John Williams: My best times were in the US Air Force

John Williams: My best times were in the US Air Force


norman lebrecht

May 25, 2019

The composer revisits a formative part of his distant past.




  • fflambeau says:

    One’s youth always looks much better (than it likely was) when one get’s old.

    John Williams is 87 years old.

    • Tamino says:

      Or even more likely, John Williams is just a very polite man.
      What is he supposed to say to the current leader of the Air Force big band, who was confronting Mr. Williams with the question repeatedly, if his years in the army had any positive effect on him?

  • After citizen protests and the resistance of draftees shut down the Vietnam War, the US military learned that it had to make two changes: 1) It needs an all-volunteer force to conduct immoral wars since draftees resist. 2) It needs to conduct a massive cultural and propaganda war on its own country to obscure the nature of immoral wars and obtain over a million volunteer service members. This effort has been supported by uncountable billions of dollars spent on propaganda that reaches into almost every level of American society. The bands are notably active in this domestic propaganda campaign.

    • Anon says:

      John Williams served in the US Air Force from 1952-55. He was discharged before the Vietnam War even began.

      The Air Force Band programs which he describes as part of his military experience back then were very much on a par in size and scope to what is going on now. This point is made several times during the interview as the US Air Force bandmaster conducting the interview & Mr. Williams compare notes.

      It’s clear from this interview that the US Air Force Bands were operating at the same size and scope during Williams’ pre-Vietnam War era as they are now.

      US military bands are not something which suddenly came into being as a result of the Vietnam War. They’ve always been there, and they’ve always been used for govt. propaganda, in the US and everywhere else in the world. To suddenly tie in the sense of immorality of war which resulted during the 70’s in the US with the use of military bands as a pro-war propaganda tool is a very surprising extrapolation.

      I understand that people who grew up in the 1970’s in the US, who lived thru the Vietnam War protests, might give that period of time a lot of importance historically. But John Williams and the experiences he’s describing in this interview are a good twenty years before that. The bands he played with had nothing to do with the Vietnam era.

      I get the point you’re making, but it’s really a stretch, and out of place as a comment on this particular interview. It also rubs me the wrong way that you’ve jumped right into criticizing the purpose of US military ensembles. Why can’t we just be content that these groups provide excellent, stable employment for well trained musicians?

      • william osborne says:

        The point is that the US military is used differently than in the early 50s, and that the bands have made a corresponding change. They are now part of a much more complex Gestalt with a stronger focus on the domestic propaganda needed to rationalize immoral wars and to help recruit an all-volunteer military. The bands have inevitably become part of the military-industrial-congressional-complex that Eisenhower warned us about in the 50s. (Eisenhower removed “congressional” from his original speech for political reasons.)

    • Ellingtonia says:

      What has this sanctimonious political drivel got to do with celebrating the life and work of one of Americas greatest composers …………but then I forgot that you are a musical poseur. And do remember this, if it had not been for American intervention you might be living under a very different regime now.

      • Tamino says:

        Well, history is complex.
        Maybe without decisive funding by American industrials and bankers, a certain Austrian shorty with a silly moustache would have never made it to power in Germany.
        “There is no business like war business”.

  • Raymond Jones says:

    I must respond to William Osborne’s ‘propaganda’ comments. Like Mr. Osborne, I have been a longtime classical music critic as well as broadcaster, having given nearly six decades to the service of classical music. I have also had the privilege of spending many years as a civilian narrator with military bands such as the Army Training and Doctrine Command Band and the Air Force Heritage of America Band. With Col. Larry Lang, who was interviewing John Williams in the video, I recorded that great propaganda classic, William Steig’s ‘A Cup of Christmas Tea’ (music by Aldo Forte). At any time, and particularly on a Memorial Day weekend, I hope I speak for the wonderful military musicians past and present (such as John Williams) when I say that Mr. Osborne’s comments are particularly offensive.

    • Anon says:

      I agree completely. I am certainly no military enthusiast, but I also find the propaganda comments to be distasteful.

