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The Commodores

William Mulligan | December 2015

    Each year the Midwest Clinic hosts several of the nation’s top military ensembles. One of the groups performing this year is the Commodores, the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble. Formed in 1969, this 18-member group’s mission includes public concerts, national concert tours, ceremonial support in honoring veterans, jazz education classes and clinics, and protocol performances for high-level military and civilian government officials. Senior Chief Musician William Mulligan, the Commodores’ unit leader and master of ceremonies, shared a few of his thoughts on performing at the Midwest Clinic and playing great jazz.

A Surprise Encounter
This is my fourth trip to the Midwest Clinic with the Com-modores. My favorite memory is from my first trip. We performed with the great James Moody, which was unplanned until we arrived. A surprise meeting and a chance to perform with a jazz legend are things you never forget. Our special guest this year will be trombonist and educator Jim Pugh.

Meaningful Opportunities
    After more than 18 years in the band, it is difficult to pick just one. We have played all over the country and performed at the White House, and I have marched in four inaugural parades with our Ceremonial band. It is always meaningful to perform at full honors funerals at Arlington National Cemetery with our Ceremonial band as well. Our concerts are great opportunities for communities to come together to honor our veterans. We do a Salute to Veterans at the end of every show. Witnessing the audience reaction to that is quite powerful.

Music Education Missions
    The Commodores frequently give jazz education clinics and classes. Most often, we will send a few members of the band to a student ensemble to rehearse them, give them pointers on style and improvisation, and play along with them as well. If you are trying to learn to play jazz, there is no better way than playing along with a professional.

Listening Is Key
    If you want to play jazz, you have to listen to jazz; it is that simple. The most common problem I hear is that jazz players sound like they have learned a foreign language without ever hearing anyone speak it. The students I have had over the years who made the most progress as improvisers did it by transcribing solos by the jazz greats. You can’t beat this for developing your ear, learning the language, and developing a jazz style.

A Military Music Career
    Preparing for a career as a military musician is the same as preparing for any career in music: practice. Being well-versed in many styles is a must, as is being a good reader. Improvisational skills are essential if one is interested in performing in one of the premiere jazz ensembles like the Commodores, as everyone is a soloist. If you are a saxophonist interested in one of the jazz ensembles, you will have to be able to double on flute and clarinet.

Seeing the Military Bands
    The U.S. Navy Band’s national tours cover the continental United States in a five-year cycle, with five different tour regions. In addition to the Commodores jazz ensemble, our Concert Band, Sea Chanters (chorale), Country Current (country and bluegrass), and Cruisers (contemporary music) all go on a national tour once a year. No matter where you are in the continental United States, one of our groups should be passing through in the near future. We perform public concerts in the national capital region throughout the year. All of the information for requesting the band or sponsoring a tour concert is available on our website: