Army Bandsman Follows Family Tradition
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
The whiteboards on the walls list songs -- everything from “Hey Ya” by Outkast to “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones to “My Girl” by the Temptations. Reading the lists, there’s a sense of order under the randomness; they’re work-in-progress set lists for the 9th Army Band.
In another room, someone’s practicing on a drum set, setting a steady beat with elaborate flourishes behind the thumping rhythm.
Saxophonist Army Sgt. Charles Moncayo has been with the band for a few years now, first while they were stationed at Fort Wainwright and now here, the band’s new home.
Moncayo, with a musical family history, joined the Army to play the saxophone, and along the way, he discovered another passion.
Family Musical Tradition
“My great-grandfather was a composer and songwriter,” he said. “James Cavanaugh -- he wrote ‘Christmas in Killarney’ and ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,’ so I kind of had that legacy. My mom and Nana would tell me stories about the house parties with lots of visiting musicians.”
An early gift when he was young was a Duke Ellington album, which he listened to over and over.
“I don’t just like one type, though,” he said. “An Army musician has to be versatile … and there’s a pretty diverse background in the unit. Everyone’s always listening to something different, and we inspire each other to listen to new music every day. But Ellington’s one of my favorites, in terms of jazz. I had an opportunity over Christmas -- I was in Chicago for my brother-in-law’s graduation, and I went to see Bob Mintzer at the Green Mill.”
Exposed to music all his life, he started playing the flute in fourth grade, but found it wasn’t his cup of tea.
“I’ve been playing the saxophone since 7th grade,” he said “I learned the clarinet along the way, so I’ve been playing for about 14 or 15 years now.”
Joining the Army
As he began to wrap up a degree in music education and jazz studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2012, he had to choose his next step in life. He considered working on cruise ships or teaching, but in 2010, he had seen the Army Blues at a conference in Missouri, and another option appeared: military music.
He met with a music liaison from the Marine Corps, but also with Army 1st Sgt. Byron Bartosh of the 9th Army Band; he made his decision, and after completing his training at the Army School of Music, he made the move to Fairbanks in September of 2015.
While the band plays a little of everything, jazz is one of his passions.
“It’s really America’s music,” he said. “There’s a large western tradition of music, but jazz is uniquely American.”
When he began considering the military as a career choice, he realized he’d have to start focusing on physical training.
Staying in Shape
“I ran cross-country in middle school, but in high school there was no time,” he said. “Sports was being in the marching band.”
He took up running again, training for physical fitness tests, and found the musical rhythms he’d grown up with paid dividends outside the studio.
“I started really enjoying [running],” he said. “I realized I was having fun. So I did a half-marathon in 2014, and that was a lot of fun, and it’s just taken off from there.”
Music helps him keep the rhythm -- at 130 steps per minute, think of “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas or “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 -- though his background makes keeping the beat almost unconscious.
“I’ve worked hard at it; the 10,000-hour rule is that if you spend that much time on something, you’ll achieve mastery of that skill. There’s natural talent, too, but also a lot of work.”
He’s planning to make the Army a career, already setting some long-term goals.
“I’d like to be a band officer, but it’s a very competitive field,” he said. “There would be less playing, but more music making and conducting. The conductor is a professional and represents the Army in an expert way. But I’d be more than happy to stay enlisted, too -- and later, maybe teaching at the schoolhouse.
“Being so young in my career, there are a lot of opportunities.”
Alaska has been a wonderful first duty station, he said.
“Alaska’s very unique,” he said. “There are so many Army opportunities outside of music -- I went to the Basic Leaders Course and the Cold Weather Leaders Course, which I’d never have been able to do anywhere else … there are so many chances to make myself more valuable to the unit and the people I serve with.”
The Last Frontier has also been a great place to run; he’s competed in several 5-kilometer runs in Fairbanks as well as the Equinox Marathon, which, with 3,285 feet of elevation gain, is one of the toughest courses in the world.
In March, Moncayo was the first male finisher at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center’s 5k run. The prize: naming a baby wood bison.
“I talked with some of my friends, and we came up with ‘Mike Bison’ -- but I think it’ll be ‘Iron Mike Bison’ after the statue at Fort Bragg,” he said, giving the young buffalo an Army name to live up to.
Until the next race -- the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon this month -- Moncayo spends some of his free time playing with community bands from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna valley area, and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I enjoy meeting people in the community,” Moncayo said. “Outreach is very important.”