Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spotlight on MUCS Jim Armstrong

The U.S. Navy Band performs countless ceremonies honoring those who served before us and those we serve with today. Ceremonial Band Unit Leader Senior Chief Jim Armstrong oversees all aspects of this time-honored mission.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Duquesne University. Throughout my high school and college years, I studied with Bob Hamrick, the principal trombonist in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Following graduation, I moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at Northwestern University and study with Frank Crisafulli, second trombonist with the Chicago Symphony. After about five years freelancing in Chicago, I was lucky enough to win a temporary position in my hometown orchestra back in Pittsburgh. Toward the end of my time there, I saw an advertised opening in the Navy Band. I knew very little about service bands, but during my time in Chicago, I became friends with Senior Chief (ret.) Mike Cizek who was in the Band in the seventies. He had joined the Navy right after high school and later decided to leave to pursue a college degree. A few years later when Mike’s old Navy Band job re-opened, he took the audition and won his old job back. Mike is an impressive bass trombonist and I thought if he was in the Navy Band (and wanted to return to it) that it must be a job worth pursuing, so I auditioned.

What is your present position?
Along with being a trombonist for nineteen years, for the past three years I’ve been the unit leader of the Ceremonial Band. I am responsible for over-seeing all facets of the band’s performances at military and government ceremonies. Ceremonial performances include many types of events such as official arrival ceremonies for foreign dignitaries, funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, changes of command and providing music for other government functions. In total, the Navy Band performs over a thousand ceremonies every year. Each one requires making detailed arrangements with the sponsoring organizations as well as managing dozens of details to ensure that when the band performs, the performance is guaranteed to go smoothly.

What intrigued you to become the Ceremonial Band’s unit leader?
The primary purpose of a military band is to offer musical support to various military and government ceremonies. It is important work with very little room for error. A military band is a very visible representative of the nation and the government. The quality of its performance enhances our national prestige in the eyes of the public and visitors alike. For me, having a hand in ensuring the quality of this aspect of our work is a way to contribute to the band beyond my individual work as a performing musician.

Are there any memorable performances?
When I’m asked about memorable experiences as a performer, my thoughts run in two directions. First, for any ensemble musician, the enjoyment you derive from performing often comes from the simple pleasure of playing with truly fine musicians. The Navy Band is filled with such players. It makes even ordinary rehearsals a gratifying experience. Performing with the trombone section in particular has been a true privilege and has never been anything but great fun. In a more typical respect, you always remember performances that are associated with significant historical events. I’ve participated in four presidential inaugurals, the funerals of Presidents Reagan and Ford, the dedication of the World War II Memorial and commemorations for September 11, to name just a few. The prominent “I was there” sort of ceremonies such as these always stick with you because the surrounding events are part of our collective memory. Sometimes you just remember a ceremony because of its uniqueness. During the last inauguration, the ceremonial band supported two of President Obama’s inaugural balls, including the nationally-televised Neighborhood Ball. It was a real kick for the band to spend the evening backstage with all of the A-list entertainers who appeared on the telecast.

What do you enjoy doing when not working?
When we’re not working or chasing our kids around, my wife (who is the band’s ombudsman) and I like to start projects around the house (and occasionally finish one of them). I enjoy reading, dabbling in digital photography and tinkering with computers. I also like to do some freelance performing around the D.C. area when I have the time.

Chief Musician Juan Vasquez is principal percussionist in the Concert Band.

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