Musicians a place in the Marriott where they they will not be subjected to repetitive recollections of the good old days."

Jo is inviting NMA spouses to her room at the Marriott for a sea story-free evening of chocolate and television. "Whatever's playing on The Movie Channel," she said, "has got to be more entertaining than those endless sailor fairy tales."

"That's it--no more Show Band stories," Jo Knox warns Terry Chesson at the 2006 NMA reunion as her husband watches in horror.

Ms. Knox is not against the telling of sea stories in principle. "These guys want to get together in the lounge at night and rehash old glories. Believe me, I understand." But her eyes narrow as she considers the plight of the NMA spouses. "We hear this crap all year long. How many times do we have to listen to tales about the time the ship was doing unreps in WESTPAC and the OOD told the MUC over the 1MC that the CO wanted ABC to XYZ the FBI? "

Information on the S.S.S.S gathering will be circulated at the reunion.

The Daily Poop - Mon, 16JUN08

If you're a new visitor here, you've noticed that I'm focusing on the 2008 Navy Musicians Association reunion. June 25-28. (I'll be Live-blogging the reunion from Memphis; read the details here.)

But there's lots of other stuff here; band rosters, reflections on past reunions, complaints, the ever-popular Navy Musicians Lexicon. You can poke through the contents in the sidebar on the right.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Daily Poop - Sun., 15JUN08

I'm still planning to arrive in Memphis on Monday, 23JUN08 to start Live-Blogging the reunion. All I have to do is refine my travel plans.

Normally it would be a simple day's drive from point A, Mercer County, Illinois, to Point B, Memphis, Tennessee. If you look on the map, however, you'll see that much of line A-B is, essentially, the Mississippi River. With the current flooding, taking this direct route would be a Med cruise.

Fortunately, my wife is a superb navigator. She'll find a viable, dry route to Memphis

If she'd been on the bridge of the USS Blue Ridge, we would have spent a lot less time drifting in circles.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Daily Poop - Sat. 14JUN08

Only ten days until the U.S.S. Frank departs for the Navy Musicians Association reunion. (I'll arrive in Memphis a couple days early to start "Live-Blogging the Reunion."


My super-secret tracking device records the "referring site" of visitors to Navy Lyres. Many of you arrive here from

But many find Navy Lyres as a result of searching for something or someone at Google, Yahoo or another search engine. In these cases, the super-secret 'ware tells me--cue the "Twilight Zone" theme--what you were searching for that brought you here.

This is a long way of saying, Yo, Cliff McCoy and Jim Lamb--people are searching for you.


Just got back from the barber. He cut off a more than I expected; quite a bit more, in fact.

I look like a damn sailor.

The Daily Poop - Fri, 13JUN08

Two weeks from today, the Navy Musicians Association reunion will be in full swing.

Though our reunions always begin officially on Wednesday, a handful, like me, come early. I'll arrive in Memphis sometime on Monday, June 23, to schmooze, strut and begin blogging the reunion.

Each year, increasingly more members show up on Tuesday. This means that the night before the reunion has even started, the lounge is jumping with MUs, jamming and jiving.

Wednesday, registration day, is naturally the day that former MUs pour in. But attendees continue to arrive through the week.

At the Friday night bash in the ballroom, we're all together for the first time. The evening's highlight is a performance by the reunion bands for the most appreciative of all audiences: peers, shipmates, brothers and sisters.

And when it's over, many adjourn to the lounge for the jamming and jiving that began the week.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Daily Poop - Thurs, 12JUN08

As the 2008 Navy Musicians Association approaches, NMA members are checking in. Yesterday I heard from:

-- Bob Grindle, who went through the Assistant Bandleader Course while I was on staff at the School of Music won't be at the reunion; his community band is entering its festival week.

-- Everett Crouse, another SOM shipmate, says he's also unable to attend, but his friend, my old rock 'n' roll band leader John Johnson, will make an appearance.

-- B.A. Waltrip, retired for 34 years now, has just found out about this site. He suggests that when NMA members get together, they're a bunch of "Navy Liars."

Also heard from: George Hand, who left the navy in 1961 and Norm Detoy, who retired in 1979.

