The U.S. Army Blues Sax Section
by Skip Spratt
The interview below was previously expected to run in the July/Aug edition of Saxophone Today Magazine. Unfortunately the magazine shut down unexpectedly and permanently, simultaneously with this last submission. The saxophone sections of The USAF Airmen of Note, The Navy Commodores and The Army Jazz Ambassadors were featured previously in SaxophoneToday.com. To conclude this series, we move on to The U.S. Army Blues and it’s saxophone section. While this never made it to publication in ST, SaxShed.com is happy to publish this insightful interview here. The duets this writer contributed each issue are also available through SaxShed.com HERE.
Read on and enjoy!
In this day and age where few jazz big bands enjoy a full performance and touring schedule, there are some notable exceptions — mainly our US Military Big Bands. These performing groups, not limited to jazz or big band, provide educational programs, support for troops, recruitment opportunities and of course — entertainment.
Each branch of the service boasts a variety of performance ensembles for enlisted service men and women. This article is the last in a 4 part series of articles to highlight just such military big bands, particularly the four premiere jazz big bands in the Washington D.C. area. The saxophone sections of The USAF Airmen of Note, The Navy Commodores and The Army Jazz Ambassadors were featured previously. To conclude this series, we move on to The U.S. Army Blues and it’s saxophone section..
“The U.S. Army Blues, part of the United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” is the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Army. After informal beginnings in 1970, this 18-piece ensemble became an official element of the Army Band in 1972.”
The current members of the U.S. Army Blues sax section are SFC Antonio L. Orta; lead alto, SFC Bill E. Linney; 2nd alto, MSG Joseph D. Henson; 1st tenor, SSG Xavier Perez; 2nd tenor and SGM David T. Brown; baritone sax. They all hail from the eastern United States from as far south as Guanica, Puerto Rico all the way to Upstate New York.
Like the previously featured military big band saxophone sections, the Army Blues members share a passion for jazz and big band music and carry on a tradition of greatness with each rehearsal and performance. Perhaps lead alto saxophonist Antonio Orta said it best, “ I consider myself very fortunate to have been part of this band for over 17 years. We’ve played great music and have many fond memories from backing up great guest artists and playing their music.The best of it is knowing that everywhere we go the audiences totally enjoy what we play and how we play it.”
It was helpful to hear from all five members of the Army Blues saxophone section in a survey where they were asked to share their experiences and opinions with this writer and SaxophoneToday.com. While it took a couple months to catch up with all the respondents, it was worth the wait. What we are left with is a snapshot of each members outlook on jazz big band music and specifically the saxophone. Read on…
The U.S. Army Blues Saxophone Section
Orta: Antonio Orta; lead alto sax, soprano sax, flute and clarinet
Linney: Bill Linney, second alto sax, flute, clarinet and piccolo
Henson: Joseph Henson; tenor sax, flute, clarinet
Perez: Xavier Perez; second tenor sax, flute, clarinet
Brown: David Brown; baritone sax, bass clarinet, clarinet and flute
Is playing in a big band among your favorite types of playing or just one of several styles you enjoy playing? Also, do you write much?
Orta: Besides playing on a big band I also play in a jazz small group setting for the Army Band, which I enjoy just as much. I also play in a Latin Jazz ensemble which I lead as well. That is also a lot of fun.
Linney: Playing big band music is only a part of what I do. As I have gotten older, my musical interests have changed in ways I wouldn’t have expected when I was younger. I have become interested in electronic music (i.e., synthesizers, sound modules, DAWs) and the Electric Wind Instrument (EWI). I love the tone of the electric guitar, and I especially love to listen to Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos. Over the past few years I have learned to play the electric bass, which is so much fun to play. I play it now regularly in my church’s band.
Henson: Playing, writing and arranging for big band is a large part of what I do on a regular basis.
Perez: I absolutely love Big Band music…Basie, Woody Herman, Ellington, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Maria Schneider, McNeely, Brookmeyer, Pedro Girardo, Guiermo.Klein etc. That being said, I will forever be a lover and student of improvisation and big bands can be a great vehicle for improvisation.
