When the music stops
Local fans mount campaign to save Air Force band at Hanscom
I t all started with Benny Goodman.
Growing up in a “loud and obnoxious’’ musical household - all six of her older siblings played instruments - Jennifer Dashnaw started out wanting to play drums. But then she saw a TV special featuring Goodman with his clarinet, and soon enough she was wailing away on the reed instrument.
Today, the 42-year-old master sergeant is a full-time clarinetist, playing hundreds of concerts, parades, and ceremonies each year with the US Air Force Band of Liberty, based at Hanscom Air Force Base.
But now they’re breaking up the band. Early this month, the Air Force announced that the Band of Liberty, a mainstay in the region for nearly 35 years, will be deactivated next year as part of servicewide cost-cutting measures. All of the band’s 45 members will be reassigned (or, if they’re eligible, they can choose to retire), and their coverage area - New England, New York, and New Jersey - will be taken over by the Virginia-based Band of Heritage.
Although it seems all but inevitable - the plan has been approved by the Air Force’s chief of staff, General Norton Schwartz, and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley - the decision has sparked a grass-roots civilian effort to save the band for cultural and economic reasons.
Band members, meanwhile, say they are saddened by the decision, which will require that they leave a community they’ve come to call home, sell their houses and uproot their families, but as military personnel they have resigned themselves to their orders.
“I love the area; I became a huge Red Sox fan,’’ said Technical Sergeant Jeremy Grant, a 36-year-old trombonist from Louisiana who is the band’s director of operations. However, he said, “I grew up moving. Moving is what I know. It’s part of the job.’’
“I’m torn,’’ agreed Captain David Alpar, commander and conductor of the band since October 2007. “Right now these are the orders that we have, and we’re going to move forward with them.’’
Still, he said, “It concerns me that this area isn’t going to get what it deserves.’’
Those are sentiments shared by Susan Hagen, who is heading up the grass-roots campaign despite having no affiliations with the military.
“It’s heartbreaking to a lot of the people,’’ she said, noting that the band has quite a local following. “They do a huge service.’’
The band has been in operation in New England since 1978 - based first at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire as the Band of New England, then moving to Hanscom in 1991.
Its several ensembles - including, among others, a jazz band, rock band, ceremonial marching band, brass and woodwind quintets, and clarinet and trombone quartets - perform in 400 to 450 concerts, ceremonies, and parades a year for both the military and the community. (This year, the schedule includes Patriots Day parades in both Lexington and Concord).
Many laud the organization as a conduit between the community and the military, rallying support for troops, fostering diplomacy, boosting morale, and helping with community relations and recruitment efforts.
Hagen, a musician herself - she plays the double bass - has taken on the cause to save the ensemble not only for music’s sake and to keep an asset in the community, but for the economic implications. She has started up a website, www.savethebandofliberty.com, and a Facebook page, and is asking supporters to send letters to the Bay State’s two senators, Scott Brown and John Kerry, as well as Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray.
To start, she said, “I hate to see bands being shut down and the message being sent that music isn’t important.’’
Beyond that, Hagen is asking for a cost analysis showing the benefits of deactivating the band; she said she wonders just how much money will be saved when the reassigned members will continue to be paid salaries, the military will have to pay to relocate them, and the Virginia band will more than likely spend more money on touring.
Beyond that are the larger potential repercussions: There’s long been talk about closing Hanscom, and she said she fears that a shutdown could become a reality if the band is broken up and the base is further diminished in personnel.
The implications of that could be devastating, she said, as the base generates about $5 billion in revenue for the state every year, according to its website, www.hanscom.af.mil. It also has long-term relationships with technology and science companies and other area businesses.
Ultimately, she said, “my hope is if we can get people to make enough noise, they’ll stop the closure.’’
But until that happens, the band will proceed as directed. They’ll continue performing through June 2013, according to Alpar; then the deactivation procedure will start. At the same time, the Air Force plans to deactivate or downsize four other bands across the country.
Alpar said the plan is to have one last, spectacular concert combining the Band of Liberty’s current, reassigned, and retired members, and “go out in style.’’
But inevitably, “it’s going to be a stressful time for everybody,’’ said Master Sergeant Paul Perez, a 41-year-old percussionist from Texas.
He’s been a military musician for 22 years, but arrived at Hanscom just last March. He lamented that the move disrupted the education of his three sons, and the difficulties will be repeated when he’s relocated next year.
Perez and his wife, who is originally from Burlington, were hoping that this would be their last stop during his military career. Since he is eligible for retirement benefits, he said, he’ll have to make that decision with his family over the coming months.
In the end, though, the military has given him the opportunity to have a viable career as a musician.
“I mean, let’s get real,’’ he said, “I get to play drums for a living.’’
Other members noted the same; whatever happens, their stint with the ensemble has allowed them to share their talent for, and love of, music.
“When people listen to music, they tend to forget everything else,’’ Dashnaw, who’s played with the Air Force for 17 years, said from her seat in a conference room at Hanscom, dressed in military fatigues, her dark-blond hair in a tight bun. “I love being able to do that for people.’’
Taryn Plumb can be reached at email@example.com.