CMSgt. Pete BarenBregge came to the helm of the Airmen of Note after an earlier career as a music educator and ten years in the Note's sax section. When he inherited the band, the personnel were pretty well set except for the brass section, where retirements claimed half of the trumpet section and lead trombonist Dave Steinmeyer. Rick Lillard moved up to lead trombone, and his chair was filled by jazz trombonist Doug Elliott. Rich Haering and Rich Sigler were the two additions to the trumpet section, replacing Jimmy Lay and Larry Trautman. Haering was assigned the lead book, which allowed Vaughn Nark to again focus his efforts on solo work. Sigler is an excellent jazz soloist, and is sometimes featured on his electronic valve instrument (EVI), a wind-controlled synthesizer.
Since becoming leader of the Note, Pete hasn't made many major changes to the musical direction of the band, but he hasn't allowed the band to stand still either. Mike Crotty has had a great deal of influence on the band's overall style over the past 24 years, and he continues to introduce creative charts to the book. To keep fresh ideas flowing, Pete has commissioned new arrangements from highly respected outside composer-arrangers such as Bob Florence, Tommy Newsom, Steve Owen, Bob Mintzer, Gary Lindsey, Matt Harris, and Tom Williams (a former Airmen of Note bass player).
Saul Miller (--92)
Doug Gately (92-93)
Andy Axelrad (93--)
Doug Gately (--92)
Saul Miller (92--)
Mike Rubin (--94)
Wade Beach (94--)
Rick Whitehead (--91)
Wayne Wilkenson (91-96)
Jimmy Lay (--89)
Rich Haering (89--)
Vaughn Nark (--94)
Mike Crotty (94)
Tim Leahey (94--)
Larry Trautman (--89)
Rick Lillard (--91)
Joe Jackson (91--)
Paul Rawlins (--89)
Doug Elliott (89-96)
Nita DeShazior (90-96)
Tracey Wright (96--)
Relatively few personnel changes have taken place over the six years Pete has had the band, but they were significant. In 1991, both Rick’s retired, to begin free-lancing in the Washington area. Rick Whitehead was replaced by Wayne Wilkinson, from the Air Force Academy Band. Rick had been with the Note since 1970 and is second only to Dave Steinmeyer in number of years spent on the band. Rick Lillard, now leading his own six-piece ensemble, 'Tour de Force', was replaced by Joe Jackson. Joe comes from Denton, Texas via the Maynard Ferguson band. In 1992, tenor man Doug Gately traded places with jazz alto Saul Miller, to give Miller more opportunities to exercise his dynamic solo capabilities. In 1993, Doug retired and was replaced by Andy Axelrad, who had been previously working on cruise ships.
In 1994, Vaughn Nark retired, to become a brass clinician for Yamaha. Since joining the band, Vaughn rose from relative obscurity to national prominence, being featured on every recording and major live performance the Note did while he was with the band. His own albums, El Tigre and Cutting Through, established Vaughn as a consummate bebop artist on trumpet and flugelhorn. His chair was taken by Tim Leahey, from Youngstown State University. An outstanding musician, Tim was the winner of the 1991 International Trumpet Guild Competition. The same year saw Mike Rubin retire, with his place being taken by Wade Beach, from the Diplomats combo.
A problem Pete faced when he took over the band was that the Note no longer had a vocalist, and this was especially critical on protocol jobs. The band borrowed Nita DeShazior from the rock group, Spectrum, for the 1990 spring tour and then were fortunate to be able to bring her on full time. An excellent singer with outstanding stage presence, she can cover all styles from pop-rock to jazz. Her forte is the blues, and at concerts she usually includes a show-stopper where she trades licks with Saul Miller or one of the other horns. Nita retired from the Air Force in April '96 after 24 years of service.
On 28 September 1990, the Airmen of Note celebrated their 40th anniversary with a capacity concert at the Kennedy Center. Special guests were Tommy Newsom, Sammy Nestico, Toni Tenille, and Dave Steinmeyer, with Paul Anthony serving as Master of Ceremonies. The program featured musical selections from different periods of the band's history as well as some special arrangements that were written by Tommy and Sammy especially for the concert. On the following night was a dinner and informal concert was held at the Bolling Air Force Base Noncommissioned Officer's Club to honor the band alumni.
