Marine Band prepares for a lively Colorado Boulevard show

There are probably few, if any, people who come into this world with a congenital love of marches. Blaring brass, blasting tubas and unison staccato drums — all playing at a fortissimo dynamic — is definitely an acquired taste. Yet there are few Americans whose hearts aren’t stirred in some way by the opening strains of the “Marines’ Hymn”:

“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli....”

Something about that music and those words speaks to our elemental national character.

Twenty marching bands will participate in the 123rd Tournament of Roses Parade on Monday. They come from all over the United States and everywhere from Calgary, Canada to Karskrona, Sweden to Kyoto, Japan to Puerto Rico. The United States Marine Corps West Coast Composite Band, though, will be the only outfit with a retinue. Twenty or so people in historic military garb — from the Revolution to the present — follow the band. It’s a silent but powerful reminder that the history of the American military is the history of America.

The USMC West Coast Composite Band is headquartered in San Diego and every musician in it has his or her own story to tell. Chief Warrant Officer Stephanie Wire directs the band, and she’s no exception. She’s an 18-year veteran and career Marine musician.

Wire grew up in various Pennsylvania towns and found her way into the Marine Corps indirectly.

“I stumbled onto it,” she confesses.

Speaking from her office, she relates that she was a high school flute player with a background in piano and violin when she first learned that the Marine Corps offered music opportunities. After some college, she says: “I enlisted with flute as my occupational specialty.”

After basic training, she was sent to the Armed Forces School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. All Army, Navy and Marine musicians train intensively for six months. “It’s very concentrated,” she emphasizes. “That’s how they can get you in and out of there in just six months. I thought the music classes in college were focused, but I had to balance them with academics. At the AFSM, we’re trained in theory, ear training, ensemble playing and more. It’s all music, all day long. The training is a great catalyst for young musicians, who come in at many different levels of proficiency. But you come out of there being able to sight-read and play anything that’s put in front of you.

“We have the opportunity to play many different styles and genres of music: concert music, old-style big-band music, small jazz ensemble and combos of all kinds. We’re very busy, playing for about 500 events and ceremonies every year. This band plays a lot in Balboa Park and Coronado; the operational tempo is very high.”

She finds continual inspiration in the musicians around her, like Gunnery Sergeant Chris Arellano, who graduated from Grant High in Van Nuys. “He’s head-and-shoulders above his peer group,” Wire enthuses.

Wire thinks she was preprogrammed for marches: “I grew up watching old movies — Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] and the like. So when a march was part of the soundtrack, I took it all in.”

She also recognizes the power of the “Marine’s Hymn.” “Marches are intended to inspire,” she stresses, “and the ‘Marines’ Hymn’ is so potent. The lyrics spell out very plainly who we are and what we do: We will fight our country’s battles, in the air and land and sea. It’s something that resonates with Marines and civilians alike.”

We often see parades on television in which the audio of passing performers is not the actual sound from the parade location. Glossy, unblemished studio sound — usually prerecorded — is what we hear. When the USMC West Coast Composite Band takes to Colorado Boulevard on Monday morning, it will play live and loud, so that everyone can hear it. It’s the hard way, but it’s the right way, just as the Marines have always done.

KIRK SILSBEE is veteran writer and critic on jazz and culture and is a frequent contributor to Marquee.

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