Music Is My Occupation

Jamaica 2013 226

The Jamaica Defense Force Band (JDF), or as they are commonly referred to, the military band, plays here last February at Hope Gardens in Kingston where I was fortunate enough to see them play under the direction of maestro Albert Hird. There were three bands where boys could play for a paycheck in this arena—the Jamaica Military Band, the Jamaica Regimental Band, and the Jamaica Constabulary Band. The military band was, and still is, a prestigious band where a large number of Alpha Boys gained employment after graduation. In the earliest years at Alpha, Walter S. Harrison became a drill sergeant at the school, appointed by the Jamaican Defense Force, and he even served as the inaugural bandmaster for one year but continued on as drill sergeant through the mid-1960s. As a result, there was a strong connection between Alpha and the military and after graduation from Alpha, boys frequently took positions in the West Indian Regiment which became the Jamaican Military Band after independence. Band boys trained at Alpha either went into the military bands, which provided a manageable living, or they entered into the jazz club circuit, and so orchestra leaders scouted at Alpha to fill their seats.

A number of pioneering ska artists got their start in the military band. Trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore served in the military band until he decided to leave over his refusal to cut his dreadlocks. He served for three years though and was discharged because he was “not amenable to military service,” and he then went into the club circuit. Saxophonist Lester Sterling also gained employment with the military band before he too left for a chance to play different tunes in the clubs. Sterling and Moore were in the military band at the same time.

Dr. Sandra Mayo writes in her article “A Sound Legacy” of the Alpha and military band connection. “With its emphasis on discipline, and through the development of its music programme and cadet unit, Alpha has served as a training ground for Jamaica’s military. . . . As a feeder institution to the military bands, Alpha through its music programme not only instilled values of discipline, uniformity, and respect for authority and good citizenship, but also prepared students for industrious lives.”

I asked Mr. Hird this past winter about how many of his band members were once students at Alpha. He had them demonstrate through a show of hands. About 75% of the men raised their hands and many said they were taught by Bandmaster Winston “Sparrow” Martin. We think of Alpha as an incubator for the bands that recorded, like the Skatalites and the like, and the clubs and orchestras, but the military band was also, and still is, a way that Alpha Boys went upward and onward.