This is not Canada, nor Monreal, nor New York or Boston, or Paris or Fonainebleau near Paris.
Come back with me 60 years to the time of my bandsmanship, to one of the most briefly exciting moments of any year, Mardi Gras, 1955, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Some think of it as simply Mardi Gras, or in French Fat Tuesday, but it happens to be the very day before the start of the Lenten Season, the forty days during which many resolve to further resolve, be it diet or alcohol, kindness, love, and any or everything of this mark in the year.
Lent is very serious, contemplating the very birth of Christianity. But one day before, you, we, may do as we please, and celebration is one of the great things we do. It is the joyous day to celebrate the coming of the Lenten season, the coming of Christ.
The U.S. 4th Army Band
Ft. Sam Houston
San Antonio, Texas
The U.S. 4th Army Band (FAB) was one of the finest service bands during the Korean and Vietnamese Conflicts. The Commanding General at Fort Sam Houston in the early 1950s was Lt. General I.D. White who endorsed appropriate music for all occasions, a tradition which was followed for more than two decades. Warrant Officers Dawson McElwee, Emil Krochmal, John Parrott, Homer Tampke, Alexander Difronzo and others were able to obtain qualified musicians to provide fine military, concert, jazz and string orchestra music for the many requests. Of paramount importance was a weekly radio program, The 4th Army Show (Concert In Khaki beginning in 1953) a 30-minute show that included military features and the finest concert literature, broadcast throughout five states of the Southwest. On Sundays the band was found in the Quadrangle on the Post in a formal Guard Mount and concert setting. The FAB traveled to Houston in 1952 to honor the 1st Armored Division from Ft. Hood as they left the Houston Harbor for assignment in Europe. In 1954 all the bandsmen were fitted with smart “dress blues.” The FAB participated in the annual River, Fiesta Flambeau and Battle of Flowers Parades in San Antonio. The “Turkey Trot” celebration in Taylor, Texas was a frequent gig. While playing for a Boy Scout Jamboree on a ranch near San Antonio in 1952 a raging bull took offense and charged through the band. Fortunately everyone survived. Armed Forces Day always found the FAB in a Texas community for a special event. Governors called upon the FAB to march in the Inaugural Parade every four years. Falcon Dam was a Texas/Mexico flood control project on the Rio Grande River dedicated in 1953 by President Eisenhower and President Cortines of Mexico. The FAB represented the U.S. contingent. President Eisenhower was very complimentary regarding the band’s participation. The FAB was sent to New Orleans three times in the mid-50s. They led the Rex Parade at the Mardi Gras in 1955 and 1956, and were flown to New Orleans in 1955 to perform on the pier to welcome home a division from Korean service. The band performed at two movie World Premiers in San Antonio, and as a concert band performed as the official reading band annually for the Texas Bandmasters Association. The FAB String Orchestra performed for visiting dignitaries, including the Secretary of the Army and Mexican generals.
In 1955, I was a member of the 4th Army Band, designated as an eb clarinetist. That designation kept me from playing in the 7th Army Symphony, the passing of which earned an entire page in black in the national magazine on music, Musical America. It had been a good orchestra, comprised of many trained players, who at the time, toured Europe creating nothing but good will and good music for the hundreds who saw and heard the concerts. The cost per year for the 7th Army Symphony was the same as one medium tank. To have to cut the services and good will generated by such a group seemed completely without logic. When an actual opening did come through,the first sargeant was quick to tell me that the only other place I would go would be to Fort Hood, Texas, a very different place for a musician to be located during those years,(and these remembering the massacre of several years past by the jihadist psychiatrist). That was scary then and even now.
We were a Headquarters Band, serving the 4th Army Area, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, located in San Antonio, Texas, a lovely city, a wonderful climate, and, of all things ,dozens of used car lots, the place to exist for a bandsman, who was virtually free to roam the city. We used to regularly attend the Pearl Brewery, which made several presentatons a day, complete with refreshments of an alcoholic nature. Ditto for the Lone Star Brewery
Our duties were to play and record one radio broadcast per week. (Vic Damone was stationed with our band), play an occasional parade and not too much more., an ideal place to be.
That Tuesday morning, we were mustered to Lackland Air Force Base, loaded on a large transport by 5:am to be flown to New Orleans in order to lead the Mardi Gras Parade. It was a relatively short trip and we arrived early enough to start and lead the long parade. It was esitmated to be 13 miles long, literally dozens of ensembles of all numbers of musicians from every service branch. We lead the parade , a pivotal and importsant spot, for we were directly behind several horses, determining the exact course. Jose Mendez, a tall trombonist held that corner of the marchers. He carefully changeddirections avoiding the continuing obstacles caused by the animals.
Because of the length of the parade, there was a continuous spasmodic accordion motion, This was of course greatly enriched by the overwhelming presence of alcohol, frequently given or shared by everyone. I’m saying everyone!
After a few moments of marching, the groups began to slowly diminish in size./ After an hour, the parade began to diminish in size. As more time passed, the formations became spread apart as they diniinished in size. By the end of the parade, there were few bands fewer marchers and a final. rather shaky diminution.
Stay well, do not give up practicing for Lent.