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In Memoriam

Navy Band History 1925 -1942

United States Navy Band, 1937, in the Sail Loft, Washington Navy Yard, Lt. Charles Benter, Leader. Future leaders, Charles Brendler and Anthony Mitchell are seated in the clarinet section.


The year 1925 marked a new era of stature for the Navy Band.  In recent years, its bandmaster Charles Benter had increased membership from a dwindling 20 members to the 75 musicians under his command.  The Monday night concert series at the U.S. Capital, as well as the radio broadcasts from Anacostia Naval Air Station had increased the visibility and prominence of the band.  The Department of the Navy was already referring to the band as “The Navy Band" rather than its previous title of the "Navy Yard Band."  The stage was set for a more official designation for the Navy Band.

That role came in the form of a bill signed into law by the 68th Congress.  Public Law 611, Title 34, Section 596 ordained "That hereafter the band now stationed at the Navy Yard... and known as the Navy Yard Band shall be designated as the United States Navy Band..."  On the day of his inauguration, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law.  The same bill authorized Bandmaster Charles Benter to wear the uniform of a Navy Lieutenant.  Later that year, President Coolidge authorized the band to go on on national concert tours, the first of which was a tour of the south that began on Oct. 12 and lasted 8 weeks.

This new stature of the Navy Band brought increased national and executive recognition.  Throughout the late 1920s, Lt. Benter frequently led the band aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower, as well as functions at the White House and other local venues.  For his service and accomplishments, Lt. Benter became a member of the National Press Club in 1926 and received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Columbia University in 1927.  The Navy Band welcomed home a number of national figures during these years, including Charles Lindbergh from his historic solo flight across the Atlantic and Admiral Richard Byrd after his successful journey to the South Pole.  The Navy Band's historical ties to the radio also continued when Arthur Godfrey, announcer for the HourofMemories program on NBC radio, was featured alongside the Navy Band.

The Navy Band's participation in a fund raising event in 1926 brought in an historic figure.  As part of an event to raise money to restore "Old Ironsides," the USS Constitution, John Philip Sousa guest conducted the Navy Band, returning to involvement with the Navy 7 years after his resignation from the Naval Reserves.  This combined band concert featured a 200-piece band made up of the major bands of the Army, Navy and Marines.  Sousa would return to conduct the Navy Band in 1932 in a concert at the Capital in celebration of the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.  This would prove to be the last time that Sousa conducted a major military band in public. 

Lt Charles Benter

Lieutenant Charles Benter
Leader, 1925-1942

Under Lt. Benter, the Navy Band's status continued to rise in the minds of not just the public, but in the community of professional music.  A key reflection of this newfound respect for the band and it's leader came in the founding of the American Bandmaster's Association.  The ABA was the brainchild of Dr. Edwin Franko Goldman, one of the most prominent bandmasters of the early 20th century.  Goldman saw the need for an elite organization that could help propel the state of band music forward.  In 1929, Goldman established the ABA with a very small, select group that included himself, Sousa and Benter.  The ABA has since gone on to become one of the most respected band organizations and has maintained close ties to the Navy Band throughout those years. 

The Great Depression era that ran throughout the 1930s shaped the Navy Band in a number of different ways.  At the time of the Depression, touring by the Navy Band was partially subsidized by modest admission fees that civilian tour directors charged out of necessity.  With the poor economic climate, most American families were simply not able to afford the fees and touring stopped during this period.  Prior to the stoppage, however, tours to Philadelphia and New Orleans proved to be unique in that the Navy Band actually traveled by ship on the USS Wyoming and lodged onboard the ship even while docked.   By 1932, however, the Navy Band joined the Army and Marine Bands in drawing down their plans to tour. 

The challenges to the Navy Band were not confined to matters of performances, however.  In 1931, the Secretary of the Navy asked a friend in Congress to sponsor a bill that would eliminate the Navy Band.  Benter, in response, campaigned tirelessly to keep the band intact and successfully spearheaded a letter-writing and telegram campaign by ordinary Americans and musical luminaries such as John Philip Sousa, Karl King and Arthur Prior.  The campaign proved successful and the band remained in existence. 

The challenges of the country were not confined to the military, however, and the poor economic climate may have ended up benefiting the Navy Band in the end.  With disposable income shortages affecting the entertainment and art industries, many civilian musicians found it difficult to find work.  This ultimately drove more expertly-trained musicians into military service, greatly increasing the quality of musicians available to military bands.  In order to further raise the quality of musicians in the Navy, Benter received approval in 1935 to establish the Navy School of Music.  The school was originally stationed at the Washington Navy Yard and even used Navy Band musicians as instructors.  The School of Music eventually expanded to serve as a music school for all of the service bands and moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Today, all military musicians not in the so-called "premier bands" attend the School of Music. 

Charles Benter's stewardship of the Navy Band continued until 1942.  Despite the limitations on touring and economic constraints, the late 1930s would be marked with significant highlights for the Navy Band.  The Navy Band became the first foreign military band to be featured in the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Canada in 1937.  The appearance did not come easily, as Benter himself had to lobby hard in order to get approval for the appearance.  His first challenge was to simply gain the approval of the Secretary of State.  In the end, this necessitated approval from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.  Benter had used the occasion of a White House Correspondents dinner to lobby the President himself on this matter.  Furthermore, a political struggle with the American Federation of Musicians over the employment of Navy musicians had to be settled as well.  In the end, the appearance proved successful and resulted in repeat invitations in 1941, 1947, 1955, 1960 and 1964. 

Further milestones during this period included rendering honors for some of the most important dignitaries to visit Washington, D.C.  The most notable example included the arrival of the King and Queen of England on June 9, 1939.  The Navy Band's involvement included rendering honors and playing marches both on the USS Potomac and at the Navy Yard itself.  Later that year, the Navy Band completed its first coast-to-coast tour.  Though it came two years before his retirement, perhaps the most fitting tribute to Lt. Charles Benter's career and leadership of the Navy Band came in 1940 when the American Bandmasters Association recognized the Navy Band as the most outstanding band in America.  The ABA bestowed upon the United States Navy Band the title of "the World's Finest," a title the Navy Band still retains.


Tchaikovsky's "Humoresque"

Anchors Aweigh (1929 acetate recording)

under the baton of Lt. Charles Benter.