On August 13, 1998, the United States Navy Band entered one of the most stable eras of its history in decades as Commander Ralph M. Gambone took command. Four years later, he was promoted to Captain, a fitting rank given the longevity he would have with the Navy Band. After decades of turnover at the position that typically allowed for commands that lasted anywhere from 3 to 5 years, Capt. Gambone would serve over eight years in the position, making him the longest-tenured commanding officer since Cmdr. Charles Brendler. Capt. Gambone's career that led him to the Navy Band had a bit of symmetry to it. He entered the Navy as a clarinetist in 1969, assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy Band. He would eventually find his way to the U.S. Navy Band where he was promoted to Chief Musician. A subsequent transfer to the Bureau of Naval Personnel as Assistant Budget Manager for the Navy Music Program in 1978 served as a precursor to his commission as an ensign in 1981. Gambone held a number of officer posts in the Navy Music Program before a successful tour as Director of the U.S. Naval Academy Band where he began his career. Just as in his years as an enlisted musician, Capt. Gambone came to the U.S. Navy Band, this time as Commanding Officer.
One of the very early and most lasting successes of Capt Gambone's stewardship of the Navy Band came the following year. An otherwise musically balanced organization, the Navy Band lacked a contemporary music ensemble that specialized in rock and pop genres. Since the dissolution of the Port Authority rock ensemble, the Navy Band had filled that gap with smaller groups of musicians. One of these groups, Topside, was the most prominent and at times filled crucial high-profile roles as needed. Nevertheless, the group was based around a quartet and was often not recognized to the degree that the Country Current or Commodores were.
The Navy Band's permanent solution was the founding of the Cruisers. The Cruisers are the Navy's premier contemporary entertainment ensemble. The group is made up of eight of the Navy's most dynamic performers and specializes in genres such as jazz, rhythms & blues, classic rock, adult contemporary and pop. The Cruisers have been a major part of the Navy Band's effort to reach a broader audience and has been present at many of the most high-profile events since its inception. In fact, in their first year the Cruisers traveled to Keflavik, Iceland to perform for the Naval Air Station's Navy Birthday Ball in October 1999. Without the Cruisers, the largest productions of today's Navy Band, including the Navy Birthday Concert, Holiday Concert and the Concert on the Avenue would not be the same.
As triumphant as the musical success of the Cruisers was, a more somber reminder of the Navy Band's ceremonial function came after the attacks on September 11, 2001. The shock of the attacks necessitated a number of events to aid in the country's healing. The Navy Band participated in a number of these events and by all accounts were helpful in restoring stability and a sense of normalcy. The first of such events was the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, just days after the attacks. The Sea Chanters performed a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace" as part of the ceremony that was broadcast nationally. A month later on October 11, 2001, the Navy Band participated in the "United in Memory" Memorial Service that included President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The combined military chorus performance of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" reportedly caused the audience to stand up spontaneously and hold their small American flags above their heads. In remembrance, the Navy Band also participated in the "Beam of Hope" candlelight vigil at the Freedom Plaza in 2002, and a video recording of "America the Beautiful" from that year was used by the NFL for all of their national broadcasts prior to each game.
The Navy Band continued to fulfill its role in this regard for a number of other unfortunate events. State funerals are an uncommon event in the United States today, yet the Navy Band participated in two of them in the span of just a few years. On June 5, 2004, the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band and Sea Chanters honored the death of former President Ronald Reagan. Just two years later, Navy Band honored former President Gerald Ford on December 26, 2006. As part of the proceedings, the Sea Chanters sang "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" in the U.S. Capital while President Ford, who served in the Navy during World War II, was lying in state. Although former President Nixon never had a full state funeral by his own wishes, the Sea Chanters had previously sung at his funeral in Yorba Linda, California in 1994. The Navy Band also performed for a memorial service in 2003 to honor those killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy.
For all of these events that honored the loss of life, the Navy Band was relentless in its commitment to education for younger generations. In 2001, the Navy Band launched the Young Artist Solo Competition. The Young Artist Solo Competition is an audition opportunity for young musicians to compete for the opportunity to play a concerto or other major work with the Navy Band. The competition continues to this day and attracts a wider pool of candidates each year. Furthermore, in 2003, under the direction of Chief Musician and principal saxophonist Timothy Roberts, the Navy Band International Saxophone Symposium expanded to include the College Quartet Series. This change not only greatly expanded the number of performances available at the event but also reflected the growing importance of saxophone chamber music. By many accounts, the College Quartet Series has served to spur interest and rehearsals in colleges throughout the United States.