      Just as today’s millenials are criticized for being self-centered and putting too much importance on their own lives and circumstances, Mr. Osborne is revealing himself to be a baby boomer with an identical philosophy. He apparently came of age during Vietnam War protests and that has flavored his perception of US history. He is ignoring what came before and what came afterwards.

      John Williams was of a generation in which many fine US musicians served in the military and got their starts in military ensembles. Henry Mancini and Glen Miller, for example. In the classical world, the Strauss Oboe Concerto wouldn’t exist if a young soldier named John DeLancie hadn’t been serving in the US Army in Germany and insisted on suggesting it to the composer.

      You can’t paint the military and military bands with such a broad negative brush stroke as Mr. Osborne has done. It’s negative and distasteful and it ignores history.

    • william osborne says:

      Of course they are seen as offensive, which is one of the central points of the military’s propaganda efforts. Service is now to be praised regardless of the immorality of what is being served. And anyone who questions that is to be mobbed and labeled unpatriotic and un-American. This is idea of praising service removed from consideration of what the military is actually doing is the formula that has produced the moral disasters the US military currently finds itself in. Good, patriotic Americans don’t just serve, they demand that their wars be just. And when they aren’t, they stand up for what is right and do what they can to stop the immoral slaughter and destruction.

      • Anon says:

        This has nothing to do with John Williams or his experience in the military which is the topic of this interview.

        Furthermore, what evidence do you have to prove that “the US military is used differently than in the early 50s, and that the bands have made a corresponding change”. That sounds like a subjective observation to me.

        So much of what military ensembles do has very little to do with war or war propaganda, even indirectly. Again, that’s your personal slant on it. As a citizen, they are most visible to me at ceremonial occasions which have nothing to do with war. Presidential inaugurations, state funerals, for example. Most people watching on TV aren’t even aware that they are military ensembles. How is that even remotely using them for propaganda? You hear them, you barely even see them. These are ceremonial events, they provide music and they are not clearly identifiable as US military. They are musicians with stable employment who are there to provide music.

        No one is picking on you because you are anti-military. I am from the same generation as you and also get really sick of people cloying to military personnel. They are employess doing jobs that they have chosen to do.

        You are not unpatriotic, you’re just off-base, IMHO, with this weird opinionated slant on military ensembles. It has nothing to do with John Williams, and everything to do with your personal views on war and the military. I find it distasteful in this context and esp. just before Memorial Day. For that bad timing alone you’re going to get a lot of flak.

        • william osborne says:

          A video like this is about a lot more than John Williams. It’s a clear example of how the military uses a wide range of culture memes to promote itself. Suffer no illusions, John Williams is being used to promote the military.

          A couple other examples: From 2011 to 2014, the Pentagon gave sports teams $6 million to promote the military. The military also provides millions in services to Hollywood to positively portray the military. The British paper, the Independent, using the US Freedom of Information Act, found that between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 feature films received support from the DoD. For television, they found 1,100 titles that received Pentagon backing – 900 of them since 2005, including “Flight 93” to “Ice Road Truckers” to “Army Wives.”

          As for the sports teams, “The Atlanta Falcons received $879,000; the New England Patriots, $700,000; and the Buffalo Bills, $650,000. The Atlanta Braves received $450,000, the most of any Major League Baseball franchise, while the Minnesota Wild were paid $570,000, the most of any National Hockey League team.

          And as brass players know, the DoD also spends large sums to promote the military even in classical music. The second largest trombone festival in the world is hosted by the US Army. Current and former military musicians permeate the brass field in classical music.

          Below, some photos of these campy sports presentations.

          Here are some references:…/hollywood-cia-washington-dc…


          And the typical American response: blustering personal attacks and ridiculous generalizations about age groups instead of genuine thought about the ever-increasing militarization of our culture.

          • Patricia Yeiser says:

            There is no ‘typical American response.’ You read too much biased American press. This culture has its problems – but militarization is not one of them.

