KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America wowed an audience of nearly 80,000 at the Kansas City RiverFest July 4 as people turned out to celebrate the nation’s 242nd birthday.
The band’s Shades of Blue jazz ensemble travelled to the city from Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, to play for the RiverFest celebration as well as residents at the John Knox Village independent living facility the night before.
“We use music as a way to build bridges into communities whose members may have had little or no contact with those in uniform,” said Master Sgt. Steven Helfand, Shades of Blue NCO in charge. “Music connects people and allows us to present a positive image of the U.S. military while letting people know what their Air Force is up to.”
Air Force bands conduct nearly 5,000 missions a year. Before each event, they analyze and team up with a specific community to achieve a desired effect.
“As an Air Force band, we determine how best to connect the Air Force with each local community through music,” said Lt. Col. Michael Willen, Band of Mid-America commander. “In this case, Kansas City's historic link to jazz became the bridge between the Air Force and the community. Once we cross that bridge and connect, the audience becomes more receptive to Air Force storytelling, to include our messages that relay what AMC does for them and for the United States.”
Decked out in their stars-and-stripe-themed clothing, audience members listened as the band not only played to spark patriot emotions but also to educate audience members on today’s military.
“The considerable sacrifice people make to protect our country is insurmountable,” said Sarah McGrath, an audience member at Riverfest. “It’s something that should be respected and honored, and it’s tradition. It’s a huge part of our culture some people sometimes overlook.”
The band’s primary mission is to tell the Air Force story through the music at home and while deployed overseas. The Band of Mid-America performs 300-400 missions annually at venues throughout a ten-state region from the upper peninsula of Michigan to Arkansas.
“We hope people came away with a better understanding of what the Air Force is doing to defend the nation,” said Willen. “We hope the veterans in attendance felt appreciated for their service, and the audience had both positive interactions and takeaways that helped the Air Force build some new relationships and strengthen old ones.”
For some, an Air Force band performance is the only contact they ever have with the military, but for many others hearing the band play is a link to their family’s own military tradition.
“Both of my grandpas were in the military, during World War II,” said Walter Mays, audience member. “I think learning about the people who work hard to keep us safe is as important as learning about anyone else in the country. Those people do deserve some special attention.”
Former director of Jazz at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, Dr. Arthur White played with the band during Riverfest to help the audience learn and grow through the band’s performance.
“We share experiences through music,” said White, a frequent performer in St. Louis and Kansas City. “I think it’s through this art, we’re able to connect with people on a very human level that we don’t often get to when just conversing. We really do need to rely on more baseline avenues to be able to connect with people. And music does that in spades.”