(I wrote this while deployed to Baghdad International Airport/Camp Sather, Iraq, in Augusta 2005. One of my favorite moments writing)
If you close your eyes, lick the sand off your teeth and listen, you would swear you had been dropped into some Soho nightclub.
Ragamuffin musicians clad in hip suits shuffle in after a meal uptown. Instruments clatter from their cases and get propped on stands. After some quick glad-handing of friends, a few wires get plugged in. Some quick scales peep out of the horns before a deep voice intones a mellow introduction. “Welcome to jazz night.” Then, music.
Alto saxophone notes twist smoothly on the same breeze the carries the cool air across the small room. The thread of a muted trumpet is wound between, causing toes to tap, heads to bob and fingers to snap in time, the room alight with jazz phrases that ask you to do nothing more than just be cool.
Now open your eyes. Playing sax on the unpainted plywood floor of the “Alaska” tent wearing his blue shorts, T-shirt and reflective belt is Master Sgt. Rosmon Johnson. Blowing trumpet beside him is a similarly clad Maj. “Joe Don” Baker setting the easy mood for Baghdad Jazz Night at Sather Air Base.
With the right amount of imagination, the duo’s startlingly good jazz chops easily transform this military tent into a trendy New York City hot spot. It’s a Sunday staple at Sather now, with Sergeant Johnson headlining a set of contemporary jazz tunes. Major Baker joins the set to play a few jazz standards before the duo finish, the set lasting about an hour for between 20-25 people.
“We usually go there just to wind down,”: said Staff Sgt Isabel Claudio, deployed here from Kadena Air Base, Japan. “They are always so good. They’re both pretty good players.”
The music is Sergeant Johnson’s way of talking to people and relaxing.
“It comes from the heart,” Sergeant Johnson said. “I’m not a very good communicator, so I talk through my saxophone.”
Sergeant Johnson’s set is contemporary jazz. It included flawless versions of George Benson’s “Masquerade,” Candy Dulfer’s “Sax on the Beach,” and “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston.
The first notes came 26 years ago in Baton Rogue, La., when young Rosmon joined the Glen Oaks High School marching band. He also played in the school’s concert and jazz bands.
He never aspired to play professionally. Despite his Louisana jazz roots, a different tune sounded in his mind.
“I’d always wanted to join and have a career in the Air Force,” said the 22-year veteran. “I love my country.”
He never thought of auditioning for the Air Force band when he joined.
“I wasn’t playing like this when I joined the military,” he recalled. Instead, he chose a career as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning craftsman. He’s been deployed here since May from his home unit at Scott AFB, Ill., since May.
Sergeant Johnson admitted it wasn’t until almost six years into his service that he felt he could play well. He doesn’t read music; just plays it by ear. He goes a long way to emulate people like his jazz heroes Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright and Curt Whelan.
Major Baker’s path was similar. His first introduction to music was with the euphonium, a sort of tuba. It’s not the instrument he wanted to play.
“I wanted to play trombone, but my arms weren’t long enough to stretch it out,” he remembered.
He also wanted to play trumpet, but when he saw his brother playing the trumpet, “it looked like he was in pain.
“Eventually, my parents took me to a music store. The owner asked me to try the euphonium. I blew one note and he said, ‘Yup. That’s for you.’ I think he just wanted to sell us the horn.”
The major said Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were all early influences. Frank Sinatra and Harry Connick Jr., however, currently top his list.
“You pick someone you want to follow, but you develop your own style,” he said.
In High School, he went on to play baritone horn for the SHAPE International Band. That opened his eyes to military music. He earned a scholarship to Air Force Academy, played in the Academy jazz band and was soon faced with a tough decision: play music or fly. He loved the idea of both. Then one day, he knew what to do.
“I was around some of the Air Force band musicians. They said they loved playing music, but they’d give anything to go fly. They told me I could always play music, but I may never get the chance to fly again. It made sense,” he said.
Now 13 years into his career and flying E-3 Sentries, he hasn’t looked back. Deployed here as the wing safety officer, he first listened to Sergeant Johnson’s set, and then asked if he could join in. The two have been playing together for three weeks.
Coincidentally, both men also play piano and said technology has made it easier than ever to play a set. Sergeant Johnson said he used a keyboard to play all the instruments on his backing tracks, played from a mini CD player. Major Baker piped his music off a laptop computer.
Both men admitted there’s something refreshing about playing in front of people.
“There’s something you get from a live show,” the major said. “I love the performance buzz. Sometimes I get so caught up in it, I forget there’s an audience there.”
Sergeant Johnson’s feeling be-bopped along side the major’s.
“There are a lot of times when I’m not even aware of my surroundings,” he said.
Neither Airman has aspirations of playing a professional gig in a Soho nightclub anytime soon. But if you close your eyes inside Paradise Point on a Sunday night, you’ll swear you’re there.
“We want people to relax,” Sergeant Johnson concluded, “and hope they enjoy it.”