          • Patricia Yeiser says:

            Hollywood is about as anti-miitary as you can get – also anti-business, education, classical music and culture – t’was not always thus. At one time many actors were in the military. Hollywood is not known for smart people now – just dreck that
            passes for entertainment in theatres and on television.

          • Anon says:

            William, your opinion that this interview is military propaganda is so far out there I am at a loss for a response. I’ve always been a big fan of your work and your writing in every other context. You tell it like it is, and you’re usually right.

            But not this time, IMHO. Your comment above sounds like some paranoid delusion from the McCarthy era, I’m afraid. It reminds me of the era when people were running around convinced that Communists were taking over. Except in your case, it’s now and you think it’s the military.

            The military is not some autonomous organization that acts on its own volition and goes around starting wars. The military acts on the orders of politicians. That’s who is starting wars. If wars are what you are concerned with, you need to complain about the politicians who are starting them, not the military who are just following orders.

            I am no military expert, but I take exception with your generalization that the only apparent function of the military is to be in wars. We get that you don’t like wars. No one does. But that is not the sole purpose of the military. As another reader wrote: who would you expect to play for the President of the US at official ceremonies, the Boston Symphony?

            We should thank our lucky stars that the US military is supporting the arts. At least someone is! Is it so different from the days when powerful kings supported musicians in their courts?

            To extrapolate from an interview with John Williams that the US military is presenting propaganda promoting wars is bordering on wacky.

            I’m afraid that your extensive research in other fields makes you think too much. You are over analyzing this.

            John Williams has a military background. A lot of famous people did different things before they became famous at what they do now, and it’s always a point of interest.

            Charles Kavalovski, former Principal horn of Boston Symphony was a physicist before he won his job. Conductor Samuel Wong was an opthomologist. Yo Yo Ma started out as a law student at Harvard. Interviewing these artists about how their past formative experiences have influenced their lives now is not necessarily propaganda. You are reading it that way.

            Yes, I suppose you could read into this interview whatever you want. Believers of the “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory in the 1960’s thought that if you played the song “Revolution” from the White Album backwards it revealed an important clue.

            Maybe this interview is like the White Album and you have to listen to it backwards to get the true meaning. But frankly, I think it’s just a very nice interview with a beloved American composer who like most men of his generation, served in the US military.

        • william osborne says:

          And the most disgusting propaganda practice of all: embedded journalists.

        • Patricia Yeiser says:

          Well, the Marine Band is pretty well known as a military group. Also the bands and chorus of the US Naval Academy, etc. They play and sing well – and who would you expect to play for the President? Any President of the USA? The Boston Symphony Orchestra, outside, so the strings can go out of tune? And the military doesn’t go anywhere without being sent by the WH and Congress. You are extremely biased, coupled with ignorance. It’s such an un-attractive combination.

    • william osborne says:

      Another important consideration is that good Americans do not stand by while their young people are put in the horrible predicament of being sent to fight illegal, unjustified, immoral wars. We are morally obligated to stop that when it happens. Part of this is carefully examining the propaganda methods that lead our society into improper wars. We owe that to our military and its personnel.

      • Patricia Yeiser says:

        Show me one war that is ‘moral.’ And how to define ‘illegal?” What this has to do with the hokey music of Speilberg?

      • TomC says:

        You are a sad, silly man. Your beef is not with the military. It’s with the politicians that get us into wars, moral or otherwise. As a person who spend a career in the military, I would say that your comments are uninformed and ignorant. I would also say that based on my background, I abhor war and hope that future attempts at conducting policy “by other means” is more carefully thought out before investing our national treasure. That being said, I’ve been there…”in the arena” as Teddy Roosevelt once aptly stated. Are you a “critic” or are you a “doer of deeds?” If you are simply another keyboard critic, then I’ll bid you good day!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Thinking of the music, I would agree with Williams.

  • Patricia Yeiser says:

    He should have stayed there. Without movies – and the odious Steven Spielberg – where would he be?