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Navy Band Northwest shows sailors can rock and swing

Musician 3rd Class Clifton Murray, left, plays lead guitar on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” at a rehearsal of Navy Band Northwest’s rock band, Passage. Musician 2nd Class Ted Moore, right, plays along on the drums.  - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Musician 3rd Class Clifton Murray, left, plays lead guitar on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” at a rehearsal of Navy Band Northwest’s rock band, Passage. Musician 2nd Class Ted Moore, right, plays along on the drums.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

When John Head was making his way through college, he switched schools, switched majors and was running out of money — a common college tale.

As a drummer studying jazz at Texas State University, he noticed that some of the most “smokin’” players were ex-Navy musicians, returning to school to finish their degrees. It was then that he learned about a new route into a music career.

“I can either pay the school to practice or I can get paid to practice by the Navy,” Head said.

Last summer, he went to boot camp, advanced to the Navy School of Music in Virginia and in February was assigned to Navy Band Northwest as a musician 3rd class, based at Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor. Head now plays in the marching band and performs in two different jazz ensembles as a sailor.

“The level of players here has been great,” he said. “It’s very challenging and it’s pushed me to do better.”

For the musicians at Navy Band Northwest, joining the military is a way to make a steady living playing music, when they might otherwise struggle to find work.

Musician 2nd Class James Randorff, bassist for the Navy Band’s rock group, Passage, said he used to play in the Austin, Texas music scene, not knowing whether he’d make $300 or $3,000 in a given week. He auditioned for the Navy Band for the stability.

“You get to do what you love every day and you know you’re going to be making a living doing it,” he said.

Now he tours the country in a band that performs “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey and “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin in Navy fatigues.

Band director Lt. Patrick Sweeten said the Navy is a smart choice for musicians, especially in a recession.

“In a downturn economy like this it’s an exceptional option because there aren’t a lot of music openings out there,” he said.

As one of 13 Navy bands worldwide, Navy Band Northwest’s roots are traced back to the Bremerton Navy Yard Band, which began in 1918 with a group of volunteer Navy musicians who performed concerts at the base in addition to their daily duties as sailors. In the 1960s, the Navy music program was established, allowing musicians to play full-time. This region’s group evolved into Navy Band Seattle, based at the former Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, and then in 1995 was relocated to Bangor, later changing its name to Navy Band Northwest. The group now covers 12 states from Alaska to Northern California and Western Kansas.

Navy Band Northwest includes several smaller ensembles, including the marching band, rock band and brass quintet. Musicians can play in some or all of the groups, depending on the instrument they play. It has a rigorous audition process that musicians must pass before being accepted into the Navy, Sweeten said. Most musicians who make it to the Navy Band either have a music degree, studied it in college or were professional musicians. Unlike almost every other job in the Navy, band recruits must be experts in their field from day one.

With a schedule of more than 450 to 500 performances a year at schools, parades and recruiting events, Navy Band Northwest serves as the public face of the Navy to most people who see them, Sweeten said.

“In many cases, a Navy band may be the only impression the community has of the U.S. Navy,” he said.

Musician Chief Jonathan Ward, a trombonist in the group, said the band’s performances offer a learning experience to the audience — civilian or military.

“A lot of people don’t know there’s a band,” said Ward, who has played in four different Navy Bands in the past 13 years. “A lot of people in the Navy don’t know there’s a Navy band.”

In addition to daily rehearsals and performances, Navy musicians undergo physical training early in the morning and are also in charge of running the Navy Band’s office, managing performance booking, travel arrangements, administrative duties and payroll.

“The musicians do it all, 100 percent,” Sweeten said.

Head wants to finish college one day, but for now he is learning his craft and enjoys the travel. So far, his favorite event was the Portland Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade on June 5. He relished the crowd’s response and was proud to show the musical side of the Navy.

“Just hearing everyone cheer at that moment was very cool,” he said.

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