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U.S. Navy Band the Commodores stunningly pay tribute to Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan

The jazz ensemble put on a riveting performance, combining old classics with newly written pieces

Serving the nation since 1969, The Commodores continue the jazz big band legacy with some of the most qualified musicians in the world.
Serving the nation since 1969, The Commodores continue the jazz big band legacy with some of the most qualified musicians in the world.

Students and Charlottesville locals filled Old Cabell Hall Sunday evening, eagerly waiting for the arrival of the Commodores, the United States Navy’s premier jazz ensemble. Right as the clock struck four in the afternoon, the 18-piece ensemble took the stage. In almost an instant, the band began performing an energetic arrangement of the Navy’s theme song, “Anchors Aweigh,” setting the mood for an afternoon of awe and amusement. With an exciting combination of 20th-century classics, electrifying originals and patriotic tunes, the Commodores showcased jazz in all its glory. 

The Commodores are one of many service bands in the United States military. These groups each specialize in a specific genre, from ceremonial concert music to contemporary styles like rock. Service bands stand as proud ambassadors of American military tradition, functioning not only as musical ensembles but also as symbols of national identity and unity. 

The band visited the University to showcase music in honor of the 125th birthday of jazz musician Duke Ellington and the 100th birthday of singer Sarah Vaughan. However, the program was not limited to works from these jazz giants — pieces from traditional big band composers such as Thad Jones were showcased alongside newly composed originals by members of the ensemble. The diverse set list combined the familiarity of older works with the intrigue of listening to new pieces. Rob Holmes, unit leader and baritone saxophonist for the Commodores, spoke to this uniqueness. 

“We were, of course, tasked with playing the classics — I mean, the American jazz classics, the history of jazz,” Holmes said. “But also, we have 10 writers in the band and arrangers. And so we have new music coming in all the time. And that’s what’s so great about it … the [level of creativity] is super high.”

Serving the nation since 1969, the Commodores continue the jazz big band legacy with some of the most experienced musicians in the United States. John D’earth, University lecturer and director of jazz performance, joined the Navy Band onstage to collaborate, and he attests to their caliber of musicianship.

“Those service bands are top musicians,” D’earth said. “Those are some of the best musicians in the country, partly because they play all the time.”

It was this talent and collaboration that made the event so delightful. The concert featured the premiere of a new piece titled “Outside Insight,” composed by D’earth and arranged by Holmes. The collective assumed a unique setup for this number— D’earth and tenor saxophonist Justin Mendez took the stage front and center while the rest of the band backed them. 

The piece featured back-and-forth improvisation from the two soloists. D’earth chose to emphasize the contemporary and experimental nature of the music with his uniquely chosen rhythms and pitches. Meanwhile, Mendez opted to showcase his technical mastery of his instrument with rapid 16th-note runs and altissimo squeals. 

In addition to demonstrating the band’s composition skills, the concert also delivered on its promise to pay homage to some of the jazz greats. To honor legendary composer and pianist Duke Ellington, the Commodores performed “Royal Garden Blues,” Ellington’s take on a New Orleans classic. The audience was immediately transported back to the 1940s, hearing a style of music that encapsulated an entirely different era. Amidst the lighthearted melodies and playful solos, memories of Ellington’s contributions to jazz reverberated through the venue, creating an unforgettable homage to his enduring legacy. 

To honor acclaimed jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, vocalist Kristine Hsia reunited with the Commodores to perform Vaughan’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” The majority of the ensemble left the stage, leaving behind only eight members — a group comically yet appropriately named “the Combo-dores.” Despite the smaller and more intimate setting, the group still provided a powerful performance with rich harmonies, intense solos and Hsia’s alluring yet powerful singing. 

In a nod to the United States military, the Commodores ended the concert with the wonderfully arranged “Armed Forces Salute,” a medley of all the official songs from each branch. As each branch got their spotlight, members of the audience were asked to stand up if they served, honoring the multitude of veterans in the audience. 

Once the piece ended, a minutes-long standing ovation forced the Commodores to play an encore — they chose to perform their arrangement of “America the Beautiful.” As the concert concluded, the audience was left with a profound sense of patriotism and enthusiasm. Holmes commented on the impact he hopes the Commodores bring to their audiences. 

“Our band kind of brings the Navy to people,” Holmes said. “But also, you know, jazz is America’s uniquely American art form, right? So we get to share that with people, as United States sailors representing sailors all around the world. It’s kind of a perfect thing, I think — to represent America in that way, but also represent America through music.” 


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