US armed forces have a secret weapon: a jazz band that knows how to take a nation by storm.
Lieutenant Colonel Don Schofield has a strategy. “Here’s what I’m thinking,” he says excitedly to Master Sergeant David Dell and Technical Sergeant John Dawson. He points to a somewhat bewildered looking man clutching a chromatic accordion in the stairwell of Kiev’s Central Officers’ House of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This guy – a Ukrainian accordion player – playing in our rhythm section tonight. He’ll tear it up.”
Lt Col Schofield, MSgt Dell and TSgt Dawson are all part of the European branch of the US Air Force Band – Schofield is the conductor – based in Germany. They’re in Kiev as part of a nine-day tour organised to strengthen relations with Ukraine, a nation that has, Lt Col Schofield tells me, shared diplomatic ties with the US for 25 years. They’re performing this evening at the Central Officers’ House for nearly 1,000 Ukrainian veterans, wounded soldiers, their families and the public.
The accordion player is Ivan Churilov, a 39-year-old from the Ukrainian military ensemble. Lt Col Schofield stumbled upon him rehearsing in a stairwell and is determined to get him on stage. Yet Churilov is hesitant and unsure of what’s expected of him. Eventually, after a round of shaky translations, he acquiesces under the force of the US officer’s enthusiasm. “Few Ukrainians have ever met an American,” says Lt Col Schofield later at the soundcheck for his 12-piece jazz ensemble The Ambassadors. “We are here to dispel the myths.”
The US Air Forces in Europe Band traces its roots back to the Second World War and today comprises 48 airmen, all professional musicians, divided into smaller ensembles including The Ambassadors, a concert band and a brass quintet. Its role is ceremonial, in change-of-command ceremonies and parades, as well as diplomatic.
“We humanise the military and Nato,” says staff sergeant and singer Jill Diem. Throughout the band’s tour of Odessa and Kiev, performing and meeting people, she says it’s been able to use music to promote US soft power. But in a country living in fear of Russian hard power – something that Donald Trump appears nonchalant about – how is the US Air Force Band received? “I was unsure what sort of questions people would ask,” says SSgt Diem. “We do get asked questions about the president but, obviously, he’s our boss so we don’t comment on specifics.”
For the most part the band has been warmly welcomed by Ukrainians. Its performance that night, with big-band classics such as Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”, gets standing ovations and Churilov’s performance, accompanied only by The Ambassadors’ drummer, Staff Sergeant Andrew Wendzikowski, goes down especially well.
It isn’t always so congenial. “In Belarus we had the kgb following us,” says Staff Sergeant George Father, holding his trombone. His fellow trombonist, Senior Airman James Hubbert, nods. “There are always people who are suspicious and ask what our real mission is. They end up disappointed: I’m just with the band.”