America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #5 and #6

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

We’re continuing the countdown of the Top 10 Military Musicians (so far). If you missed the first installments of the series, look back to see who was named #9 and 10, and #7 and 8.

 

6. Corporal Anthony Benedetto.

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926 in Astoria, Queens, New York City. He was drafted in 1944 and assigned to the European Theater of World War Two, where he saw savage fighting as an infantryman with the 1/255th Infantry Regiment in the 63rd Infantry Division in the final two months of the war in Germany. In addition to having several close brushes with death, Benedetto was present for the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp at Landsberg. His combat experiences were so traumatic – Benedetto described his infantry service as a “front row seat in Hell,” and “A nightmare that’s permanent.”

After Germany surrendered, however, Benedetto stayed on in a special services unit as a singer and entertainer. He was caught eating chow with a black friend of his. At the time, the Army was still regularly separated. His commander busted him a stripe and sent him to work in Graves Registration.

That didn’t last long, however, and he soon found an assignment with the 314th Army Special Services Band. This was the band formed after Glenn Miller’s Orchestra had completed its tour. While Miller’s orchestra was mostly made up of professional musicians, the Army wanted to recruit the players in the 314th from its own ranks. The New York Times tells their story here.

Benedetto was originally assigned as a librarian, but he sang one song a week with the band. “It was usually St. James Infirmary, Benedetto recalls. 

While there were many successful musicians who came out of the 314th Army Band, Benedetto achieved the most fame by far. But he didn’t do it using his birth name. Shortly after World War Two, Benedetto began performing under a stage name that was to become legendary: Tony Bennett.

Bennett achieved his first great commercial success in 1951, with the single Because of You. Shortly thereafter, Bennett scored hits with Blue Velvet, and Hank Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart, hit pay dirt again in 1962 with I Left My Heart in San Franciscolong considered Bennett’s signature tune.

His sound fell out of favor in the late 60s through the 80s, and Bennett went through some difficult times, but found his audience again in the 1990s, and has recorded duets with a veritable Who’s Who of pop, jazz and rock.

In 2011, Bennett got into hot water after an appearance on the Howard Stern Show, in which he said that he believed that the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks on itself because of prior U.S. military actions in the Middle East. He also said that former President George W. Bush confessed to Bennett that invading Iraq was a mistake – an account which Bush’s spokespeople dismissed as ‘flat wrong.’

Bennett later walked back his remarks somewhat, saying, “There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country. My life experiences, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King, made me a life-long humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior.”

In all, Bennett has won 16 Grammy Awards  – including the Album of the Year of MTV Unplugged – Tony Bennett, and two Emmy Awards.

In addition to his many musical achievements, Bennett has generously supported a variety of charities. In recognition of his work, he received the Humanitarian Award from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as an induction to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2007.

 

5. Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck was born on December 6th, 1920 in Concord, California, near San Francisco. As a young man, he enrolled in the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California – to study veterinary medicine. However, after a year, a professor of his told him “Brubeck, your mind’s not here. It’s over there, across the lawn in the conservatory. Go there, and stop wasting your time and mine!”

And so he changed his major to music. He demonstrated a keen grasp of piano technique, composition and music theory and was a phenomenal jazz player at an early age – but couldn’t read a lick of music notation. He faked his way through school, though, until word that he couldn’t read music reached the dean, who told Brubeck he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate. 

Once word got out, Brubeck’s other music professors rallied to his defense, telling the Dean that Brubeck was the finest and most promising student they had. The dean relented, and told Brubeck he’d let him graduate, provided he promised never to “embarrass the school” by teaching.

Brubeck took the deal.