I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment here at Navy Lyres or email me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pass the Word

Yesterday I emailed over 500 notices--"FrankGrams"--concerning my plans for Live-Blogging the Navy Musicians Association reunion, June 26-29, 2008.

FrankGrams went to email address on the NMA roster. Many of them bounced back as undeliverable.

This means many shipmates don't know that the highlights of the reunion will appear here at Navy Lyres.

You can help by passing the word. All past and present Navy Musicans, NMA members or not, are welcome.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Live-Blogging the NMA Reunion

The 2008 Navy Musicians Association reunion is just around the corner--June 25-28--and I'm so fired up that my skivvy shirts have gone up in flames.

For those who don't know, the NMA is a growing group of former and active duty members of U.S. Navy bands. We are one-hitch sailors and career MUs. We have worn seamens' stripes, petty officers' chevrons, chiefs' anchors and officers' bars.

Once a year, we gather for a few days of camaraderie, sea stories and music--big band, concert band, jazz and rock. At Navy Musicians Association reunions, performance is optional; enjoyment is unavoidable.

If you can't attend this year--or you're not yet a member of the NMA--you can get a taste of the reunion without leaving home.

I'll be "live-blogging" throughout the week of the reunion. This means you'll be able to follow the action here at Navy Lyres.

From Monday, June 23 (two days before the official opening) until Sunday, June 29 (departure day for most attendees), you can come right here, night or day, for:
  • highlights of each day's activities
  • hi-tech photos
  • low-tech videos
  • jam sessions
  • bull sessions
  • assorted reports, rumors and revelations, heavily censored in case your children or grandchildren use your computer

Between now and the reunion, I'll be blogging frequently; stop by any time, check it out, leave a message.

Drop me a line if you have any questions, and please pass the word--forward this URL to any past or present Navy musicians that you're in touch with.

I'll be sending occasional short "FrankGrams"--reminders, notices and dire warnings that will link you to the full story here at Navy Lyres--to NMA members whose email addresses are listed on the membership roster. If you're not a member, you can still get these delightful messages; just send me your email address.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Magic of the NMA Reunion

The annual Navy Musicians Association reunion is only three weeks away.
Those are the few days of the year when there's an astounding difference between

how I look . . .

. . . and how I feel.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Getting Sentimental Over the NMA Reunion

The Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois was swinging last night. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra was in town and I enjoyed a two-hour performance by this classic legacy band, trombonist and longtime Dorsey associate Buddy Morrow at the helm.

They played Dorsey standards--"Getting Sentimental," "Opus One, "Song of India, "Marie" (with gang vocal)--with the smooth expertise of seasoned professionals. Buddy is 89 years old, and some of the sax players aren't far behind. And they cooked up some more contemporary entertainment with the unbridled energy of talented youngsters. The rhythm section looked like a trio straight out of "A" school; the pianist was 22, a quarter of Buddy's age.

The players have met the challenge of all full-time professionals who must master their repertoire and still make it fresh night after night. And, as superb as the band was, it made me appreciate the musicianship I encounter at the NMA reunions.

The Navy Musician Association bands meet but once a year. We sit on the bandstand between trombone players we played with forty years ago and drummers we met for the first time at breakfast. We play charts we haven't seen in decades and sight-read arrangements that were copyrighted last week.

We're professionals and amateurs; we're full-timers and part-timers. Some of us don't play as well as we used to, and some of us are playing better than ever.

And we swing. Last year, with the debut of a new band at the Saturday night dinner/dance, we even started to rock.

For a few days, we work, play, woodshed and wail. And just when we're getting the notes under our fingers, it's time to pack the seabags and head back home.

But for those few days, my friends, we're at the top of our game. Believe me, if the NMA Big Band had been onstage in a battle of the bands with the Dorsey organization last night, the outcome would have been in doubt.

After all, they're every bit as good as we are.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Four Ruffles & Flourishes and a Firing Squad

My informant who provided the sordid details about the White House ceremony at which the Army Herald Trumpets and the US Marine Band played Hail to the Chief out of sync with each other and in different keys--described in the post below--has learned how things went so wrong.

