The U.S. Army Blues
The U.S. Army Blues, an acclaimed military ensemble, carries on the American big band tradition with both precision and style. This nearly 20-member jazz ensemble is one of 10 musical groups that make up the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” General John “Black Jack” Pershing founded the U.S. Army Band in 1922, inspired by the example of European military bands active during the First World War. The Army Blues became an official division of “Pershing’s Own” in 1972, carrying on a jazz legacy begun by the Army Dance Band that entertained in war zones during World War II.
As part of “Pershing’s Own,” the U.S. Army Blues is the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Army. All the members of the band are active duty military as well as professional musicians, dedicated both to “serving the nation through music” and “telling the story of America’s Army.” Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jac’Kel Smalls, the former director of the Army Blues, has described the ensemble as “the best musicians in the country … connecting the American people to the Army through what we do as musicians.” Sergeant First Class Xavier Perez is the band’s current director. The Army Blues will be joined in Salisbury by vocalist Christal J. Rheams; a member of the Army since 1993 and of “Pershing’s Own” since 1998, Sergeant Major Rheams is an alto vocalist and group leader with the U.S. Army Band Downrange, the rock ensemble of “Pershing’s Own.”
While the repertoire of the U.S. Army Blues spans the history of jazz music to the present day, the ensemble has a special love for the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and other classics of the big band era. As a soundtrack for the war years and a generation of Americans, this music has a particular poignancy and relevance at the 80th National Folk Festival. A quintessentially American art form, jazz emerged as an African American tradition in late 19th-century New Orleans. Big band reached its heights on the cusp of World War II, during the Swing Era, when Benny Goodman and other white bandleaders brought jazz to national prominence, but the music has its roots in 1920s Harlem when Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington shaped a new jazz idiom. These pioneering bandleaders attracted accomplished musicians and showcased their talents. The sections—reed, brass, rhythm—became the building blocks; the interplay between the sections, not individual instruments, was key, as they engaged in dueling lines and call-and-response forms, creating a layered, textured, and thrilling sound.