In addition to increasing ceremonial demands, the Navy Band continued to participate in notable musical performances. In August of 1999, the Navy Band traveled to Quebec City, Canada for the first Festival International de Musiques Militaries de Quebec. The first year of this military tattoo went well and established it as one of the biggest tattoos in North America. The Navy Band returned to Scandinavia in 2004, this time for the 7th Norwegian Military Tattoo in Oslo, Norway. In 2003, the Country Current celebrated with a 30th Anniversary Concert that included special gusts Bill Emerson and Jerry Gilmore, and the Sea Chanters gave their ninth performance with the National Symphony Orchestra for the nationally-televised Memorial Day Concert. The Concert Band and the Sea Chanters helped welcome a new addition to the National Mall with the World War II Memorial Dedication.
On March 30, 2007, Capt. Gambone retired after a distinguished career and successful leadership of the Navy Band. The occasion was an historic one as his successor, Captain George N. Thompson, was the first African-American Bandmaster in the history of the United States Navy. A pianist by training, Capt. Thompson enlisted in the Navy in 1977 and served as a part of many Navy Bands. His career was different a bit from that of other leaders of the Navy Band because of his background as a contemporary musician. For instance, he performed on piano as a part of Navy Band Orlando's contemporary ensemble "Flagship," as a vocalist with Navy Band Newport's "Northeastern Navy Showband" and as the leader of the jazz/rock unit "The Diplomats." Prior to his arrival at the U.S. Navy Band, Capt. Thomson served as Commanding Officer of the Navy School of Music and Head of the Navy Music Program.
Capt. Thompson's time at the U.S. Navy Band was short as he stepped down in 2010. Under his leadership, the Navy Band gave a highly-acclaimed performance at the 2007 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, IL. The Navy Band returned to the Pentagon and the site of the 9/11 attacks for the Pentagon Memorial Dedication on September 11, 2008. Following the 2009 Inauguration of President Obama, the Navy Band also traveled in August to Quebec City for the 11th Festival International de Musiques Militaries de Quebec, the event they helped establish.
Today, the Navy Band is under the command of Captain Brian O. Walden. Capt. Walden enlisted in the Navy in 1981 as a trumpet instrumentalist. His enlisted assignments include Navy Bands in Charleston, New Orleans, Guam, the Marianas Islands and Norfolk. After his commissioning, Walden served as director of the Allied Forces Southern Europe Band and Navy and Great Lakes. He also held positions as Executive Officer and Director of Training at the School of Music and Leader of the U.S. Naval Academy Band.
Capt. Walden took command of the U.S. Navy Band in 2010 and has already marked a number of important occasions with the band. In addition to two successful National Concert Tours and the 2010 recording "Derivations," the Navy Band released an ambitious DVD project entitled "Lincolnshire Posy." The DVD contains video recordings from the 1987 rehearsal and performance of Percy Aldridge Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy under the baton of Frederick Fennell. The DVD also includes a 2011 recording of Lincolnshire Posy by the Navy Band and a roundtable discussion of the piece featuring the foremost names in wind band music today. In 2011, the Navy Band welcomed the 34th International Saxophone Symposium guest artist Branford Marsalis in performances with both the Concert Band and the Commodores Jazz Ensemble. Later that year. the band performed at change of command ceremonies for both the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff within days of each other. Furthering the Navy Band's involvement with military tattoos, the Navy Band made their first appearance at the 2012 Virginia International Tattoo.
The United States Navy Band has been a constant in the United States since 1925, but what has not been constant has been the structure of the organization itself. From humble beginnings as a small band at the Navy Yard in the early 20th century, the Navy Band has grown in both stature and function. More than simply a concert and ceremonial band, the Navy Band now consists of a mixed choir, a jazz ensemble, a country/bluegrass band and a contemporary music ensemble. The addition of the Sea Chanters, Commodores Jazz Ensemble, Country Current and Cruisers has redefined what music is possible from the Navy Band. As ceremonial commitments increase and more events require the band's presence, the Navy Band is better positioned to fulfill its mission than at any other time in its history. The changes it has undergone over the years are integral to its position now as the "World's Finest" and an essential part of the United States Navy and the country as a whole.