We're an American Band!
Airmen in fatigues file into a large hall to report for duty. They look like typical members of any Air Force unit, except for one thing: Most are armed with musical instruments. At precisely 1 p.m., the band strikes up. The atmosphere is instantly transformed.
The room comes alive with the vivid sound of the 1940 chart topper “In the Mood,” transporting me to an era that predates the musicians. The vocalist would have done the Andrew Sisters proud, resonating in harmony with the synced brass ensemble. This is true swing, as mastered nearly 75 years ago by the song’s composer who perished in the line of duty as Maj. Glenn Miller of the Army Air Force Band.
In another room, two vocalists in a smaller band alternate on a soulful rendition of Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The guitarist cuts in for a solo with a dazzling display of skill. Like their swinging counterparts next door, smiles indicate that this is clearly a labor of love.
This is the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, aka the PACAF Band, based at Yokota Air Base, Japan. It consists of 24 active-duty full-time professional musicians and one civilian community relations coordinator. It also has a 15-member detachment group stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
“Our mission encompasses delivering the emotional impact of music to 36 nations, 1,000 languages, 16 time zones and three billion people,” says Master Sgt. Julie Bradley, one of the band’s vocalists. “Music mitigates the tyranny of distance by being a universal language understood and felt by all. The emotional impact of music helps create long term-trust and friendship with our partners.”
The band is made up of two ensembles, Pacific Trends rock band and Pacific Showcase jazz band. While Pacific Trends plays American pop from the 60s to today along with some Japanese pop, Pacific Showcase specializes in a mix of instrumental and vocal favorites, from early New Orleans jazz to modern compositions. Needless to say, Glenn Miller tunes are an indispensable part of its repertoire.
One of 12 Air Force bands, the PACAF Band was established as the United States Air Force Band of the Pacific at Eglin Field, Florida in 1941. Its home bases over the years have included French Polynesia, Guadalcanal and the Philippines before settling in Japan in July of 1988. It’s tasked with helping the Air Force build relationships with the partners in the region through face-to-face contact in a very non-threatening way.
“Music speaks all languages,” Bradley says. “It’s a powerful tool in strengthening relationships and partnerships with our Japanese allies and in areas where there is not a specific military presence. Where tensions exist, music has been proven to break down barriers by bridging cultures and creating positive and lasting impressions of the United States.”
The band gives nearly 200 performances a year to more than 125,000 audience members, not only in Japan, but throughout West Pacific region.
“Our area of responsibility covers all of Pacific Asia, from Hong Kong, Burma, Guam, Singapore, India, Mongolia, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, to the Philippines and Laos; and (we) regularly tour Korea and Japan,” says Bradley. “In the last four months we have performed in Australia, China, Korea, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam.”
The band often plays for U.S. embassies abroad to support Americans living overseas with sounds from back home. This is in addition to providing entertainment at military community events such as ceremonies, parties and morale events. The band also performs at host-nation events such as Japan’s Sapporo International Snow and Ice Festival, the Centennial Celebration of Korean and American and the Asian Aerospace Air show in Singapore. But that’s not all.
PACAF Band often collaborates with its musical counterparts in the Japan Self Defense Forces and other local musicians. It performs at local schools and holds music clinics to give students a chance to work with professionals. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of the job; but all that travel on a tight budget also has its challenges, says Maj. Cristina Moore-Urrutia, commander and conductor of the band.
“We are traveling quite a bit,” she says. “It’s very difficult. We have to be very wise. We have to be thinking about where we are going to go and why we are going there, and choose very carefully.”
Band members often work 10- to 12-hour days. In addition to being professional musicians, they are assigned to one or more of the band’s administrative sections. They serve as their own roadies when on the road, and usually rehearse at least a couple of hours every day, according to Bradley.
“There is no typical day, which can be a great thing but also a challenge,” says Bradley. “When we are at home, we spend time rehearsing and accomplishing our Air Force requirements. Unlike many other operational squadrons who have a support staff, we are completely self-sufficient. When we are on the road our performance day will consist of setting up for the concerts, media interviews and the performances.”
Bradley says being a PACAF Band member in Japan has its ups as well as downs: “We love connecting and exchanging our cultures with this amazing country. The downs would be spending time away from our families.”
To become a PACAF Band member, applicants must audition. After passing the audition, comes basic military training. Why join?
“Consistently, I think we would all agree we wanted to play music for a living and serve our country,” says Bradley.
Bradley is a former high school music teacher who auditioned for the U.S. Air Force Academy Band in Colorado 16 years ago. She later joined the Air Force Academy Band, which gave her a chance to travel around the world as well as meet her husband, trombonist and fellow band member, Master Sgt. Karl Bradley. The couple joined the PACAF Band in June.
“It is very good fit for me,” she said. “I feel very proud to do this job.” And there’s plenty of reason to be proud, like playing for wounded warriors or for civilians in struggling countries.
On a recent visit to Brunei the PACAF Band played a hospital for seriously ill patients. Moore-Urrutia recalls that a lady came up to her afterward and said she had not seen her mother smile like she did during the performance in months.
“Being able to bring smile to people’s faces – to give them a little bit of encouragement sometimes in very dark times – that’s one thing that I think what we can do for any audience,” says Moore-Urrutia.
U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia
Look for the next U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia performance near you.
Upcoming performances by the PACAF Band include the 2015 Naha Air Festa at Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Naha Air Base on Okinawa Dec. 13, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
If you are interested in having PACAF Band perform at your event – or want more information about upcoming performances – contact them via telephone, email or their webpage.
Location: Sakura Shell (Bldg. 4361) Yokota Air Base, Japan
Tel: (DSN) 315-225-3358 (COM) 011-81-311-755-3358