According to a highly-placed Washington, DC source, the Army's Herald Trumpets always perform the presidential honors at White House arrival ceremonies. The Herald Trumpets know this. The president's staff knows this. Anyone who has ever studied for the MU2 test knows this.

The coordinator from the Marine Band didn't know this. He didn't attend the dry run, didn't even attend the talk-through rundown of the ceremony.

Fortunately the bands were spaced far enough apart that most attendees, including the president, were unaware that honors music was being performed by two bands in two locations in two keys.

Not doubt this was followed by a smaller, more private ceremony in honor of the Marine Band's coordinator at which the honors were performed on muffled drums.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen

To look at the photographs of me from my ceremonial band conducting days, you wouldn't guess that, inside, I was a quivering mass of nervous frenzy. At every moment during a ceremony, I was frantically considering what was about to go wrong and how my career would suffer.

I later came to learn that I was not alone--worrying about The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen is a job requirement, a practical factor for the position of cermonial band conductor.

Sometimes, The Worst Thing actually does happen. The following sound file came to me from a trusted friend who passed it along as he received it from his source. He has asked to remain anonymous but states that a "top D.C. band Commander" confims the story is true. Here's the poop:

Two military bands--the U.S. Marine Corps band and the Army Herald Trumpets--were recently ordered to participate in the ceremony welcoming the Pope to the White House. The following sound file is a recording of the rendition of honors to the President of the United States. We may not have the answer as to why things went afoul, but we can agree on one thing: the Herald Trumpet arrangement of "Hail to the Chief" is not in the same key as the band arrangement.

Click on the folowing link, put yourself in the shoes of a nervous bandleader and prepare to die just a little bit as you listen to a recording of The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What's in a name?

Someone posted a comment to the story below about John Fluck's photo-op with President Bush:

John Fluck was once asked by a nice lady what his first name was. He

Well, maybe. It sounds a little too perfect; sea stories about suggestive or unusual names automatically set off the Too-Good-To-Be-True warning buzzer.

However, I was a witness--well, almost--to this one:

After a change of command on Treasure Island, San Francisco in the mid-70s, I was playing the piano at a reception at the officers' club. Doyle Church, the ceremonial band conductor, walked up to me in dress blues and red face. He said, "I just did something really stupid."

All ears, I stopped playing and listened to his story of humiliation.

"I just met the base chaplain," MU1 Church said. "He looked at my nametag and said, 'You have an interesting name.' So I said, "Yeah, my daddy was named Doyle, too."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another example of government incompetence

(Washington, D.C.) The National Department of Teleportation has become the target of a federal probe after a series of failed experiments.

Earlier this month, John Fluck, LCDR (RET), was accidentally teleported to the White House. "Was I surprised? Hell, yes," Fluck said. "They aimed the beam at me and told me I was going to a jam session in Copenhagen. The next thing you know, I'm in the White House banging out 'Chopsticks' with George W. Bush."

Asked to judge the president's musical abilities, Fluck, a former Navy musician and current NMA member replied, "How should I know? It was 'Chopsticks,' for crying out loud. He had the top part. The real work is in the accomaniment."

Teleportation volunteer John Fluck is surpised
by the results of an experiment gone wrong.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who Changed the Changes?

Newport, Rhode Island, 1984

I'm driving along the wharf on my way to a gig. On the radio, an old jazz sax player is talking about performing again after a few decades in retirement. The interviewer asks him what is his biggest challenge.

"The changes," the old jazz player answers. "I don't remember the changes."

I break out laughing. How can you forget chord changes? I'd forget my serial number before I forgot the changes to "A Train" or "A Foggy Day." Fact is, I pride myself on never using a fake book on a gig. Fake book? I don't need no stinkin' fake book.

I arrive at the club and haul my keyboard inside. Terry Chesson is setting up on the bandstand, and I tell him about the brain-dead old sax player.

"If I ever become so senile that I can't remember the changes," I say, "Put me out of my misery."

Louisville, Kentucky, 2006

I'm sitting at the piano in a lounge full of musicians. It's my first time at a Navy Musicians Association reunion.

