First-time music producer Jason Burt came across a musical treasure trove when he stumbled on an almost 80-year-old 78rpm made by his grandfather, a trumpet player, and other soldiers in a US Army Air Force band. The troops were serving in the Philippine campaign of the Pacific theater. Before the war ended, the 20-piece orchestra was able to record ten “chart-topping” songs, and Burt’s grandfather was permitted to bring this recording home.
Listening to this recording brings goosebumps with the sheer beauty of the music contrasted so starkly against the ever-present potential of ultimate sacrifice. The hope and good humor of a jaunty “Perdido,” the schmaltzy swing of “Long Ago and Far Away” and haunting, wistful “East of the Sun (West of the Moon)” demonstrate these men had the chops to be immersed in the music and give it their all, forgetting for a moment the realities of wartime (over 13,000 US Army and Air Force soldiers were killed in the campaign).
Do you remember your first exposure to this music when you were growing up?
Growing up, my brother and I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house and music filled that household. Every morning, after trotting behind my grandpa during his morning calisthenics, he would go down the hall and play his trumpet. It’s the earliest memories I have of his music. I was just 5 at the time. I knew it was good, but at that age I assumed everyone’s grandpa could play the trumpet at that skill level.
The first time I heard the music on this album (created by my then-20-year-old grandpa in 1945) I was an adult. He had put together his life story and different recordings from his life and two of those songs (“Moonlight in Vermont” and “Trumpet Rhapsody”) were on a CD he had made. At the time, I was just starting my unhealthy obsession with WWII history. He gave me a copy and I went for a drive listening to what is now the oral history track on the album. When that finished, “Moonlight in Vermont” came on and I had to pull over the car. I heard my grandpa play the trumpet all the time growing up…but this was different. It was like I had never heard him play before; the merging of my passion for history and his music brought us even closer than we already were.
What was the moment you decided to revive these songs and why?
My grandpa passed away in 2016 and my grandma in 2019. We had cleaned out their house and we came across his WWII recordings in the attic. The only two songs I had ever heard were the ones he put on those CDs, so there were eight new songs that I had yet to hear. Not having a record player and saddened by the era of my Burt grandparents ending, I put them on the shelf in my closet where they sat until the spring of 2020. A friend loaned me his record player during the COVID shutdown and when I found some time to myself, I put the records on to see if they even played…not knowing what I would do with them after. I was hooked by the nostalgia of grandpa, the war and the big band sound. As I sat listening, I felt like I was in the jungles of the Philippines in 1945 listening to the 746th Far East Air Force Band play a show for front line troops. When the records were done spinning, I knew I had to do something to honor my grandpa and the men in the band with him by sharing their music and story with the world.
What captures your imagination about this music?
I think the thing that sparks your imagination the most with this music is the story. If you just listen to the music without knowing the story behind it and the men who made it, you would just think they were old records. When you hear my grandpa on the oral history track tell listeners how one of their first shows ended up on the front lines with fighting going on behind them or how they played the military awards ceremony for the Angels of Bataan nurses after they were freed from a Japanese POW camp, your imagination takes over and you realize these guys weren’t playing shows on a stage in front of adoring fans. Their musical purpose was to play music for front line soldiers that needed a respite from the day-to-day struggles of war…music to remind them of home and who was waiting for them at home.
Talk about your work as a historian.
My musical career is forever tied with my grandpa. Growing up, the family was so musical. Everyone was made to play an instrument and read music to some degree, except for me. I was the athlete in the family and nobody forced the basketball out of my hand.
As I grew to appreciate my grandpa and his music more, I had this void inside me. My grandpa and I were as close as could be, but what drew us to each other was our opposite interests. He loved hearing about everything I was into and I loved hearing all of his stories; however, musically, I was never going to make any kind of contribution to his musical legacy because I lacked the ability to play an instrument or even read music. From the moment I started this project, it was always something for me personally that I could do to push his (and his bandmates’) musical legacy forward. I couldn’t make an album in a tent where the war had been fought or keep the records safe for 75 years. They did the hard part. History and storytelling are my talents and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get their story and music out there for them.
What did your research entail and what was the most interesting thing you learned?
A lot of my early research was talking to different historians and museums and finding out if anything like this existed…an album recorded by a front line band unit out where the war was happening.
The thing that I’ve enjoyed the most and learned the most from has been tracking down relatives of band members. All I’ve had to go on is the names my grandpa has mentioned and a couple I connected the dots to with some research. Learning about those guys and their stories of being in the band with my grandpa has given me an even greater appreciation for the military musician. There’s an assumption, even by me growing up, that if you were in the band you weren’t in any kind of danger in WWII and that just wasn’t the case.
What was the most interesting part of producing the CD?
The whole process of producing an album has been fascinating. I’ve run the whole gamut: reaching out to people to do stories on the album, recruiting sound engineers to work on the album, organizing the album musically, tracking down individual Spotify playlist curators and asking them to consider the album for their playlist…
I think my favorite part so far has been the concept and creation of the liner notes and album artwork. I’ve really enjoyed that portion of the project as a creative outlet. There is something I missed out on that I would have loved to have been in the room for. Transferring the recordings from the 75-year-old 78s with the sound engineers at Lurssen Mastering would have been so fascinating. The whole process of digitizing something that old and working their magic on it would have really appealed to me; however, because it happened at the height of the COVID restrictions, I wasn’t able to be in the studio with them.
What was your grandfather’s take on how the music helped them get through the war?
I spoke with him often about the war informally as a grandson and formally in video interviews as a historian, and his view on music in wartime was always that it was a lifeline to service members who were overseas.
Being able to perform for people and take their mind off of war, even for only a moment, was what he lived for. Of all the duties he performed as a trumpet player during the war, however, he always said his most important job was playing “Taps” for those who didn’t make it home. That really took an emotional toll on him. The last time he played “Taps” in the war was when they found out that Japan officially surrendered. The general at Fort McKinley ordered him to take his trumpet over to what is now the American Cemetery in Manila (a total of 17,206 graves, it has the largest number of graves of any cemetery for U.S. personnel killed during World War II) to play “Taps” to sound the end of the war for all those who weren’t going home.
Which songs are your top favorites?
My favorite songs on the album are “East of the Sun West of the Moon” and “If You Are But a Dream.” Those are two of the songs on the album that feature the singer of the group. He has the most nostalgic-sounding voice and it really makes you feel like it is the 1940s. There’s a bit of disappointment in myself, when I hear those songs, as well. My grandpa never mentioned the singer in his narration notes and I had never asked his name, so he is still a bit of a mystery to me. Hopefully, I’ll have a research breakthrough when I start writing the book about the band and can find out who he is and his story with the band.
What’s this about the Grammys?
The album came out on Veteran’s Day of 2020, 75 years after the official end of World War II. The album is going to be in the cycle for the 2022 Grammy Awards with nominations coming later this year. My team and I are optimistic that we can get a Best Historical Album nomination with the historic nature of the album, the amazing work that the sound engineers did on the recordings, great liner note contributors, and even a special edition album that comes with a DVD of the band in the Pacific playing their instruments and horsing around with each other. There’s nothing else like it.
The only other thing I would mention would be that this project has two sides to it…we are very much focused on the music side and trying to get these WWII veterans a Best Historical Album Grammy; however, there is a philanthropy component to this project too. On the oral history track that my grandpa made in the mid-1980s, he mentions that one of the first shows this band played was with a USO group that ended up being on the front lines. The plan was always to donate a portion of sales to the USO and the band. I’ve been in talks with them and recently signed a contract with them on the project. They will help promote the album and a portion of sales will be directed to them so they can continue to do the work of making veterans feel a little closer to home while they are away from their families.
For more information visit https://746feaf.hearnow.com/
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jason Burt.
© 2021 Debbie Burke