As you line a street for the oncoming parade, you feel the bass drum of the marching band beat deep within your soul as the mallet strikes the beat. The high-pitched sound of the piccolo, the staccato notes of the horn section, the melody of the winds weaving through the band, and a modern arrangement of John Phillips Souza “Stars and Stripes Forever”. This is the military band sound that we are most familiar hearing.
Now imagine the swing, jazzy sounds of Big Band-era music playing “Semper Paratus”. Instead of the precise marching-like notes we are used to hearing when we hear the Coast Guard’s signature song, this musical interpretation makes your feet move with the rhythm, your fingers snap in time, your head bob. You are listening to a uniquely-sounding, original arrangement of “Semper Paratus” by Chief Petty Officer Sean Nelson, a musician with the Coast Guard Band. Over the past year, Nelson devised an idea to incorporate another sectional within the Coast Guard Band in order to produce this exact sound: the nonet.
What is a nonet?
“It’s a group of nine, like a quartet,” said Cmdr. Adam Williamson, the Coast Guard Band’s director. “A nonet bridges the gap between a small jazz combo and big band, and the larger band overall. There’s a rhythm section, a handful of wind players, brass section. All of these musicians together can get high energy, and create a lot of excitement, while at the same time creating flexibility. The versatility is exciting.”
The full Coast Guard Band has 55 musicians. During the past year, Williamson said it has been hard to get all of these people together to rehearse, and near impossible to perform in front of a live audience due to COVID-19.
“We are a social group, we need to be together, we need to practice our music so that we can share,” Williamson said. “The band helps communicate the Coast Guard’s rich heritage and history. We accomplish our mission by connecting with people through music.”
Social distancing measures currently in place in the band’s home base of Connecticut require musicians to maintain 12 feet of space. Fifty-five musicians take up a lot of room. Eight thousand square feet, almost one fifth of an acre. A smaller ensemble of musicians requires less space to rehearse and perform.
“We are still producing music for our audiences, but it is a lot of work,” Williamson said, kind of chuckling at the memory. “It took us four hours to set up for a recent audio/video recording session we completed recently in the parking lot. It took four hours to set up 47 microphones spaced 12 feet apart. Each musician required an individual mic in order for each instrument to be picked up for the recording.”
A smaller band like the nonet allows for a smaller space requirement - approximately 1,300 square feet, which is about the size the size of a small house.
“The nonet allows us to expand our engagement opportunities because there are fewer people in the ensemble,” Williamson said.
Nelson explained that having a smaller band in the times of COVID is very important, but it is also helpful for pre-COVID, and hopefully post-COVID. “I brought the idea of the nonet to Cmdr. Williamson prior to the pandemic occurring. Fewer musicians and instruments opens up a number of different venue opportunities for performing.”
For the near future Nelson and his fellow nonet musicians are limited in their live performance opportunities. He hopes that once the pandemic passes they will have the opportunity to perform in front of crowds again, in different venues. For now the nine-piece big band group rehearses and performs on the Coast Guard Academy stage – the entire stage.
“Even playing inside, we can only rehearse for 30 minutes at a time,” Nelson said. “After 30 minutes of practice, we have to vacate the space to allow all of that air to filter out and fresh air to filter back in. It’s a challenge, but we are overcoming and we continue to play as a band.”
Nelson, a trombone player, says as the band shares the Coast Guard history and heritage through music, what better way to do that than through a sound that has roots in American culture.
"Jazz is uniquely American. It’s alive and exciting and fresh,” Nelson said. “This kind of music is my passion, and I wanted to find a way to bring this music to more people. Any time we can play jazz and highlight the culture and heritage of America, we reach more audiences through music.”
As you take in the notes of Nelson’s arrangement for Semper Paratus, you may notice a distinctly different sound than the traditional march. It may feel like it would be something one might hear on the radio today.
“This is America’s music,” Nelson said. “Anything you hear on the radio today you can trace back to jazz and blues. Blues is at the heart of all pop music. We are reaching back to that tradition.”
The Coast Guard nonet is still in search of a group name as unique of its sound. Nelson said he and his fellow musicians threw out a couple of names: The Jazz Hands, Swinging Yardarms…but nothing stuck. As they continue to search for a name, they rehearse their sound within the boundaries of current social distancing, while they share their talents virtually.
While this is not 76 trombones leading the big parade, you can certainly grab your dancing shoes, dust off your Lindy Hop or your West Coast steps, and enjoy a musical delight with the Coast Guard nonet.