Brubeck graduated college in 1942, and was quickly drafted into the U.S. Army. After completing basic training, Brubeck successfully auditioned to join the 253rd Army Band, then headquartered in San Francisco, California, where he met Paul Desmond, who would years later become part of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  However, despite the successful audition, Brubeck was nevertheless ordered to Europe for combat duty. He was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Army, but once word of his piano playing got out, he was reassigned to go around Europe entertaining troops and VIPs. The brass asked him to start a band. At the time, the Army was still racially segregated. The young Brubeck, still in his early 20s, insisted that he be allowed to form a racially integrated group – and he did: The Wolfpack. 

“I had the first integrated Army band in World War II,” recalled Brubeck in a Public Broadcasting interview. This old colonel, the one that spoke German, was a humanitarian. And he allowed me to have blacks in my band. It was against principle. I don’t know if you’ll ever find a regulation saying you can’t have blacks, but nobody had blacks when I did. I tried to get into a black band. And being white, they wouldn’t let me. So I was glad to do it in reverse and bring two blacks into my band.”

After the war, Brubeck continued playing, composing, arranging and performing. He was well known throughout the country, and even graced the cover of Time Magazine in November 1954. In the early 1960s, Brubeck took his racially integrated band on a tour of the American South, where he ran into a lot of trouble from Jim Crow. 

In February 1960, an article in the Spokesman-Review did a story on Dave Brubeck and his initial refusal to do a 25-day tour of the South because the colleges and universities he would be playing at required him to have an all-white band. The paper quoted Brubeck as saying, “We simply cannot consider it. It would be morally, religiously and politically wrong.”

“I wasn’t allowed to play in some universities in the United States and out of twenty-five concerts, twenty-three were cancelled unless I would substitute my black bass player for my old white bass player, which I wouldn’t do,” Brubeck said,

They wouldn’t let us go on with Gene [Wright] and I wouldn’t go on without him. So there was a stalemate and [we were] in a gymnasium, a big basketball arena on a big campus. And the kids were starting to riot upstairs. So the President of the school had things pushing him from every side: The kids stamping on the floor upstairs, me refusing to go on unless I could go on with my black bass player.

So we just stalled and the bus driver came and said, “Dave, hold out. Don’t go on. The president is talking to the governor and I think things are going your way.” And the Governor says, “You’d better let them go on.” So we held on and the president of the college came in and he said, “Now you can go on with the understanding that you’ll keep Eugene Wright in the background where he can’t be seen too well.” And I told Eugene, “Your microphone is off and I want you to use my announcement microphone so you gotta come in front of the band to play your solo.”

Although 23 of the tour’s 25 dates were cancelled, the tour was a success in another important way. Brubeck, again: 

“Well, the audience went crazy. We integrated the school that night. The kids wanted it; the President wanted it; the teachers wanted it. The President of the college knew he might lose his funding from the state. So here’s the reason you fight is for the truth to come out and people to look at it. Nobody was against my black bass player. They cheered him like he was the greatest thing that ever happened for the students. Everybody was happy.”

Brubeck was convinced that jazz music could swing in many different time signatures, besides the usual 4/4 and the jazz waltzes in 3/4 time. He proved it convincingly with his most well-known for his composition Take Five, an innovative jazz composition with a 5/4 time signature that is still regularly played in jazz clubs everywhere. He also wrote Blue Rondo a la Turk, the first cut on now legendary album Time Out, released in 1959. Blue Rondo made musicians and jazz enthusiasts’ heads explode from the very first bar.

Time Out was the first jazz album to go platinum, selling more than a million copies. Brubeck also wrote Summer Song, Koto Song, and scores of albums in a prolific recording career with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Brubeck disbanded the quartet in 1967 and devoted himself to longer compositional works, including Gates of Justice, a cantata in which Brubeck juxtaposed his own music with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, and The Light in the Wilderness, an oratorio based on the teachings of Christ, arranged for solo baritone, organ and choir.

He also composed a piece called To Hope, a mass commissioned by the editor of a Catholic Magazine called Our Sunday Visitor, and joined the Catholic Church soon afterwards.  His work in sacred music earned him an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology title from University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Dave Brubeck died in December 2012, at the age of 91.

 

 

 

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