Keeping jazz alive: Altoona native returns with Airmen of Note

The U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note jazz band has two goals with each performance: play a great collection of jazz and honor the other airmen stationed around the world.

“We aim to inspire patriotism in our performances,” said Timothy Leahey, an Altoona native and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the band. “We represent the excellence of airmen across the globe.”

The band will perform a free concert at the Altoona Area High School Auditorium on Sept. 5. Tickets to the show are available starting Monday at the Central Blair Recreation Commission’s office in Altoona, at 2101 Fifth Ave.

There is a limit of four tickets per person.

The band is the premier jazz ensemble in the Air Force, and it travels throughout the country and the world performing both classic and contemporary jazz favorites.

Originally formed in 1950, the band includes 18 active duty musicians, some of whom also split off from the main group and perform individually.

Larry Detwiler, director of the Altoona Area High School’s various band ensembles and one of the concert’s organizers, said the show allows his students and the community as a whole to see a truly exemplary jazz performance.

“It’s important, No. 1, for students to see performers of that caliber, and that the kids get that exposure and that contact,” Detwiler said. “I see this as a thing where the whole community can benefit.”

Leahey, a 1986 graduate of Altoona Area High?School, has been a trumpet player for close to 40 years, he said, and has spent more than 20 with the Airmen of Note.

He said he discovered the group at a local trumpet convention in 1993 and chose to submit a taped audition.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s an amazing privilege to play with the band, period,” he said. “But to come into my hometown as the leader of the group? It’s an honor.”

Detwiler said that Leahey has made other return trips to the area in the past to work with the school district on programs, like serving as a guest director at the annual Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District Jazz Festival, when it was hosted by Altoona, to work with the students.

“It’s great to get him back into our community,” Detwiler said.

That type of outreach is important to him, Leahey said, because he can share “insider tips and tricks” with budding musicians.

Plus, it allows him to teach young people about jazz – a type of music that is becoming less and less popular with youth, he said.

“Back in the ’40s, jazz was the popular music of the day. That’s what you heard on the radio; that’s what kids were listening to at dances,” Leahey said. “I think it’s important that the jazz idiom stays in existence in whatever way we can do it.”

And for anyone who might associate a military band with marches, they’re going to be surprised, he added.

Detwiler said the show will offer something for everyone to enjoy, even if they’re not familiar with jazz music.

“Even if you’re not a jazz fan, per se, it’s still a really awesome musical group,” he said. “It just pulls you in.”

Leahey also noted that the band’s “touring mission” has changed over the years, so it is traveling less and appearing less frequently in local communities. The last time the Airmen of Note performed in the area was in 1998.

“This may be a once-in-a-great-while opportunity,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7466.