Coast Guard Band moves its audience with patriotic tunes
New London — Growing up in a Coast Guard family, Christie Hayes had a childhood full of changes. When station assignments moved the Hayes household up and down the East Coast and across the country, she could count on three things that would remain unbroken: family, patriotism and music.
Her father, Adm. John B. Hayes, was the 16th commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard from 1978 to 1982, overseeing all operations and personnel for the military branch. At Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration, John Hayes stood next to the president to review the Coast Guard Band. When John Hayes died unexpectedly in 2001, the Coast Guard Band performed at his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“That was very special that they thought enough of Dad to do that,” said Christie Hayes, a record-setting swimmer from Niantic who still lives in that section of East Lyme. “And it was certainly a two-way street because he loved (the Coast Guard Band) dearly as well.”
When her mother, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Christie Hayes would take her to any Coast Guard Band performance they could attend and play the band’s CDs at home. The music remained a connection to her mother until Elizabeth’s death in 2015.
“Music was the one thing that still could make her smile and that could make her try to form words because she would remember what (lyrics) went with the music,” Hayes said. “That was really special.”
The Hayes family’s love of military music and the Coast Guard Band is a fondness that many locals share. New London's military ties run deep, and while the armed forces and its contractors continue to serve as foundational economic drivers for the region, the joyous patriotism of residents is most evident when they are listening to the Coast Guard Band or one of the service’s other musical groups. Patriotic music also has a long history in the city.
“I think a lot of people in this area have their livelihoods and their careers dependent on the military-industrial complex,” New London Mayor Michael Passero said. “It's gone through its ups and downs, but it pretty much has provided the livelihood for our families for generations.”
Passero’s father, Ernest, served in the Navy, and the family put down roots in New London, where the family decided to stay after his father's retirement.
“I think I share sort of the same reason for being here as a lot of the families,” Passero said. “With a lot of the communities around here, people have a military background going back a generation or two. And they ended up here because of either the submarine base or the Coast Guard Academy.”
The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy, based in New London and Groton respectively, are vital economic forces within the state. Combined, these military forces directly employ nearly 10,000 personnel and civilians in southeastern Connecticut. Submarine builder Electric Boat employs more than 14,000 at its New London, Groton and Quonset Point, R.I., facilities.
In March, President Joe Biden signed legislation that provides $50 million in federal funding for the new National Coast Guard Museum in New London. Officials expect construction to start this summer.
The Coast Guard Band began as an 18-man ensemble in 1925. During World War II the band expanded tremendously. To build morale and raise donations, the Coast Guard formed several satellite bands that performed across the country. In 1943, the Coast Guard authorized the first all-women service band for the armed forces.
Congress elevated the status of the Coast Guard Band in 1965, establishing the band’s permanency. The band has played at presidential inaugurations and on tours domestically and abroad.
In 2015, the Coast Guard Band considered a permanent move to Washington, where the other services' bands have headquarters. Passero said city and state residents and officials fought fiercely to keep the band in New London. Today, the Coast Guard Band remains the only military ensemble with a headquarters outside of the nation’s capital.
“To try to uproot that turned out to be next to impossible,” Passero said. “The outcry in this area was incredible.”
With the exception of the United States Marine Band, known as "the President's Own," the Coast Guard Band is the only military band that does not require its musicians to attend basic training. While most service members join the military and then learn their craft, military musicians are a unique subset of personnel who enter the military with training and expertise in their craft.
Coast Guard Band members include graduates of top music schools and former world-class orchestra and symphony musicians. After their service, musicians continue to add to the regional arts community. Members have gone on to play in the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, teach music at local universities and form the New London Big Band.
Richard Martin, head of the New London Cultural Commission, said military musicians’ presence within the city’s arts scene is undeniable.
“The Coast Guard is very integrated in the city ... as well as the Navy,” Martin said. “Both of those populations are important to our downtown and its vibrancy.”
He said that performances by the Coast Guard Band and small ensembles draw audience members young and old and get the crowd dancing.
“What I always loved about the Coast Guard is that when they show up, they're always in their garb,” Martin said. “They were dressed to the nines at an indie rock fest. And it was kind of a cool sight for them.”
Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition Executive Director Wendy Bury said that organization works closely with military musicians. She said four of the coalition’s board members served in the Navy or Coast Guard.
Bury noted the Coast Guard Band attracts large crowds at public performances.
“If you know that you’re having a community event that happens every year, they will absolutely be a part of it, and they will be a draw,” she said. “I was shocked at the following (of) the Coast Guard Band and its quintets and quartets (and) shocked at the number of people that turned out for those events. The crowd is thick and it's patriotic.”
Bury said New Londoners take pride in the band and the city’s military community.
“Because we are a defense community, people love them and they feel very proud to have the Coast Guard be in New London and that the United States Coast Guard Band, the national band, is headquartered in New London. We take great pride in that,” Bury said. “Nowhere else in the United States can you get the Coast Guard Band (to perform) probably 15 to 20 times a year in various forms, you can’t get them anywhere else.”
Playing side by side with Russian band
Former Coast Guard Band director Capt. Kenneth Megan and musician Chief Anne Megan met when they were students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. The couple married, raised three children and now live in Oakdale.
Kenneth Megan’s career with the band lasted nearly four decades. After joining as an arranger in 1975, Kenneth Megan became assistant director of the Coast Guard Band in 1986 and then director in 2004. In 2013, he retired. Anne Megan joined the band in 1980 as an oboist before retiring in 2000.
“I didn't even know what the Coast Guard was until he got in,” Anne Megan said, gesturing toward her husband. “I don't think musicians, in general, join a military band because of patriotism — initially. It's a job, but once you’re in, you start to realize, 'Wow, look what we're doing for our country.' And you start to realize that this is a service. That was really appealing to me. You know, as time went on, I felt like we were doing some real good for our people.”
During his career, Kenneth Megan performed with the Coast Guard Band in all 50 states. He was also there when the band went abroad to England, Japan, Taiwan and Russia.
In 1989, the Coast Guard Band became the first U.S. service band to perform in the Soviet Union — a trip that Kenneth and Anne Megan said they often find themselves thinking about as war rages in Ukraine today. During the tour, the band performed side by side with the Russian Leningrad Military District Band. The director of that band, whom Kenneth Megan befriended but lost contact with, was Ukrainian.
“That was an incredibly memorable trip as well because it was right at the end of the breakup of the Soviet Union,” Kenneth Megan said. “When we were there, it was during glasnost and perestroika, you know, opening up, that type of thing. The relations between our countries, it's never going to be the same.”
At the time, the Coast Guard Band and Leningrad Military District Band performed on a stage decorated with an American flag and the hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union on either side. A white dove joined the flags in the middle. The bands would take turns performing their respective nation’s music, learn each other’s songs to perform jointly, and party together once the concert ended.
“We'd been there for a few days and when we played ‘America the Beautiful,’ I started to cry,” Anne Megan said. “It just hit me because you could see the devastation. You could see the city was tired and the passion of the people. It was just amazing and it made me appreciate our country. I just started to cry.”
Playing the "Service Medley," which includes the official songs of every military branch, is a treasured tradition of the Coast Guard Band.
“Especially on the road, not so much in New London, we'll play the Service Medley. ... They ask the people who have served to stand up when their song is played. And the band members, when they play it, you can tell they’re moved when you see these people stand in the audience, how proud they are having served our country," Kenneth Megan said. "I can be moved emotionally by music. And I think that, you know, as a musician, if you can impart that type of emotional impact on people when they listen, that's something that I always love to do.”
About this series
Under the direction of instructors Gail B. MacDonald, a University of Connecticut professor in residence and former Day reporter, and Carlos Virgen, The Day's assistant managing editor for audience development, UConn journalism students worked all semester crafting stories in text, audio and photographs that strive to tell parts of the overarching tale of music in New London. They spoke to musicians, businesspeople, city and regional officials, educators and others to inform their work. These stories will be published in The Day and on theday.com.
Listen to the podcast:
Stories that may interest you
The Rose Arts Festival has been attracting tens of thousands of people from Norwich and surrounding areas since the 1960s.
Town officials have established a timeline to develop and open the long-delayed Mystic River Boathouse Park on Route 27.
"What makes it so nice is that no one's in charge," said former selectman Parker Lord. "It just happens."