Captain  William  Joseph  Phillips
Leader of the Navy Band
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Capt. Phillips

During my career, I have met many musicians, and some others who have worked in various music-related fields.  Just this once it was my pleasure to speak with a military man who has spent his life protecting us while at the same time devoting his energy to the service of music.  Everyone in the world who is free owes this distinguished officer gratitude for his work on both fronts.  A detailed biography and selected list of highlights from his career are in the box at the end of this interview.

He and his band were in Chicago in December of 1992 for the annual Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, and we had a chance to meet at his hotel during the convention.  As I was setting up the tape recorder, we chatted about our current situations and he seemed impressed with my work as Announcer/Producer with a classical music station in a top US market.

Bruce Duffie:  You say that I have a wonderful job; I think you have a wonderful job, too.  I assume you consider it such?

Capt. William J. Phillips:  Well, I do.  It’s exciting working with such a fantastic musical aggregation as the Navy Band.  Some people don’t realize that there’s only so many wind jobs in the major orchestras, and there are still awfully, awfully wonderful musicians in this country that want to perform.  In the major service bands in Washington there are a couple of those sought-after positions, especially for the wind players, and it’s just happenstance that maybe one of these people that are in our bands have not won an orchestral audition.  So it’s a great level of musicianship that we work with.

BD:    One of the questions that I like to ask when I talk with band people
why are there so very few professional bands in the numbers and recognition as there are professional orchestras?

Capt. WJP:    If I can digress a moment, I think we have to look at it in the historical sense.  For orchestras today, making it on their gate might be somewhat difficult.  They’re all endowed in some fashion, which I assume is imperative and is a necessity.  They are an idiom that is art unto itself, certainly in music.  As to bands, if we go back to the turn of the century, John Phillip Sousa and his band were the Beatles of his time, or the Michael Jackson of today.  I’ve thought back about it as we tour now with our bands.  The major bands
Sousa being the most well-known, and those other great bands of that erait was a situation where they were what was happening in their era in history.  So bands, in a way, were looked at as an orchestra might be looked atas a treasure of art — that would now be somewhat of an antique, in its own way.

BD:    Are you saying that the band has not progressed the way orchestras have progressed?

Capt. WJP:    Oh, no, I’m not saying that at all!  Orchestras are still playing the classics, they’re playing the romantic period, and they’re playing twentieth century.  But in that same sense, I don’t think bands are regarded as orchestras are; they are the real deal.  It’s just like the current big bands that play music of the forties, aren’t the big bands of the forties anymore.  The bands of the turn of the century or the teens and the twenties, aren’t the bands that they used to be.  I can tell you this, that the musicians that play in bands
in school programs or college programs or on the professional level (which are basically military bands) — the level has never been better!

BD:    Of course, the technical level is going to be high for musicians throughout the country.  All the schools and colleges and universities have bands.  I’m trying to figure out why this doesn’t translate into a professional band in every large city.

Capt. WJP:    There are many who are very industrious at this moment who are trying to make this come about, such as the community bands or city bands and things of this nature.  I’d like to think that there’s room for all of it, but even some orchestras are struggling just to maintain!  On the positive side, it’s coming close to happening with the Dallas Wind Symphony, which I’ve had the privilege to guest conduct at times as have the other major band military band conductors from Washington.  And I applaud them because they have a good thing going down there, and it doesn’t seem to get in the way of the Dallas Symphony at all.  They’re doing well, and the Dallas Wind Symphony is working very hard at becoming a known entity.  And they play in the beautiful Symphony Hall there in Dallas.  

BD:    Oh, they play in the new hall?

Capt. WJP:    They do.  It’s a gorgeous place to play, and they’re doing rather well.  So there is a resurgence, in a sense, across the country for bands to do this.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    It seems that the symphonic band as we know it is a peculiarly American institution, rather than a European institution.