I am among legends. C.J. Landry is warming up his sax, Dick Bonenfant is adjusting the drum set and Rabbit Simmons is tuning his bass. These guys were the shining stars in my Navy days, the monsters, the senior musicians who set the standards I hoped to live up to one day. When I was in the basic course, students used to stand in the passageway outside Chief Bonenfant's studio with jaws dropping, listening as he showed young drummers how to coax living, breathing swing out of a Navy-issue brass cymbal.

That I am about to sit in with these giants is breathtaking.

It's also slightly risky. I haven't played a gig since the mid-1990s, when a series of stress-related muscle problems, surgeries and therapies encouraged me to stop playing. In anticipation of this reunion, I've started practicing again. After all this time away from the piano, I expect to be only moderately superb.

C.J. finishes running a quiet scale on his tenor sax and calls out, "'Desafinado' in F." Dick counts four beats and the rhythm section starts vamping.

It feels good to be doing this again. I always loved these Latin tunes, the rhythms, the chromatic harmonies. After eight bars, C.J. comes in with the melody, and we're off.

Not all in the same direction, however. By the fifth measure, I've taken a left turn and find myself playing the changes to "Take the A Train." I hear where C.J. is going and fall back in line.

Now I remember--"A Train" and "Desafinado" open with similar changes. Duh. It could happen to anybody.

Something goes wrong when we reach the bridge. The flats in the key signature march offstage and are replaced by a platoon of sharps. I have no idea what key we're in and vainly search for a chord that is compatible with the new situation. C.J. rescues me, turning his sax my way and blowing a few clarifying notes indicating the bridge is in A. I remind myself to pay more attention to the changes and spend less mental energy admiring myself.

What the--? How did we wind up in the key of C? That's the trouble with these cursed Latin tunes: the tonalities don't stay in one place long enough to let you get a good shot at them.

Well, I tell myself as we finish the head, I've got the tune mapped out now--the bridge goes to A and C, then back to F and out. I smile in anticipation. Once C.J. starts soloing, I'll be comping my butt off with those famous Frank Mullen extended chords that made me so popular as a--

Whoops. C.J. is wailing dominant seventeenth riffs over the changes now. I'd better pay attention to Rabbit's bass lines.

Uh, oh--Rabbit's going progressive, too. He's stopped walking me through the tune, his fingers now snaking up and down the neck of the bass, plucking high notes, low notes, long downward glissandos that make you hold your breath and wonder how he'll reach the downbeat in time. Things are getting dicey.

C.J. finishes his solo to a roomful of applause and turns to me.

It is my turn to solo. Immediately I make an accidental detour into "The Girl from Ipanema." In the sixth measure I catch myself slipping into "A Foggy Day in London Town," and dig myself out of the hole just as we're approaching the bridge, which, I recall, goes to the key of--

D major? F# minor? I'm sure it's a key with sharps in it, but the trouble is Rabbit and Dick don't stop and wait for the dolt at the piano to work out his personal problems. No, Dick Bonenfant's legendary driving cymbal work presses forward, Rabbit Simmons's rock-solid bass line holds things together, and Frank Mullen is off on a mental Med Cruise, floundering from key to key, left hand tentatively poking random two-note chords that cannot possibly commit the ear to any certain tonality, right hand running chromatic scales--logically, about half of these notes should have some relationship to "Desafinado"--all the while praying for the blessed moment that C.J. Landry will put his sax to his lips and lead me out of the wilderness and back to civilization.

Aledo, Illinois, 2008

I'm sitting at the piano in my living room with a fake open to "Stella by Starlight." This is how I prepare for the reunions now: in January, I start at page one, looking at the music while I play, then close my eyes and do my best to continue without looking at the music. I go through a few tunes a day until I finish the book. Then I go back to "A Child is Born" and do it again.

I've become a lenient teacher to myself. There's no point in being harsh. I've sat in with big bands and played in small jazz groups at two NMA reunions now, and none of my shipmates have mutinied or thrown me overboard.

I start with the metronome set on adagio and move it up a notch every week. I see steady progress and am content to live with my limitations. The pressure is off and I'm playing purely for enjoyment. And nothing is more enjoyable than an NMA reunion, a few days of fellowship, sea stories and, yes, music. By June, I'll be ready.

I could be ready sooner, but the changes to "Stella by Starlight" won't sit still.