Hardly had the excitement of the 40th anniversary celebration passed, when the Airmen of Note almost became history. Under pressure to cut personnel costs, the Air Force in the spring of 1992 proposed reducing the band to a combo, with only five horns, a rhythm section, and a vocalist. Once again, the tremendous public support enjoyed by the Note saved the day. Entertainment figures such as Doc Severinson and Downbeat Magazine appealed to the public, and the avalanche of letters and telephone calls convinced management that other cost-reduction measures should be investigated. Doc Severinson argued that "this . . . assault on one of the few truly professional big bands must not be taken lightly in this time of widespread cuts in the arts." Perhaps it was poetic justice that the decision to reinstate the endangered positions was announced at a Memorial Day concert, when the Airmen of Note performed on the same program as Doc Severinson and the National Symphony Orchestra.
In 1994, the Air Force Band announced a 'Call for Compositions' for the First Annual Sammy Nestico Award. The objective was to encourage young jazz composers writing in the big band idiom. The award consists of performance of the winning composition by the Airmen of Note at a major jazz concert, a professionally produced recording of the composition, and a follow-on commission for a second work. The judging is by Sammy and Mike Crotty and is based on actual performance by the Note. The first winner was Charles Bayne from Lawrence University, and his composition was performed at the 1995 International Association of Jazz Educators conference at Los Angles. Winner of the second competition was Chaussure Vache, written by Bill Straub, a free-lance writer and saxophonist from Syracuse, New York.
In 1992, Sammy called on the musicians of the "Airmen of Note" to record a number of examples of his writing for a CD to accompany his forthcoming book on arranging. "Airmen of Note" is in italics because this was not done as an official activity of the band, the recording being accomplished in the band’s off-duty hours. Sammy chose the Note’s musicians because he wanted a group that performed together regularly and was familiar enough with the musical styles to be able to competently perform these charts a minimum of rehearsal time. His book, The Complete Arranger, was published in 1993 by Kendor Music Company, Inc.
The Airmen Note was invited to perform for a White House Christmas party in December of 1993. President/saxophonist Bill Clinton sat in with the band on several numbers, using a spare horn that Pete had brought along "just in case." The President also played a few choruses of blues and traded fours with Saul Miller and Pete BarenBregge. This was the first White House gig for the band, and it went over so well that the band has been called back for a number of return engagements.
In the summer of 1995, the Air Force Band moved into new quarters, the former Bolling Hanger No. 2, which was completely remodeled as a state-of-the art rehearsal and support facility. After 45 years of sharing World War Two wooden temporary buildings with other units of the Band, the Airmen of Note now have their own rehearsal studio, as well as roomy offices and storage space.
The year 1996 is proving to be a year of changes. Vocalist Tracey Wright, from the Band of the Air Force Reserve, at Robins AFB, Georgia joined the Note in May. A ten-year Air Force veteran, she has a wide range of experience and includes pop, jazz, country, rhythm & blues, gospel, patriotic, and Broadway music in her repertoire. Jazz trombonist Doug Elliott and guitarist Wayne Wilkinson will be leaving the Note in the fall and auditions are scheduled for July 1996 to select their replacements.
Often, there is a gap between the retirement of a musician and the replacement’s arrival. This may require borrowing a performer from one of the other Air Force Band units, but this is not always possible because musicians with jazz experience are not always available. The call then may then go to the Note’s multi-talented chief arranger, Mike Crotty, who can fill in on almost any instrument. Between Vaughn Nark’s retirement and Tim Leahey’s arrival, Mike was a member of the trumpet section. He has also filled in on saxophone, and he sometimes augments the Note’s normal complement on recording dates.
Two weeks later, a historic collaboration took place between the Airmen of Note and the Big Band der Bundeswehr, the Note’s German counterpart. The bands joined forces for a concert and a video shoot for German network television. The Big Band was touring in the U.S. as a part of its 25th anniversary celebration. Pete BarenBregge was invited to Germany to help plan these activities, and while there he performed with the band. The Note is hopeful that some reciprocal performances can be arranged in Germany in the near future.
As the Airmen of Note approaches the half-century mark, it is established as one of the foremost full-time big bands in the world. It possesses an enviable library of arrangements spanning the full range of the musical spectrum, from the sounds of the Swing Era to contemporary charts that explore the frontiers of big band jazz. And the men and women on the band are talented and experienced musicians, welded into a tight yet swinging jazz ensemble.
The band's mission continues to be to serve the Air Force, but the scope of that service has expanded considerably since those early days. Bringing musical entertainment to Air Force personnel around the world is still the number one priority. Also important is the band's service in the public relations area, which enhances the reputation of the Air Force through high quality public performances. Through these performances, the Airmen of Note are making an important contribution to the continued vitality of jazz, America's only original art form. Forty-six years of musical excellence has laid a firm foundation for many more years of performing in the best traditions of big band jazz. And the Airmen of Note of 1996 are ready, willing, and able to get on with the show.