Capt. WJP:    The movement abroad seems to be in the brass band.  In fact there’s some of them here at the clinic at this particular time.  One of the fellows that guest conducted our band the other night is very strongly into the British brass bands, as they’re known.  The symphonic band probably generates from the time of Sousa and the name bands touring around the country known as concert bands.  As you know, in the early fifties there was the movement towards what we know as the wind ensemble, which is fewer players with every part being selectively more exposed, and every player being significant.  In other words, there’s no room for slack; when you have twenty clarinets in a section, twelve of them might play reasonably well and the other eight might be average.  In a wind ensemble, everyone is carrying a load, and often times it’s individual parts.  But this is transitioning, to a degree, back to more of a larger band.  We major military bands travel with a smaller unit just because it’s financially the thing to do.  It’s the most expedient way to do it at the least amount of cost.  I usually travel on the road with about sixty people including the sound technician and the narrator.

BD:    When you know you’re going out with around sixty players, does this influence your choice of repertoire?

Capt. WJP:    Not too much because with that number of personnel I can play about any of the band literature that’s written, whether it’s originally written for band or possibly an orchestral transcription
of which a lot of the band repertoire really is — the old chestnuts, as we call them! [Both laugh]

BD:    Would you rather play something written for the band, or a transcription of an orchestral work?

Capt. WJP:    Personally I enjoy doing the transcriptions, but only certain transcriptions.  There’s a number of things that just do not lend themselves well to the wind band as a transcription; others transcribe very well.  A lot of Shostakovich transcribes very well for the band, but the French composers
Debussy, Ravel, or some of the others — do not.  You just can’t get the texture and the color from what they were doing.

BD:    Perhaps the French tried to incorporate the band into their orchestras by adding saxophones in the orchestral palette.

Capt. WJP:    That very well may be.  I hadn’t thought of it in that particular concept, but that may be the case.  It’s hard to get those colors and textures — especially Debussy, which is such beautiful music!  As a band conductor I’d really like to do that, but it just doesn’t lend itself too well.

BD:    Would it be worth it to ask an arranger or composer to look at these pieces and try and see if they can make them for band?

Capt. WJP:    Well, that has been done.  There are a lot of works that have been arranged for band by these composers; they just don’t lend themselves well.  A lot of people have tried to do it; it’s just that certain composers and their approaches to the literature will come across to the wind ensemble or the concert band, and you don’t lose an awful lot at all.  The other evening we did a transcription by Andrzej Panufnik who lives in Great Britain.  I happened to hear his Sinfonia Sacra one night while riding along in my automobile.  I’d never heard the work, so I called the radio station the next morning and I asked them what they were playing between seven and seven-thirty, and they told me.  I got it all down, and through the good graces of Boosey and Hawkes, they put me in touch with Mr. Panufnik.  I have a marvelous orchestrator back in Washington, and I asked if he might take his work and transcribe it for the concert band.  I wanted to preview the work here, and in fact we did it for the first time last evening.

BD:    Would you rather have your usual transcriber do it, or would you rather have the composer himself transcribe it for the band?

Capt. WJP:    It would be wonderful to have the composer himself do it.  We really didn’t talk about that part of it.  I asked him if he would mind if we did, and I never even thought to ask him if he might want to do it.  That’s an interesting point.  Perhaps I should have!  Fortunately, I think it came off very well.

BD:    He may not have wanted to touch it.  He may have wanted to leave it to somebody else to transcribe.

Capt. WJP:    He was actually very thrilled that we would consider doing this.  In fact he mentioned that he had a great remembrance of the city of Chicago doing one of his symphonies not that long ago.

BD:    Will you then perhaps go back to Panufnik, and ask him to write an original piece for your band?

Capt. WJP:    Perhaps!  I might just do that.  I want to send him a copy of the score and also a recording to get his feelings on it.  I really think that would be interesting, because there are some things going on in opening, where the violins are up in the harmonics and it’s so soft.  When I discussed it with him in the letter and asked how we might do that, he said, “Well, I’m sure that you’ll figure a way.” [Laughs] And I think that we did!  We doubled two piccolos, and had all the rest of the winds blow into their instrument.

BD:    No sound, just air?

Capt. WJP:    Exactly.  It gives that ethereal effect that is very reminiscent of the original.  My orchestrator, Carlton Lynn, did that; he’s so ingenious at times, it’s amazing!  But I hope Panufnik likes it.  I’m really looking forward to sending him a recording of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You were mentioning the evolution of the band.  Is the band, as we know it today, still evolving?

Capt. WJP:    I think at this moment, if it’s evolving it might be going back to the traditional band of old.  This might be a controversial issue, and some might feel that the wind ensemble thought process is still evolving to something, but a lot of the giants in the band world that I totally respect feel that the band itself is encompassing a larger ensemble once again.  And I will say this:  there’s probably more music being written now for the band then ever before.