Brown: I definitely enjoy playing in a big bands. However, I also enjoy playing in any quality ensemble – playing any style of music.
Tell us about your musical life outside the military.
Orta: Besides the military I get pretty busy playing as a freelance musician in the Washington D.C. area. I’ll play anything from cocktail parties with small jazz groups to wedding bands, salsa bands and dance big bands. Some of the jazz gigs I enjoy the most outside the Army are with Tim Whalen’s Septet, Kenny Rittenhouse Septet and Cesar Orozco’s Kamarata Jazz group.
Linney: For a while I was teaching as an adjunct professor at a local college. Teaching college students made me think about jazz education, especially as it pertains to the saxophone. Over the five years I taught there, I took an interest in jazz saxophone education, and I developed some materials and methods that gave my teaching some much-needed structure (as opposed to just walking into each lesson with no plan).
Henson: I am actively involved in many musical pursuits outside my military position.
Perez: Besides the Army Band…being a father and husband keeps me busy. I’m also the adjunct professor of jazz saxophone at George Mason University a local school in the area. I also perform around the area with the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra, with many local DC based musicians and occasionally travel back to the NYC for small gigs with old friends.
Brown: We do have opportunities to perform in the civilian world, if our schedule permits.
Who were your most influential teachers and mentors?
Orta: I’d have to say, Gary Keller, saxophone teacher at University of Miami, Vince Maggio, piano and improvisation teacher University of Miami and Jim Riggs, saxophone teacher at University of North Texas
Linney: I have had several teachers and many influences. Bert Ligon at the University of South Carolina taught me about jazz harmony and counterpoint. He explained to me the way jazz voice leading works and how to practice. His teaching was just what I needed as a young student, and I owe him a great deal. Roger Pemberton and Jim Riggs were big influences on me as far as just being a saxophone player. Dan Haerle taught me a lot about jazz theory and how to approach playing in a small groups.
Henson: There are many influences on my playing – John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, Keith Jarrett and Clifford Brown.
Perez: Walt Wieskopf, Gary Keller, Ron Miller, Vince Maggio, Ralph Lalama and Donny McCaslin
Brown: My father (Thomas Brown) was my biggest influence growing up. He was an active professional musician who taught at the Stan Kenton Clinics and the National Stage Band Camps in the 60’s. He was also my high school band & jazz band director. My primary teachers at the Eastman School of Music were Raymond Ricker, Bill Dobbins and Ray Wright. Other influences would be all the fine players I’ve been lucky enough to be around throughout my career.
What alternate plans did you have if you had not gotten into the Army Blues?
Orta: I’d Probably be a working musician and teacher in Puerto Rico, where I’m from.
Linney: When I joined the army I was still in school at the University of North Texas. I would have stayed in stayed there if I hadn’t gotten into the Army Band.
Henson: I’d likely be doing some university teaching, freelance playing and have a private lesson studio
Perez: I would have continued to freelance around the northeast area and teach saxophone.
Brown: Respondent skipped this question
Tell me about your personal experience with the audition process. Did your prior training prepare you adequately for the challenges of the military and this high level of playing?
Orta: Definitely yes – to answer your question. The audition experience was intense – from months of preparation prior to it to the actual audition in person. Even if I hadn’t gotten the job I would’ve been glad I did it. I felt it made me a better musician.
Linney: There is plenty of competition at North Texas, especially when auditioning for a lab band. It’s a tough process to go through, but it really forces you to stay competitive and to keep moving forward. I think that kind of environment can really help you prepare to take professional auditions later. Another thing about studying saxophone at North Texas is the barrier exam. In order to pass this playing exam, you must play all classical and jazz scales at a fast tempo with a variety of articulations. It’s a real challenge and it forces you, in a quantifiable way, to really learn the horn. There’s no way to fake your way through an exam like that.
Henson: My studies at the University of North Texas adequately prepared me for the military both musically and ethically.
