United States Airmen have been playing music for Alaskans for longer than there's been a U.S. Air Force. That legacy will take center stage on Monday and Tuesday when the Air Force Band of the Pacific Alaska -- PACAF in military shorthand -- presents its annual free public holiday concerts in Atwood Concert Hall.
In addition to the requisite arrangements of evergreen carols and seasonal pop tunes emceed by longtime host John Tracy, this year's show will feature upwards of 20 alumni of the band, musicians who arrived in Anchorage while in military service and decided to stick around after their discharges.
Their names permeate local musical life -- Anchorage Symphony horn player Darrel Kincade, pianist Kevin Barnett, choral conductor Ron Larsen. Though the Anchorage concert scene has vastly expanded and matured over the past several decades, one can still say that the present level of musicianship owes much to the presence of a core of professionals who happened to be on hand thanks to Uncle Sam.
Those days may be coming to an end. The military, and the global situations for which it must prepare and respond, is always changing. Upcoming changes will likely mean a downsizing. They could even spell the elimination of the longest-serving military unit in Alaska.
"The readjustment is on everyone's mind," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Dahlseng, a trombonist from Lowry, Minn. "Right now, none of us have a clue."
Capt. Haley Armstrong, who commands the Air Force bands in Alaska, Hawaii and Japan, said some reduction was likely. Right now the three bands have about 50 members; that will be going to 40, she said. She acknowledged the likelihood that the Alaska musicians would be reassigned to the bands at other bases.
"But we'll still be serving Alaska," she said. "We think it's an important mission -- and so do our bosses."
Playing for Presidents
"Readjustment" is a fact of military life, as a history shows.
The Band of the Pacific unofficially traces its roots to the summer of 1941. What is now called Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was not much more than a dirt landing strip in the middle of a former farm when soldiers with the Army Air Force began playing together for recreation. In September of that year they played at the first Matanuska Valley Fair in Palmer, which has since become the Alaska State Fair. They also supplied dance music for community sock-hops and benefit balls in the Valley and in Anchorage.
As an official contingent, today's band dates from 1943, when the 452nd Army Air Forces Band was activated. The unit went through other name changes and re-designations, including becoming part of the new U.S. Air Force when the branch was created after World War II. It was activated as the 752nd Air Force Band at Fort Richardson on Dec. 15, 1947. The Band of the Pacific title came around after a restructuring in 1991.
In the early days, there were Air Force bands in Fairbanks and Adak as well as Anchorage. In more recent times the JBER band has been one leg of the Alaska-Hawaii-Japan unit.
The band played for President John Kennedy's inauguration and for dignitaries visiting Alaska, from Presidents passing through to Pope John Paul II to the Emperor of Japan. They backed up Bob Hope when he entertained troops in Alaska during the Vietnam era.
Members perform at official base functions, changes of command, award ceremonies, funerals of servicemen. And they are regularly assigned to provide music in combat zones. The Top Cover ensemble, which specializes in performing contemporary pop hits, had a tour in Afghanistan last year.
"We're trained like everyone else," said Armstrong, a trumpet player from Sonoma, Calif. "We go to basic and we get deployed. We play outside the wire," the secure compounds in combat zones, "for the troops, at orphanages and other places."
And they accompany dignitaries on good will tours, playing at embassy functions, joining with the bands of allies, generally serving as goodwill ambassadors.
Bullet through the drum
About half of the unit's mission is performing for civilian audiences at home, said Armstrong. In Alaska, home can mean tiny towns hundreds of miles from the base.
"I've been to about 20 villages from Barrow to Southeast," said Dahlseng. "It's always amazing, because at least 70 percent of every community is there. There are always several elders in the front. One woman was very interested in my trombone. She told me, 'I've never seen those instruments played live.' "
Dahlseng said these outreach concerts can be important to young people in villages wondering about their future. "A lot of them are thinking, 'What is there once I finish school?' I think we show them that there are options and possibilities."
Giving back to the community this way isn't without some risk, however. Trombonist Greg Solomon, a member of the band in 1979-80, recalled marching in the Fur Rendezvous parade at 10 degrees below zero. "We had to use plastic mouthpieces to keep our lips from sticking to the instruments," he said. "Saliva froze in the horns and the whole band started to go sharp. The clarinets didn't even try to play. We called it 'The Frozen March.' "
Another time, band members were flying to the Aleutian Islands and someone on the ground took a potshot at their plane. The bullet not only went through the C-130, Solomon said, but left a neat hole in a bass drum.
"I think that drum's still somewhere around here," he said.
On a chilly night last week, active duty and retired band members crowded into a second floor room in the old Elmendorf Officer's Club building to rehearse. On a square foot basis, it may have been the greatest concentration of musical talent in Alaska since Vladimir Horowitz's solo recital at West High.
The arrangements were handed out and, at the downbeat, the ensemble snapped into a tight, swinging version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
"It's like we took a 13 year break, got back in the room and -- Bang! -- everybody's right back together. Everybody is still playing and a total professional," said pianist Tom Bargelski, a member of the band from 1987 to 1995.
"This is the first time I've done a reunion," he said. "It was like walking into the past. Some of these guys I haven't seen for 13 years."
Bargelski, of Syracuse, N.Y., was in the Marine Band before he hooked up with the Air Force. He said he jumped at the chance to transfer to Alaska.
"There was lots of room to play here and make extra money downtown," he said. "The community was cool."
He's been active in town ever since, playing with his own trio at Sullivan's Steakhouse and the weekly Jazz Jam at Tap Root, among other engagements.
Not everyone stuck with music. Vocalist Gavin Rueb, who sang with the band from 1996-2004, is a financial consultant. He said that he and his wife had considered settling in the Midwest after he left the service, but were drawn back to Alaska, a place they heartily enjoyed when he was stationed here.
Solomon became a graphic designer; in fact he designed the program cover for this week's concerts. But his daughter Audrey, a former Miss Alaska, has made a career as a violinist.
"She's on tour with the band Rush right now," he said.
The session went on with seamless run-throughs of classics such as "Ding-Dong Merrily on High," played by the brass alone, Eddie Money's rock 'n' roll ballad "Everybody Loves Christmas," a boogie version of the march from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" and a medley of Rudolph/Frosty/Santa favorites that blasted out of the gate like Woody Herman's herd.
"You want this in the key of C or B?" asked Tech Sgt. Dennis Pack, a guitarist from Twin Falls, Idaho. For the unmusical, that is not a simple thing. On a keyboard, C has no black notes; B means the player suddenly has to think in terms of five sharps. It's easier to make the switch on a guitar if the player uses a tool called a capo.
But Pack wasn't using a capo. Neither he nor anyone else blinked at the prospect of a key change.
These cats are good.
Mission in limbo
Exactly what may happen to Alaska's Air Force band, and when, remains a matter of speculation. But live music at important military occasions will continue, Armstrong said, as will performances for communities throughout the state -- even if the musicians are brought in from bases outside Alaska.
"Positions may change, but the mission needs to continue," she said.
For the band's alumni, however, there's a strong nostalgia with this week's gigs and some concern that it may sound the final for the band as they've known it.
"I got to play with the Anchorage Symphony and Anchorage Opera," said Solomon, "all because the Air Force sent me here.
"Ted Stevens kept this band going all these years, but he's not around now and it's in limbo. We all understand that things change. But I hope the band stays."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.