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'Fort Sam's Own' To Host One More Reunion Concert Before Draw-down

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U.S. Army

Earlier this summer, the Army announced it was deactivating the “Fort Sam’s Own,” the 323d Army Band, that has been stationed at Fort Sam Houston since 1995. The band’s purpose, historically, has been to tell the Army’s story by building bridges with the public through music. In 2019, that mission will come to an end—for now, says Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Ward, leader of the 323d.

“We refer to it as an inactivation, because the band's going to cease to operate and function, but when a band or any military unit goes inactivate it's always kind of there on the shelf,” explains Ward. “So, if anybody were to change their mind, they can always come back and reactivate the band.”

That’s happened before. The 323d Army Band first came to Fort Sam Houston in 1946, and was deactivated in 1975. Twenty years later, the band was reactivated, replacing the 5th Army Band.

As part of the Band’s farewell celebration, they’re hosting one more reunion concert with members of previous military bands, at the Alamo on Sunday, September 24 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

CWO Jonathan Ward joined me recently in the studio to talk about the show and offer his thoughts about the band’s sunsetting. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click the audio link at the bottom of this post.

Nathan Cone: So tell me about the concert coming up on the 24th at the Alamo…

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CWO Jonathan Ward, at the TPR studio.

CWO Jonathan Ward: We're calling it “As Time Goes By” and it's a remembrance. It's not our final farewell concert but it is our final reunion concert, which is something we’ve done every year. And traditionally it's been with the old 4th Army Band, who were stationed in San Antonio. They had a weekly radio show back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. But this year, we're inviting as many people as want to come who are former members of any band that was at Fort Sam Houston. So from 5th Army to the Medcom band to the band of the Surgeon-General to the 323d and 4th Army band. So far, I think we have about 20 members from the 4th Army band that are going to be there, and the names keep coming in. People want to come in and play. And those are just retirees, former military musicians who are in the area who want to play with us. 

The band's going to be quite large and we're going to recognize military music and military musicians, because most of the music we're playing is either written or composed or arranged by a current military musician or former military musician. We have a lot of former military musicians who go on to bigger and better things. For example, Chuck Booker was an Army bandmaster for 20 years. His final tour of duty was with the Army blues and then he went to Arkansas, became director of bands there, and retired to the San Antonio area and still writes and composes. We're doing a couple of his pieces, and he's going to conduct. And Claude Wells is one of the members of the 4th Army band and he was a he's a retired bandmaster as well from way back in the day, in the 1970s, and he's going to conduct as well. So it's going to be a remembrance, and a tribute to military music.

So you bring in all the former band members…how many rehearsals do they get with you guys?

At least one, on Saturday afternoon. It’ll be really big. Probably a heavy heavy duty rehearsal. Some of the music they haven't seen before, but a lot of the music they're going to be extremely familiar with. It's pretty standard repertoire. I have absolute confidence in the quality of the musicians and my guys were rehearsing now. So we're going to be ready. You know we'll get them up to speed.

So what is the standard repertoire that you all will play at the show?

For this show we're going to we're going to stick to military music, and music written by arranged by military musicians, and kind of try to keep in that theme “As Time Goes By.” One tune that we're going to play that's not arranged by a military band member is music by Gershwin. We kind of want to emphasize that [big band] era, where music was the focal point. You know, here it is, 2017. Music is rarely the focal point of any event. Everything's video. But we kind of want to go back to some of those older tunes. We’ll bring out the big jazz band and do some standard straight up hard-hitting big band jazz… marches, of course. One march is called “Black Granite.” It was written by an Army musician, a composer from the U.S. Army band in Washington D.C. named James Hosay, and it's a commemoration march for the Vietnam Memorial, which is made out of black granite. So it's really a tribute to older music… some newer… but really focusing on what you expect to hear from the military band. Entertaining pop tunes some from as far back as the ‘30s and ‘40s, some brand new.

You mentioned some of the ensembles that have been stationed at Fort Sam before. How many, over the decades, have been a part of that base?

Well that's a great question. At one point I believe there were two bands at Fort Sam Houston, the 4th Army Band… and there was another band… I can't remember what their delineation was but there were two at one time and one band went north, I think to somewhere in Pennsylvania. Then it ended up coming back to San Antonio and being renamed [the 323d]. At one point the band was going to be shut down here and the Medical Command volunteered to offer up 50 personnel spaces and said 'we want to keep the band.' That's when they became the U.S. Army Medcom band. And I think at that point someone actually called them the Band of the Surgeon General... and then later, 5th Army headquartered here. But the 323d delineation has always been attached to those titles.

So you said the Medcom Band was when another unit said ‘we want to offer spaces…’ explain that to me, how that works.

Well it was it was another draw down, and the powers that be decided that we were going to draw down the band here. And they discussed it and you know some of the senior commanders I guess at that point had the conversation said well what do we need to do to keep the band here and he said, ‘well basically we need 50 personnel positions’ because that's what that's what a drawdown usually is, it's personnel. That's the biggest expense with the band is, is paying the salaries of the personnel. So they rather kindly gave up 50 or so personnel slots and said we want to keep the band here. And that's what they did.

I'm interested to know once the 323d goes inactive will there be any live musicians stationed at Fort Sam at all for ceremonial purposes and things like that?

Not full time. I can't really talk about the discussions, but I can tell you that the conversation about military music is being had at the Pentagon on a daily basis. There's always some kind of meeting, and there's always there's always consideration. I can tell you that that a lot of people have had second thoughts about the deactivation of the 323d, just because it means so much to the community and since the story's kind of gotten out that this is going to happen, the community has really kind of risen up and they've been contacting Washington said ‘hey what can we do, what's going to happen?’ And there's a there's a contingency plan in place. There's a lot of Army Reserve and National Guard bands around the country who need to do their annual training somewhere. And one of the things we'd like to do is, once this band is gone and the musical support is not there for Fort Sam Houston, especially during the busy summer time, some of these bands can come in and do their annual training here. So live music is still going to happen in some way.

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Credit Nathan Cone / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Members of the Intrepid Winds in the TPR studios.

The other wonderful thing about this area is Lackland Air Force Base. They have the U.S. Air Force Band of the West and that's a fantastic group. And they're really top notch musicians. They're very busy! They cover all the west and southwest and they have a lot bigger square mileage to cover a lot of states, but they're still going to be here they're still going to be going strong. So [military music in San Antonio is] not going to go away completely.

What are you looking forward to most about this show on Sunday?

Seeing everybody. There's a lot of people that are coming in who I served with in the earlier part of my career that I haven’t seen in a while. I’m looking forward to seeing them, but just my experience last year with the 4th Army Band, those guys have such fantastic stories to tell. I mean such a wonderful history. They have as many years and as many stories and as many memories as we do about when they were doing it. And you listen to their stories about when they had that live radio show in San Antonio and every Friday night they would bring the big band in and have guest artists, and it's just fascinating love hearing the stories of love talking to these guys. They have such a vast wealth of knowledge and experience. It's just great meeting them and being with them.

Nathan:  Well Jonathan thank you very much for being here.

It's my pleasure. Thanks for having us.

Learn more about the 323d Army Band's final reunion concert, September 24 at 6:30 p.m., on their Facebook page.