Perez: Being a strong versatile saxophonist that could be familiar in many styles and double on flute and clarinet was really hammered into me at University of Miami. That definitely helped. I’m also a very goal oriented when I practice. I always like to have something to specific to practice – not just sit and noodle. Noodling can be fun as well but sometimes not as productive.
Brown: My first audition at The U.S. Army Band was primarily a classical audition to become a member of the Ceremonial Band. After 3 years in that group I auditioned for The Army Blues, so my classical and jazz training at Eastman and various professional musical experiences served me well for both auditions.
Has your equipment changed much over the years?
Orta: No it hasn’t., I still play in the same Selmer Mark VI alto since I joined. Same with my other horns.
Linney: No. For my entire career I have used a Meyer 6 mouthpiece with a medium facing and medium chamber. But when I play lead, I find it helpful to use a Meyer 7 with a small chamber to help me get more volume.
Perez: YES. I have for many years experimented with set-ups and horns. I have played and owned 10M’s, Mark VI, King Super 20’s, Yamaha 62’s, and SBA tenors. I don’t want to bore you with all my MPC set-ups. I like HR Brilharts and Links around 100/105 to keep it simple.
Brown: I am currently playing a Selmer Series III on bari, Buffet (low C) bass clar, Howarth S3 (cocobolo wood) clarinet and Powell flute.
What is your favorite double (if any) and why?
Orta: Flute. I find it easier than clarinet.
Linney: Early in my career I played the bassoon and contrabassoon in various wind ensembles and orchestras and I miss it. It provided me with an opportunity to play music that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to play as a saxophonist.
Henson: Flute. I love the sound and it is easier for me. My wife is the professional clarinetist in the house.
Perez: I don’t have a favorite.
Are you playing your favorite saxophone voice from your current chair in the Army Blues? i.e. Are you more of a tenor player sitting in the alto chair or vise versa?
Orta: Yes I am. I’ve considered myself a lead alto player since my college days.
Linney: The saxophone I feel most natural on is alto, so I’m perfectly happy playing second.
Henson: I love both tenor and alto and feel equally comfortable on both.
Perez: Yes. I like playing second tenor. Generally speaking, I still get to blow as much as I want and don’t always need to be in the spotlight hogging all the solos.
When you were in college was there a big push from faculty or other students toward getting a job in the military? Was that the plan – to go to a university and then get into the Army Blues?
Orta: No and no. When I was in college no one ever told me about these military bands. I knew they existed, but it never crossed my mind to try getting in one. I’m glad my good friend and section partner Joe Henson told me about the vacancy which I ultimately ended up filling.
Linney: My saxophone teacher, Jim Riggs, was big on having his students get out there and get jobs. But what really got me thinking about military bands was the fact that many of my friends were joining military bands. I figured that if they could do it, so could I. And I really needed a job, too!
Henson: There was no push at all at school. One of my close friends auditioned for a military music job and I was interested after that.
Perez: not at all. the push was to be as versatile as you can so you can work. The focus was to read, play in tune and be aware of how to play solos in many styles, etc.
Brown: There was no particular push or plan in college to pursue a job in the military.
Anything else you would like to add about playing in the Army Blues or big band jazz in general?
Orta: I consider myself very fortunate to have been part of this band for over 17 years. We’ve played great music and have many fond memories from backing up great guest artists and playing their music.The best of it is knowing that everywhere we go the audiences totally enjoy what we play and how we play it.
Linney: I’m so grateful to the Army for giving me a place to make great music while serving my country. It’s been a great career.
Henson: It’s an awesome career that has allowed me to play and write music at a high level as well as raise five kids with my wonderful wife.
Perez: Respondent skipped this question
Brown: As a member of The U.S. Army Blues I’ve been extremely lucky and grateful to have been able to play full time in a professional big band in the military while serving my country for 21 years.
The U.S. Army Blues Website
Blues and You Educational Play-Alongs
The U.S. Army Blues, “Cottontail” by Duke Ellington
U.S. Army Blues Live Concert