BD:    I assume that’s a good thing.

Capt. WJP:    It is a good thing in most cases, but then it becomes a question of where and when you can perform what.  Those who teach in the universities around the country
such as my good friend John Paynter over at Northwesternhave the ability there to stretch out a little bit, to teach and move to new horizons and do music that’s on that particular side.  I feel that the mandate for myself as a professional military band conductor, when I’m just playing for the public in generalsuch as a nice summer evening concert in Washington D.C.that my programming must be such that I not only try to play quality music for the people, but I certainly must entertain them.  And I think they expect from us a certain amount of marches; they expect from us a certain amount of patriotic music, and that has always got to be a reasonably good part of our program.  Now coming here to the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic is a little different situation because we’re playing to our colleagues, and so we’re able to do something like the Panufnik.

BD:    You can take more chances?

Capt. WJP:    Oh, yes!  And the band can really stretch out.  When we come and do engagements such as this, it’s amazing the level of the band rises to.  It’s not just another concert.  That must go on everywhere, but I can sense it.

BD:    So you carve out each concert.  You’ve got some marches and some favorites, but from the vast array available to you, how do you decide which pieces you will play and which pieces you will have to let go until next season, or perhaps ignore completely?

Capt. WJP:    That’s a key thing and I spend a lot of time doing that.  In the summer we’re doing four different ones each week.  I try to keep the band up and interested, because you could play the same concert four nights in a week and you wouldn’t be playing to the same audience.  But we try to turn over the music real fast, and it keeps the musicians’ interest peaked.  But I spend a lot of time thinking about what the programs are going to be, how it will flow, and will the people have been entertained and enjoy the concert for the whole evening.  So there’s always a tremendous variety.  There will be something that we might call a
musician’s piece, but it must be tempered in different areas with making sure that the audience is entertained and enjoys the program.  I firmly believe that for many of your concert-going audiences come out on a hot summer evening to hear a concert band in a park, if you can’t tap your foot to most of the music, or if you can’t hum it, you better be careful.  I think that that’s what they expect from a band in a setting like that.

BD:    And that, of course, makes for programs with lots of little pieces, rather than a large symphonic work.

Capt. WJP:    In most cases, yes.  When you start getting over eight minutes, it’s a little dangerous for what we would call an entertaining concert in our idiom.  It really is.  Once again, I’m speaking for the general audience, and I hope that would never be construed as saying that they can’t take any more than that; I’m not saying that whatsoever.  Being military musicians, we are salaried by the American people, and we wear the uniforms of our respective services.  There’s certain things they expect of us, musically
— and also in a lot of other ways.  I tell the musicians in the Navy Band that not only must we play well, but we also must look like good Navy people in our appearance and in our poise, and in everything else.  That’s part of our job, and the musicians in the military bands fully realize this and understand it.  We’re on stage, pure and simple, and I feel that we can blow away a wonderfully good musical performance if we don’t look what our title says that we are.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How much of the daily routine is military, and how much is musical?

Capt. WJP:    It’s basically all musical.  A day’s routine might consist of a two-hour concert band rehearsal in the morning, but the same band that rehearsed in the morning that may play a concert that night or the next day, or may have to play a funeral that afternoon.  There may be a funeral in Arlington; there may be a patriotic opening ceremony which means that the band will play about a half a dozen marches and the National Anthem, and march the colors into some special event that’s going on in Washington; or there may be a change of command ceremony, or something else.  These guys and gals, do it all.  We’re blessed with no gender problems; we have male and female musicians, and they’re all wonderful!

BD:    No, they’re coming through the ranks of the military, though.  They wind up — they have to start out first doing basic training or boot camp, or whatever the Navy part of that is?

Capt. WJP:    They do in at least three of the services.  I think the Marine Band musicians go directly to the band, but the Navy does require them to go to boot camp.  We think it gives them a very good understanding of the Navy in general, and then once they come into the band, they certainly appreciate the band a lot more!  [Laughs]  And I think that is also true in the Army and the Air Force Bands.  But once they are assigned to one of the four premier bands in Washington, they’re immediately advanced to a more senior grade right up front.  And it’s also permanent duty, at least the bands in Washington.  That isn’t the case with the band here at Great Lakes, which is the Navy Band.  People will come here generally on a three or four year tour and then they will rotate to another band.  But the special bands in Washington are preferentially manned, and they’re also permanent duty; that’s the reason we can attract the level of performer that we have in these special bands.

