The man Col. Howard charged with putting together the newly authorized Air Force Dance Band was WO Fred Kepner. Fred had originally come to Bolling in 1945 as a staff arranger for Col. Howard's Army Air Force Band. After the war he left the service, but in 1947 Col. Howard asked him to return as chief arranger of the Air Force Band. He was still serving in that capacity in the summer of 1950, when he was asked to organize what would soon be known as the Airmen of Note.
Although Fred in civilian life had worked with a number of territory bands and had also led some smaller dance combo's, this was to be his first experience leading a big band. Fred's particular forte was arranging/composing, but Col. Howard felt he also had the leadership capabilities needed to organize the dance band and get it moving.
Lowell Smith (--52)
Walt Levinsky (53--)
Bill Duffy (--53)
Bill Cervantes (--53)
Tommy Newsom (53--)
Charlie Almeida (53--)
Fred Kepner (--51)
Jimmy Odrich (51--)
George Roumanis (--52)
Howard Terrell (52--)
Gene Miller (--51)
Gene Estes (51--)
Larry Tain (--53)
Kenny Eshelman (--52, 54--)
Roger Middelton (52-53)
Andy Peele (53--)
John Shuman (51--)
Leo Keller (51--)
Francis Pahl (51-53)
Greg Phillips (53--)
Ray Winslow (54--)
Clare Van Norman
Jim Daugherty (51)
Bob Ware (--53)
Larry Grayson (53--)
Tommy Zang (54--)
The first step was to find musicians who were capable of making the unit a first rate dance band. Here Fred was in luck. The Korean War draft had just gotten underway, so many excellent young musicians were more than eager to volunteer for this kind of service. Fred auditioned over 200 potential candidates, many of whom were experienced dance band musicians. Thus, he was able to staff the Airmen of Note with men from big name bands like Tommy Dorsey, Hal McIntyre, Xavier Cugat, Johnny Long, Claude Thornhill, Ralph Flanagan, Billy Butterfield, Baron Elliott, Shep Fields, Raymond Scott, Noro Morales, and Sonny Dunham.
Although there were a few transfers from other Air Force units and even some World War II vets, most were new recruits and had to undergo basic training before joining the band. So the fall of 1950 was mostly spent auditioning, getting the men through basic, and starting section rehearsals as quickly as they could be assembled.
Lowell Smith led the sax section, John Shuman the trombones, and Billy Hodges the trumpet section, although Larry Tain and John Bova shared with some of the trumpet lead. In the solo department, Bill Duffy did most of the jazz tenor work. Bill Cervantes was occasionally featured on jazz also, but more often he was called on to do the ballads and flute solos. Hodges played most of the jazz trumpet parts and Tommy Vasileros the trombone jazz.
In the brass section, John Bova, John Shuman, and Clare Van Norman were usually the featured soloists on ballads. Pianist Jimmy Odrich and drummer Gene Estes were also excellent soloists. Bruce Snyder was featured both on bari sax and "scat" vocals, and he occasionally fronted the band in Fred's absence. The remaining band members were not featured as often as soloists, but they were all excellent section men, without whom the band's smooth ensemble work would not have been possible. There was some turnover in the first four years, two of the key replacements being Walt Levinsky on lead alto and Tommy Newsom on jazz tenor.
By January of 1951, the band was ready to go. Their first job was an informal dance at the Coral Hills Club for a retiring WAF officer, but the band's official debut was a stage show at the Bolling AFB base theater on January 24. Also on that program was a young accordion soloist named Johnny Osiecki.
A full dance schedule soon developed at area service clubs, and on March 12, the Air Force Dance Band was presented to the public for the first time in concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. The next day the band departed via C-47 for a tour of bases of the Training Command in Texas. The high point of that tour was the world premiere of the movie Air Cadet, where the band appeared on the stage of the Majestic Theater in San Antonio along with the stars of the film. A week after returning, they were in the studios making recordings for the Reserved for You radio series. Within two months of the band's debut, the pattern had been established that would characterize life for the Airmen of Note for the next fifteen or so years: service club dances and high level functions in the DC area, special dances and stage shows at Air Force Bases all around the country, recording sessions for Air Force radio programs, and occasional public performances.
After the band had been working for some months, Fred decided that the Air Force Dance Band needed a distinctive nickname. A number of suggestions were considered, including the Airtones, Martialaires, Squadronaires, Skyliners, and Skymasters. Fred himself hit upon the Airmen of Note, and that name stuck.
Although many of the band's jobs were fairly routine, some really stand out. In August of 1951 the band spent two weeks entertaining troops and dependents at the remote bases of the Northeast Air Command - Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Labrador. This was before the days of television and videotapes, and these people hadn't seen any live entertainers for months. The response was overwhelming!
