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Combat rock: the life of a military musician

"All I've ever wanted to do is just play guitar, but if I have to defend myself, I know that I can," navy band director Geordie Kelly says.

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Geordie Kelly - JIAYUE YU
  • Jiayue Yu
  • Geordie Kelly

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Lieutenant Geordie Kelly, 46, director, Navy Band Great Lakes.

Until graduate school, I had hair down to the middle of my back. I was considering working on my doctorate in guitar performance. I was a graduate assistant, teaching the things that tenured professors didn't want to teach, like ear training and sight singing. I got so fed up with all that. I was there to play my instrument. I finished my master's degree, and I thought, "All right. Are you going to get a nine-to-five, coat-and-tie job and do music on the side as a hobby?" I have children; I had to have medical and dental insurance.

I looked at the army and the navy, and the navy looked really appealing, because all the bases are next to the ocean. I had calls from recruiters saying, "Hey, you have a master's degree. You want to fly helicopters?" I was like, "No, I just want to be in a band." The next thing you know, here I am, 20-plus years. I've been a commissioned officer for the past ten years. These days, I salute fewer people than salute me.

Military bands do a lot of ceremonial things. The navy band in D.C., three times a week they do funerals with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Also, they go to the Pentagon and perform a whole ceremony when the joint chiefs of staff meet their counterparts from Japan or Brazil or wherever. The most difficult thing is: "Why can’t we sit down during this ceremony? Everyone else is sitting down." If you’re standing at an admiral's retirement ceremony for two or three hours, it can be quite a lot.

I have friends, really great musicians, who get a toothache and can't go to the dentist. Well, I don't have to worry about medical and dental insurance ever again. I'm retiring in August—not the kind of retirement where I go fishing and bowling and take naps, but I'll still get a pension, so I can pursue my music full-time as a civilian. I just made a sacrifice early on. Some musicians can't seem to wrap their mind around that, or they're not willing to. I see these millennials who just can't deal with the military lifestyle. You have to have a certain level of fortitude to deal with the stuff that's not music, and if you're a baby or you're a little soft, it's not going to work for you.

Military musicians can do anything that you ask them to do. For example, when I was teaching at the Navy School of Music, I got tapped on the shoulder to do military police work. I got hand-to-hand combat training, nonlethal weapons training, training in how to handcuff people. I had to fire handguns, rifles. I had to wrestle people. I got sprayed in the face with pepper spray and had to fight with a baton. The other guys called me Band Boy at first. Well, I ran as fast as anybody, and I shot as well as anybody, and then they were like, "OK, he’s not soft."

It's neat to know that you have different skills other than music. All I've ever wanted to do is just play guitar, but if I have to defend myself, I know that I can. I adapt and overcome.  v