BD:    And the positions are filled by audition only?

Capt. WJP:    Oh, yes.  If we have a vacancy, we’ll put out the call in The International Musician or The Instrumentalist and some of the other musical publications.  We’ll ask for a tape and a photo and a resume.  Then, let’s say for trumpet players, we might get two hundred.  We will narrow it down to twenty-five or thirty, and invite them to audition.  Then we’ll have second calls until we get down to the hire.  The jobs are highly sought after and they don’t turn over that often.  So it’s not unlike an orchestral audition.  We audition behind a screen, so that there’s the sense that we’re listening to the player and what they have to offer.  It is a blind audition.

BD:    What advice do you have for young musicians coming along who want to play in bands
or even orchestras?

Capt. WJP:    I can use myself as an example.  I think one knows very young if that’s really what they want to do.  Maybe not all, but I certainly knew that I wanted to be a musician.  I never particularly aspired to be a Captain in the Navy and lead the United States Navy Band, but I knew I wanted to be a professional musician almost from the time I picked up a trombone when I was twelve years old.

BD:    So you might have been equally happy in one of the great orchestras or one of the great bands?

Capt. WJP:    If that had been possible or if my life had gone in that particular direction.  What I’m saying is set your goals, attain them, and then set a new goal and attain that, and another new goal and objective.  At one time I may have just aspired to be a Chief Petty Officer and run one of the Navy’s smaller musical organizations, which I did.  Then I thought, gee, it would be nice to be a Music Officer and aspire to some greater heights.  Fortunately I did that.  Then maybe I should at least aspire to be leader of the Naval Academy Band some day.  That was in my future.  Never in my mind would I have ever thought that I might be able to lead the United States Navy Band, or ever be a Captain in the United States Navy!  So, you never know what’s on the horizon if you aspire to it and always work and constantly challenge yourself to attain the goal, the next step in your life.  That’s what it’s been for me, and I’ve been very fortunate to attain those things.  I never dreamed of it, even when I thought I wanted to be a musician as a very young person. 

BD:    I understand that you are the only musician that has the rank of Captain. 

Capt. WJP:    That’s true in the Navy.  It’s equivalent to the rank of Colonel in the Army and Marine Corps and the Air Force.  Yes, I’m the first Navy Captain musician in the history of the Navy.   I hope that there are those that will be coming along, that will follow me.  I’ve set a precedent that they can also be promoted to Captain.  It’s been only in the last four years that by law, a musician
or what we call limited duty officer in the Navy, because we’ve all come up through the enlisted gradescould even be a Captain.  There used to be a cap at what they call the O-5 level, or Commander level, and then it was opened up.  To be totally honest with you, I feel very fortunate and was quite surprised to make Captain as a musician, because I’m competing against guys who are ship commanders and major shore installation commanders, with tremendously strong operational and combat-type backgrounds.  As a musician, to be promoted I feel extremely fortunate and honored, and I’m delighted!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How did you originally get going into the world of music?

Capt. WJP:   
I studied with John Coffey in Boston for three years.  Most brass players know of John Coffey; he’s a very renowned bass trombonist who played under Koussevitzky in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  He also played under Toscanini at NBC.  I had the last lesson with him on a Tuesday evening.  He taught from eight in the morning ‘til ten at night.  Of course, by the time the ten o’clock lesson at night came around, he was always a half-hour, or better, behind!  [Both laugh]  So you might say I had the ten-thirty lesson.  But I learned so much from him, not only from the musical side, but just about the music business and what it was all about.  That was a great learning experience for me, the year and a half I studied with him in Boston, back in the early sixties.

Cdr. PhillipsBD:    How early did you enlist in the Navy?

Capt. WJP:    I enlisted in 1957.  I was just out of high school at the time.

BD:    And you went right into the band?

Capt. WJP:    Right into Navy bands, yes.  I auditioned before I came in.

BD:    So they had the place waiting for you?

