The Navy Yard Band
In the nation's capital, a concurrence of events would form the foundation of what would become the United States Navy Band. The first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, authorized the construction of the Washington Navy Yard in 1799. Today, it remains the oldest shore establishment in the United States. Initially intended as a shipbuilding facility, the Navy Yard primarily served as a weapons production factory by the 1850s. In fact, it was known primarily as the Naval Gun Factory, even before the official establishment of the Gun Factory in 1886. In 1904, an employee of the Navy Yard, Mr. Charles Stanley, found musicians among the workers already on the Navy Yard in places such as the Government Printing Office and the Patent Office. By 1905, 18 musicians were under the direction of a Bandmaster Brenner. This band was ordered onto the USS Mayflower, a Presidential Yacht anchored at the Navy Yard. This band's highlight may have been performing, by invitation, ceremonial music for President Theodore Roosevelt and the heads of state of both Russia and Japan, facilitating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. This band continued under the direction of Brenner and Bandmasters Heine Myers and Henry Peterman through 1916.
Augmentation for this band came in 1916 when the band from the United States Battleship Kansas was assigned to the Receiving Station part of the Washington Navy Yard. Upon the decommissioning of the Kansas, the band's leader, Bandmaster S. Tortino maintained his status as leader. The musicians from the Mayflower were then transferred to the Navy Yard, forming a new group of 34 musicians under the direction of Tortino, with Peterson as his assistant. It was in 1918 that Captain Arthur Willard, Commander of the Washington Navy Yard, recognized the value of the band and moved them to the northwest corner of the Navy Yard into a building known as the Sail Loft. Though the band would eventually be reassigned back to the Receiving Station and then return in the mid 1920s, this building would serve as the home of the Navy Band for the better part of the next century and into today.
With the end of World War I in 1918, the Navy Band's future was a precarious one at best. The demobilization following the war affected the bands just as much, if not more, than the rest of the military. Servicemen returned home, leaving fewer musicians in the Navy. Nevertheless, audiences throughout the country had become accustomed to the performances and presence of the bands. Furthermore, ceremonial needs in Washington and across the service still needed musicians. The Navy Yard Band, as it was now known, continued to shrink all the way down to 18 musicians. Bandmaster Tortino would follow then-Admiral Willard to sea duty in 1919, handing the reigns to a member already in the organization, Charles Benter. Benter would prove to be integral to the creation of the United States Navy Band.
Charles Benter originally joined the Navy at the age of 17. His age factored into his designation as an “apprentice boy musician.” His first assignment was to the gunboat Paducah. Captain Winterhalter of the Paducah heard Benter playing mandolin and suggested he form a “Fu-Fu” band, a lighter musical ensemble built from anything that could make sound. The experiment went over so well that Winterhalter further prompted Benter to enter the Navy Musicians School in Norfolk, Virginia. It proved to be little more than an exercise, however, as Benter had already acquired a great deal of knowledge and graduated with honor after three months. Following assignment to the Battleship Rhode Island, Benter became the Navy's youngest bandmaster at the age of 21 when he took over The Rhode Island's band in 1908. Tours as the leader of bands on the USS Mississippi and the USS Connecticut predated his assignment to the Washington Navy Yard in 1919.
As Benter took the reigns of the Navy Yard Band, he was charged with increasing the dwindling membership to 30. In order to recruit, the band made a 45-day tour that offered incentives to musicians. These incentives included higher ratings upon enlistment, living expenses and allowances, permission to live off-base and permission to wear civilian clothing when off duty. This proved successful in luring musicians to the band, but Benter soon found it difficult to maintain the authorization to keep the musicians. In order to maintain the band's prominence and necessity, Benter scheduled many more performances, ceremonies and radio broadcasts. Between 1920 and 1924, the Navy Yard Band performed on the radio both locally and throughout the nation. When a small orchestra transmitted from Anacostia Naval Air Station in 1920, it was the first service band radio broadcast in the area.
It was during this period that Benter also tried to increase the live presence of the Navy Band. Since further touring was constrained by funding, Benter initiated a Monday evening series of concerts at the U.S. Capital Plaza during the summer months of 1922. These popular concerts proved to be successful and have continued with very few exceptions all the way to present day, known as the Concerts at the Capital. These efforts seemed to have been met with success, since pay began to increase in the Navy Yard Band. The membership expanded to 75 musicians plus the conductor, now officially known as the “Leader.” In February of 1924, the Department of the Navy even authorized all members to wear the uniform of a Chief Musician, increasing both the uniformity and the impressive appearance of the band. Perhaps most importantly, the Department of the Navy began referring to the Navy Yard Band as the “Navy Band.” Though its premier status was not yet officially established, the Navy Yard Band under Benter was set to enter a new era of prominence.
Anchors Aweigh (1929 acetate recording)
under the baton of Lt. Charles Benter.