Later that month the band travelled to Los Angeles for the Air Force Association's Fifth Annual Convention. They were very well received, so well in fact that the Airmen of Note has continued to perform at major AFA functions to this day. While in LA, the band got the exposure that was to lead to one of the high points of the Kepner era, playing the part of the Glenn Miller orchestra in The Glenn Miller Story. The filming was done at Lowry Air Force Base and the Elitch's Gardens Ballroom in Denver in the summer of 1953. The studio's union contract prohibited using the band for the soundtrack recordings, but the Note played the parts of both Miller's civilian and AAF bands on the screen. Jimmy Stewart enjoyed working with the Note, and they crossed paths often over the years at Air Force Association functions.
In both 1952 and 1953 the band did dance/stage show tours of North Carolina for the Tactical Air Command to raise money for Christmas presents for orphans.
Another highlight of the early years was the opportunity to appear regularly on network television. All of the major networks broadcast public service programs, and the Airmen of Note made regular trips to New York to appear on shows such as We the People and Guide Right. This gave the band the opportunity to work with stars such as Eddie Fisher, Helen O'Connell, Bob Eberly, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Ray Anthony, and Vic Damone. These were the days of live television - no chance to go back and dub over "clinkers".
These were also the days of the big band radio remotes, and the Note occasionally had the chance to do these. In April of 1953, ABC broadcast a dance at the Mitchell AFB Airmen's Club, which led to a very complimentary review by Bill Coss in Metronome, one of the leading entertainment magazines of that period. The band had made the big time!
The band's "bread and butter" was dance music, but they put on stage shows too. Even at dances they would give the dancers a break and put on a little show to spotlight the band. These shows might include novelty items like Meet the Band and Themes of the Big Bands, jazz numbers like Airbase Blues, production numbers like Sammy Nestico's Portrait of New York, and foot-stompers by the Dixieland Seven. Sometimes when out on tour they would also bring along other entertainers - singers like Donna Mason, comedians like Ronnie Schell, dancers, and instrumental soloists.
Recording work was an another interesting aspect of the Airmen of Note's schedule. During the 1950's and for some years thereafter, commercial radio stations provided air time for public service programs. The Air Force's Command Services Unit, which was also stationed at Bolling, produced several weekly radio series - some of which were for recruiting purposes, and others were to keep the public informed on what was going on in the Air Force. These were not live programs, but were put together using prerecorded music and announcements. When their schedule permitted, the Note would make recordings so that Command Services would have an up-to-date supply of music from which to choose.
One of Kepner's objectives was to establish a musical identity for the band, and this meant building its own book. Fred wrote the first 30 charts himself, and later on band members such as George Roumanis, Walt Levinsky, Tommy Newsom, and Roger Middleton made contributions. But the real coup was when Fred invited Sammy Nestico to come aboard as a full-time arranger. Besides writing many, many excellent charts over the fifteen years he was associated with the Air Force Band, Sammy did much to establish the tradition of musical excellence that has characterized the Airmen of Note's library to this day.
Although it was expected that the Air Force Dance Band would sometimes emulate the sounds that were associated with Major Glenn Miller, Fred had no intention of the Note being another Miller clone orchestra. He was a great fan of Claude Thornhill's music, which can be felt in the beautiful ballad style that Fred created for the Airmen of Note. It blended the Miller reed sound with the use of a French horn a la Thornhill, either as a solo voice or as a part of a choir voicing with trombones and vibrato-less reeds. Fred was also an early user of the flute as a color instrument. Arranger Sammy Nestico introduced elements of the Tommy Dorsey sound to the Note's book. The band's jazz charts were influenced by the Les Brown Orchestra, which was probably the most popular dance band in the country at that time.
When the band first hit the road, CWO Kepner wore a whole array of hats: leader, chief arranger, pianist, and road manager. By the time summer came along, Sammy Nestico had assumed the duties of chief arranger, and Jimmy Odrich had taken over on piano. But Fred still had the burden of scheduling the band's jobs and handling all of the road details, such as transportation, accommodations and set-ups. In late 1952 Bob Dunn, a Warrant Officer/bandleader from Pope AFB, had the opportunity to see the band in action. He suggested that the band needed a full-time road manager and that he was the man to do the job. In early 1953, WO Dunn was transferred to the Airmen of Note. He capably held down the job of tour director and road manager for the next fourteen years, serving also as officer-in-charge for much of this time.
In the fall of 1954, with the band well established, Kepner was transferred to a staff position with the Air Force Band, but not before asking Sammy Nestico to take his place as leader of the Airmen of Note.