Capt. WJP:    There were vacancies in the Navy music program.  I didn’t go directly to the United States Navy Band.  I was actually in different bands around the fleet in the Navy.  I was stationed in Boston for a couple of years.  I had four years of sea duty in my early career, in Navy bands at sea at the time.

BD:    How difficult is it to keep a band together on sea duty?

Capt. WJP:    It’s really not too difficult at all.  Most of our seagoing bands were very small; they were seventeen piece bands, the seagoing bands.  They were patterned after what you would call a forties big band
five saxes, four trombones, four trumpets, and a rhythm section and a leader!  You could break that band down into a ceremonial setting of four trumpets, make two of the sax players play clarinet, and have an alto and a tenor and a bari sax player.  That would be your winds, and usually one of the trombone players would double as a euphonium player in a stand-up ceremonial job.  All of our tuba or string bass players have to double to the other, which ever may be their major, and our piano players played cymbals and bass drum, simultaneously.  And of course the trap set drummer was the snare drummer.  So you could do a respectable ceremonial job with a band that small.

BD:    With that small band all on one ship, might you be swabbing the deck one hour and then practicing the next?

Capt. WJP:    Depending on how ingenious the bandmaster was, if he could think of things for his band to do around the ship we wouldn’t get caught up into that!  [Both laugh]  And fortunately, we didn’t.  We would play for the crew.  We’d work up shows and play for the crew over the noon hour, or we’d play at each of their messes aboard ship.  And when ships come alongside at sea
what you call unwrapping, where you hook up fuel lines and steam alongside while a larger ship refuels a smaller ship, or you take on stores — the band is always up there playing.  Generally the bands were assigned to the Flagship, which is the ship that had the Admiral on it.  The Admiral often times highlined; that’s where you see them in the bos’n’s chairs going across the water from one ship to the other while the ships are steaming along!  One way to make points with the Admiral was to play The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze when he was highlining!  He would always be smiling when we would do that!

BD:    A few extra rations for the men tonight!

Capt. WJP:    Right!  And that would make us a little more untouchable for those jobs we were just talking about!

BD:    Was there ever any resentment on the part of an ordinary seaman for the musician seaman?

Capt. WJP:    Well, yes, because they didn’t understand what we did.  I think once they fully understand the job of the military musician, they had a lot more respect for the seagoing bands.  When you get to port, the crew goes ashore.  But often times, when you have a Flag Officer on board, the Admiral receives many guests and the band plays the honors and the ceremonial things that happen aboard the ship; so you don’t get to hit the beach
as we called going on libertyas early as the crew.  Once they understood that, things are better for all.  People think that music is totally a fun game all the time.  Well, yes, we love our craft and our profession, but it’s also time consuming, and it can be very hard workespecially for our band in Washington.  We tour each spring for thirty to sixty days, depending on where we’re going and how much ground we’re having to cover, and often it’s two concerts a day, seven days a week.  A lot of people that work the nine-to-five type jobs don’t understand this concept.  But once they do, they develop a new understanding and a new appreciation for what bands do.  And most of the ceremonies that we do in Washington — especially funerals, of course — happen rain or shine, sleet or snow, and it makes no difference what the temperature is, either.  So for those who know, there’s no resentment.  The young guys sometimes think that it must be nice just to sit around and play a horn, and get paid for it!  But anyone above that level that has an understanding at all of what military musicians are about don’t feel that way at all.

BD:    Some of the guys in the Chicago Symphony tell me they still get the occasional person who asks, “What do you do during the day?”

Capt. WJP:    Isn’t it the truth?  They just don’t understand.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to write music for the band?

Capt. WJP:    I think that all the bands, any of the bands, are always looking for new works to play.  What advice?  I would say do it!  Often times there are works sent to us by fledgling composers or already renowned composers, because they know that the major bands in Washington can play what they write!  And we’ll give it a go.   I wouldn’t want this mean that all of a sudden I’ll get a deluge of music!  But the advice is please write it
understanding that in the case of the military bands and some of the bands in the educational institutions, that when we program, we must be more careful about what we play.  We cannot be getting on the fringe of what may be wonderfully good music to those of us are musicians, as opposed to what might be palatable to the general public. 

BD:    You mean no forty-five minute, atonal works?

Capt. WJP:    Exactly!  That’s what I was saying, nicely! [Laughs]

BD:    Something short and something palatable, but still interesting?

