Sgt Ernie Hensley joined the Air Force in 1957 and served on several field bands and the Ceremonial Band before joining the Note in 1967. Particularly important in terms of jazz and big band experience was his tour with the USAFE Band, where he performed with the Ambassadors. While on the Note he had filled the jazz tenor, jazz alto, and lead alto chairs. He also served as the band's manager under Dave Napier.
Due primarily to retirements, there was almost a complete turnover in the sax section during Ernie's tour as leader. There were key changes in the other sections as well, with people coming on the band who would become mainstays well into the 1980's and beyond. Dave Napier had been replaced by Les Whittington on bari sax. Tenors John Dodge and Roger Hogan retired in 1977 and 78 and were replaced by Lee Lachman and Doug Gately. Lachman was hired to ultimately move into the lead alto chair, so about six months before he retired, Ernie switched with Lachman and moved back to his old jazz tenor chair. Brent McKesson returned on bass after a year and a half as leader of the rock group Mach One. Vaughn Nark came on the band to play lead trumpet. Tim Bowen, a Ceremonial Band musician who had subbed on the Note many times, joined the trumpet section on a permanent basis. In the trombone section, Rick Lillard filled the jazz trombone slot, and Dave Morgan came in on bass trombone.
Doug Scarborough from the Singing Sergeants sang with the band for a time during 1977, but it was not until the following year that the Note finally found a vocalist that really fit in with the band's style. She was Bobbie McCleary, who was "discovered" on the band's 1977 west coast trip. Bobbie could perform admirably in almost any style - jazz, pop, ballad, blues, or rock - and she did it in a style that was all her own.
Ernie's tour as leader of the Note was marked by some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the band's 40-year history. Looking at the up-side first, under Ernie's leadership, the band probably reached its peak in terms of jazz performances. One of Ernie's objectives as leader was to increase
the listening public's awareness of its jazz heritage - and not just big band jazz, but other styles of jazz as well.
Lee Lachman (78--)
John Dodge (--77)
Roger Hogan (--78)
Lee Lachman (77-78)
Doug Gately (78--)
Ernie Hensley (78-79)
Les Whittington (76--)
Brent McKesson (77--)
Ephraim Woolfolk (--76)
Skip Schaffer (76-78)
Mark Hynes (78--)
Kenny Smukal (--78)
Bruce Nelson (76-77)
Tim Bowen (77-78)
Vaughn Nark (78--)
Rick Lillard (76--)
Gary Hall (75--)
Mark Madden (76-77)
Dave Morgan (77--)
Bobbie McCleary (78--)
To complement the Concert Band's Guest Artist concert series, Ernie initiated a Jazz Artist series, which was held in the fall of 1977 and 1978 in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution. Some of the artists that appeared with the Note at these concerts were the Harvey Phillips/Rich Matteson Tuba Consortium, Phil Wilson, Jerome Richardson, Ronnie Wells, Billy Taylor, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Joe Williams.
In 1978 the Note was assigned a date in the Constitution Hall Guest Artist series. Ernie arranged for Sarah Vaughn to perform with the band, and perform she did, to an enthusiastic, standing room only crowd! Equally exciting was the opportunity to perform alongside many of the all-time jazz greats at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, 1977. The Note was spotted twice, first as a featured band, and later backing trumpeter Clark Terry and pianist John Lewis.
Although not quite in the category of a pure jazz performance, but just as well received, was an outdoor concert at the Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio in August 1978. The Museum was honoring retired General Jimmy Doolittle, who led a daring raid on Tokyo early in World War 2. The program included a tribute to Major Glenn Miller and the AAF Band, who had entertained Doolittle's Eighth Air Force many times while in England. The Note was invited to back former Miller stars Ray McKinley, Paula Kelly, and the Modernaires.
Under Ernie the band made a return trip to the Mike Douglas show, this time to back Cab Calloway. The band also travelled to the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore to tape one of Yale Lewis's Jazz Insights shows: The Military and All That Jazz. It examined the contributions of black musicians to music of the U.S. military. Performing with the Note on this program were Damita Jo, Bill Harris, Clea Bradford, and the Buddy Tate/Scott Hamilton Quintet.
On the down side was the cancellation of the Serenade in Blue radio series in 1977 after nearly 30 years of continuous airing. The reason was budgetary constraints. This deprived the Airmen of Note of the regular national radio exposure that was so important to the success of the concert tours.
To help offset this, Ernie was able to retain a small promotional recording program, so the band could continue to provide concert sponsors with recordings that showcased the Airmen of Note's current work. In early 1977 the band did the New Spirit album, which featured a sampling of the band's concert repertoire. Two albums were cut in the summer of 1978, one featuring vocalist Bobbie McCleary and the other highlighting the band's jazz offerings.
The other downer was the near demise of the band itself in the spring of 1978. Budget-trimming was again the problem. The Air Force Band had been asked to cut its operating budget, and it appeared that the only way they could do this was to reduce personnel. The proposed solution was eliminating the Airmen of Note. In desperation, Ernie appealed to the music community, which rallied to the band's support. Even Down Beat magazine championed the Note's cause, providing editorial support and calling on its readers to write to their Congressmen.
The Airmen of Note survived, but Ernie decided that it was time to move on. In June, 1979 he retired from the Air Force, and leadership of the Airmen of Note passed on to lead trombonist Dave Steinmeyer.