Airman 'of note': Trombonist brings two decades of experience, education to Air Force band

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jason J. Brown
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In a cluttered corner of a whitewashed room adorned with moving boxes and mismatched furniture, a trio of U.S. Air Force Airmen sling brass instruments under their arms, deliberately tracing their eyes along the sheets on stands before them. After a murmur of agreement, they ready their instruments and roll through a flourish of notes from Cleo Erwine's "Boplicity."

After abruptly finishing the section, the trombonist, Airman 1st Class James Hubbard, grins at his session mates, offering his take on how they executed the phrase.
"There's a little 'ungh' on that note in there - it's nasty," he said, playfully grimacing and snapping his fingers. "I like it."

Hubbard is a trombonist with the U.S. Air Force Heritage of America Band, where he performs with the Rhythm in Blue Jazz Ensemble. Although a relative newcomer with less than two years in uniform, Hubbard is no novice in his craft.

The Pensacola, Florida native said he was born into a music-savvy family. The son of a classically trained clarinetist father and a multi-instrumentalist mother, developing a strong academic and performance acumen was seemingly predestined for Hubbard and his siblings. The family formed a virtual traveling band, playing light jazz at small gigs around their community.

"I started playing when I was nine, and having such a talented, musically intelligent family helped me learn early and develop a passion for performance," Hubbard said. "My dad would use a tape measure to mark positions on the slide of the trombone for me. I put in countless hours of practice through middle and high school."

His familial entrenchment in the art led to his pursuit and receipt of a bachelor's degree in music education from Louisiana State University, nearly earning a second bachelor's degree in music before moving on to Stony Brook University in New York to earn his master's degree in performance.

While at Stony Brook, Hubbard trained under accomplished instructors who also taught at prestigious music conservatories, including Manhattan's acclaimed Julliard School. He said though living in New York City was financially taxing, learning from some of the nation's best professors provided all the inspiration he needed to stay and allowed him to earn a living playing gigs across town.

"I freelanced a lot from ages 18 to 29, taking whatever gigs I could," he said. "Cover bands, jazz bands - whatever I could do to pay the bills."

Even as he worked on his doctorate degree, Hubbard recalled the pageantry his father, James Sr., experienced as a bandsman in the Marine Corps, and the wartime lore he passed on.

At the height of World War II with the U.S. waging conflicts on multiple fronts, the elder James Hubbard enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. His service took him to the Pacific Theater, where he skipped from island to island engaging Japanese Imperial forces during the Battle of Saipan.

"My dad used to tell me about how [the Marines] would travel via Higgins boats, and how they feared Kamikaze attacks by Japanese aircraft all the time. The guys aboard those boats were afraid," Hubbard recalled. "Well, my dad carried his clarinet in his backpack through the war. As the Marines huddled below decks during attacks, he'd pull out his clarinet and play old Dixieland tunes. It put the Marines more at ease."

After leaving the Marine Corps to pursue a career in performance, James Sr. eventually returned to the Corps, attending boot camp a second time and becoming a Marine bandsman. He eventually secured a position in the U.S. Marine Band, known colloquially as "The President's Own."

Hubbard said his father's passion for military music and patriotic ideals made an impact on him and he enjoyed seeing various military bands perform throughout his childhood.

Armed with an advanced education in music and a desire to perform, Hubbard began to imagine what a career as a military bandsman would be like, and contacted an Air Force recruiter.

"The Air Force has a history that I've known as a group of really excellent musicians, and a focus on great performances for their audiences," he said. "It's really through the excellence of the performances, the chance to be part of a great ensemble, and a way to continue my family's history of military service is why I decided to enlist in the Air Force."

Hubbard auditioned and earned a spot as a trombonist in the Heritage of America Band and left for Basic Military Training in 2013. Despite his familiarity to military bands through his father's service, he still was unsure of what to expect when he arrived at Langley Air Force Base to begin his operational career.

"When I first got here, I was auditioning the band as much as they were auditioning me," Hubbard said. "The first thing I saw was people in uniform rehearsing, relaxed and fine-tuning their performances. It was a surprise.

"I expected to see a very rigid military sort of lifestyle, and it wasn't that way," he continued. "I found professional Airmen who were very devoted, talented musicians."

Eager to hit the road and perform when he arrived in Virginia, Hubbard found himself in a band impacted by the effects of sequestration, which tightly limited the band's ability to travel and perform across the eastern seaboard of the country, their area of responsibility.

Fortunately, the band found ways to reach out to the community at the local level. Hubbard performed across Hampton Roads, into northern Virginia and southward into the Carolinas. What he found were communities full of proud supporters who made no secret of their love for the bands, their performances and the service of the Airmen behind the instruments.

"I love playing for the people in our communities, and they really value when we play for them. I've had several people come up to me with tears in their eyes after a performance, many with no military affiliation," Hubbard said. "They just love their country, and are very appreciative that we come out and perform in their towns."

Hubbard recalled a performance in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the group performed at the height of sequestration. A middle-aged woman approached him after the show, and thanked him for giving her a welcome dose of patriotism and hope, as her son was currently deployed in support of missions in the Middle East.

"She said to me, 'a strong country has a strong military, and that the band gives the military a face to a name to people in the communities,'" he recalled. "We're bridging a gap and giving the nation a sense of pride, and that lady felt that. Some of our fans' daughters and sons are deployed, and we're the closest thing to that deployed Service member for families stateside to connect with emotionally."

The mounting pressure on the military to downsize and eliminate unnecessary programs has introduced an industry dialogue in which the mission and necessity of America's military bands has been called into question by critics. Hubbard said his experiences in small-town America, interacting with grateful fans has exemplified the importance of the band's role in earning and building public trust and support.

"Military bands are engrained in tradition and history, and are woven into the fabric of America's military. We may have one or two folks with negative opinions and a loud microphone, but I choose to focus on the thousands of people that we play for and inspire," Hubbard said. "I invite any critics to come out and see the joy we bring to the communities we visit. I see a lot of good in what we do, and every time I finish a performance, the reaction from those in attendance is all the justification for our existence I need."

That passion for performance and positivity in the face of uncertainty is what drives Hubbard to perfect his craft. Since enlisting, he finished his doctorate degree in music, and plans to remain an Air Force musician for the "foreseeable future," hoping to teach music when his time in uniform is up.

"Music is a universal language -- everyone can relate in some way to music. We bring America's story to the masses using that universal language, and for an hour or so, give the guests a time out, some relaxation, and an opportunity to reflect on their country," Hubbard said. "You won't hear a better performance of national songs than we can provide, and that's how it should be. We're well-educated, well-rehearsed and very professional musicians who love being out there performing."