Capt. WJP:    Well yes, of course yes!  We premiered another piece here by Jim Barnes from the University of Kansas.  We commissioned him to write the work, and when I asked him to do it, I said, “Please make it something that not only can I play at this clinic, but I can program any time.”  He understood what I was talking about, and he named it Brave Sailors, Valiant Ships.  It’s certainly got a title that everyone can understand, too.  It’s the type of thing that I can certainly get a lot of use from.  But don’t get me wrong.  We don’t totally refuse to play anything that has a lot of wonderful musical value or that is somewhat cerebral.  Our players are certainly trained to play anything, and they like to stretch out a little bit and get into the good works like that.  So, write anything!  I think that they should do it, and the sky’s the limit as far as I’m concerned.

BD:    Do you feel that the technical ability of the players is increasing all the time?

Capt. WJP:    Yes.

BD:    Is the musical ability of the players increasing also?

Capt. WJP:    I think so.  I think all around.  This is my second tour of duty leading the Navy Band.  I led the band from ’79 to ’84, and then I was away for several years until I was promoted to Captain, and I remember the band distinctly as I left it.  It was a wonderful band, but as I come back this time, it’s better than ever!  The young players coming out of the colleges and universities and the conservatories around the country are just better than ever!  In our clarinet section, for instance, if you could take them like a deck of cards, shuffle them, throw them up in the air and then just lay them down the line, it would be very difficult to realize that you had changed anything as far as strength because there’s so much depth throughout the section.  All the sections are like that, and that hasn’t always been the case.

BD:    So the last stand clarinet player really could play the solo clarinet part if he or she had to?

Capt. WJP:    Oh, no question!  No question!  I wouldn’t have any hesitation at all at putting any clarinets, even the last stand player, right up on the solo.

BD:    Do you then, perhaps, keep things interesting and rotate them a little bit?

Capt. WJP:    Yes, except the principals.  I know some orchestras do that.  The Baltimore Symphony does; I live at Annapolis, so I see that.  Perhaps they do it here...

BD:    Yes, the CSO does it.  Except for the principals, everybody else rotates every two weeks.

Capt. WJP:    That’s pretty much done with our band, too, but it could even go further than that!  Out of deference for the principals, they remain.  I have a lot of respect for that, too.

BD:    One last question
what’s the purpose of music?

Capt. WJP:    There’s a band composer by the name of Alfred Reed who wrote a little essay in the back of The Instrumentalist magazine.  Perhaps you read it?  Probably that says it best.  [See my interview with Alfred Reed.]  For me, I think that music gives another meaning to life that is apparently something that we all need and care about.  Any kind of music.  If every kid was listening to Beethoven or Mozart, that would be fine and they would think it was wonderful!  And it would be music.  Unfortunately, they aren’t doing that today.  But it’s just a part of what we are.  Those vibrations that happen make us happy or make us sad.  I know it can make me sad.  I can relive moments that I’ve had tears in my eyes, and had the hair stand up on my arms or around my neck.  Those are certain moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, and I think that anyone with some heart at all has those same feelings.  So I think it’s a part of our emotions.  I guess that’s how I would have to define it
it’s a part of our emotions.  It’s got to be.

The following biography of Capt. Phillips, as well as the two photographs used above, were gathered from the website of the U.S. Navy Band

In December 1978, Lt. Cmdr. William J. Phillips became the Navy Band's sixth leader. Phillips' legacy is two-fold; he was the first music officer to ever attain the rank of Captain, and is also the only Navy Band leader to serve two terms [1978-84 and 1992-95].

In Capt. Phillips' long and distinguished career, he served the Navy Music Program in almost every capacity. Indeed, he was the first to hold the Navy Music Program's top four billets, including Officer in Charge of the U.S. Navy Band; Director of the U.S. Naval Academy Band; Head of the Bureau of Naval Personnel's Music Branch; and Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces School of Music in Little Creek, Va.

A native of North Carolina, Phillips enlisted in the Navy in 1957 and reported to the School of Music when it was still located at Naval Station Anacostia. As a trombone instrumentalist, Phillips served in various fleet bands at sea and ashore, working his way up the ranks. He was advanced to Chief Petty Officer in 1964 and was promoted to Warrant Officer in 1967.  He served as director of the Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force Pacific Band, and became leader of the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet Band in 1968. He was commissioned a CWO2 in 1969 and shortly thereafter was promoted to Ensign and reported to the Naval Academy Band as Assistant Leader. In March of 1972 he became the leader. As leader of the Academy Band, Phillips initiated the concept of "totally integrated programming." His philosophy was to present band concerts as thematic concepts complete with scripts and narration. As Capt. Phillips said, "Our concerts are directed toward capturing the audience's interest from beginning to end."  Capt. Phillips carried this concept to the Navy Band when he was appointed Leader in December 1978. He was the first to combine the Concert Narrator and featured vocal soloist when he named Musician 1st Class Chuck Yates to that position. Other notable innovations included mini versions of operas and Broadway musicals. This integration of the Sea Chanters opened new opportunities to showcase the band's many talents. Phillips also believed providing Navy Band recordings of all band units was necessary to give more Americans the opportunity to hear Navy music.

During the Phillips years, many high-profile national events involving the Navy Band took place. The Navy Band played for the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1980; the return of the 52 American hostages from Iran; the state funeral of General Omar Bradley, the last five-star general of World War II; and the welcoming celebration of the first space shuttle "Columbia" crew--all in 1981. Phillips was also instrumental in providing famous guest artists to narrate the Navy Band Birthday celebrations. Some of the most notable were Cliff Robertson and Mike Connors.

After Phillips' first tour as Leader, U.S. Navy Band, he became the Head, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Music Branch were he initiated the opportunity for band officers to receive a Master's Degree in conducting to prepare them for a tour as leader of the Navy Band. Phillips then reported for duty as Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces School of Music, 35 years after he reported to the old School of Music as an 18-year old trombone player. While at the school, he was promoted to Captain, a first in Navy music history. Capt. Phillips returned to the Navy Band for the second time in 1992 and after a three-year tour, retired in June 1995 after 38 years of service to his country.

Capt. Phillips is respected as an innovative figure in Navy music. To provide appropriate training and advancement possibilities for those who may command the U.S. Navy Band, he established an advanced degree program for music officers. Capt. Phillips also serves as an ambassador of the Navy by guest lecturing and conducting musical organizations throughout the United States and Europe, including the internationally renowned Boston Pops Orchestra, and the Military Orchestra of the Guard of Honor of Moscow, Russia.  His Awards include three Meritorious Service Medals, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Unit Commendation, and others. Recognition of his abilities also comes from outside the military. He was voted a member of the American Bandmasters Association in 1981, and is a recipient of the Orpheus Award presented by the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity.

Capt. Phillips' education and training have not been strictly limited to music. In 1991, he was awarded a bachelor's degree in business administration. In his leisure time, he enjoys yacht racing, racquetball, and squash. Capt. Phillips is married to the former Priscilla Parsons of Massachusetts. They have two children, Jill and Bradford.

A few of the highlights during Phillips' tenure - first as CDR, then as CAPT:
    stages highlights of operas and musicals
    (Jan.) plays ceremony to welcome home 52 American hostages returning to Andrews Air Force Base following captivity in Iran
    (Aug.) Country Current entertains President Reagan and Mexican President Portillo at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md.
    (Oct.) Sea Chanters debut as mixed chorus on 206th Navy Birthday Concert in The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performinig Arts Concert Hall
    returns as first captain in Navy music history and only leader to serve two terms
     (Sep.) performs at the International Swedish Army Tattoo in Stockholm
     (Dec.) receives John Philip Sousa Foundation's Col. George S. Howard Citation of Musical Excellence for Military Concert Bands
     (Mar.) receives Music Educators National Conference "Certificate of Excellence"
     (May) performs in the Memphis in May "International Festival Tattoo" in Memphis, Tenn.
     (Jul.) is featured in the National Independence Day Celebration on the Washington Monument grounds (seventh annual appearance for event)
      (Oct.) plays for Bicentennial of the U.S. Capitol and reinstallation of the "Statue of Freedom" to the U.S. Capitol dome, with Liza Minnelli
      (Jun.) performs opening ceremony for World Cup Soccer Match at R.F.K. Stadium in Washington, D.C.
      (Sep.) presents Newly Published Music Workshop at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1992.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.  

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.