UPDATE: UNC Charlotte’s marching band plays today in its final performance in France, as part of the annual D-Day ceremony in Normandy. Two videos from UNCC, shared here, show band member Curtis Chancy reflecting on his own service and that of the soldiers who gave their lives in 1944 – including Samuel Peterson of Charlotte. UNCC’s own documentary on this trip will livestream for the first time at 3 p.m. today, and will be available after that, at normandy.uncc.edu.
The grinning ghost of Horrible Horvath will hover over his great-granddaughter in a French cemetery June 3.
Isaiah and Stedman Chancy and Zacheus Overstreet, separated in life by bigotry and Army policy, will smile down on their descendant – Curtis Chancy, a veteran himself – as he raises a sousaphone to his lips.
Four thousand miles away, the spirits of Gene and Vickie Johnson – both very much alive – will be with 137 kids from UNC Charlotte on an extraordinary journey.
And the Pride of Niner Nation Marching Band will make the Normandy countryside ring with hymns of the United States Armed Services.
The event, solemn and joyous at once, honors soldiers who fought to liberate France and eventually all of Europe in World War II. Only one U.S. college band gets invited to the annual D-Day ceremony in Normandy, and not one of them has been as new as the Niners.
Current seniors couldn’t have played in this band as freshmen, because it didn’t exist four years ago. Shawn Smith and Jeffrey Miller were still recruiting players and holding band camps; the Johnsons, leading a movement backed by chancellor Philip Dubois, were still raising money for not only a band but a building to house it.
Yet this week and next, the Niners will march in the celebrated footsteps of ensembles from Ohio State University, the University of North Texas and Iowa State University. UNCC’s progress from baby steps to seven-league strides caught the ear of retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Earl Hurrey, who picks bands and choirs for D-Day ceremonies after conferring with military experts and music educators.
He says he was “specifically looking for a university band from the North/South Carolina area for 2018. I like using younger programs, because they often have the greatest enthusiasm for these events; it helps establish their programs and provides great incentive for their programs to grow. I have great confidence UNCC….will provide appropriate and dignified performances for our ceremonies.” (Texans in the Round Rock Community Choir will also be performing.)
Confidence has had the Niners strutting almost from their first cadence, and the Johnsons have provided a lot of it.
“They piped music in at the first football game (in 2013),” recalls Gene Johnson, himself once a high school percussionist. “That just didn’t seem right.” He and his wife led the effort to create a drumline for the following season, but that wasn’t enough. So these two alumni, whom Gene says “have been immersed in the life of the university” since graduating in the ’70s, sought more.
Gene, then chairman of the board of trustees, remembers telling chancellor Dubois, “‘We have to have a marching band.’ Phil’s wife, Lisa, had been pushing for one for years. He said, ‘If you can find the money, we’ll do it.’ The music department supported it, and we got busy.” In gratitude, UNCC named the building with offices and rehearsal space the Vickie and Gene Johnson Marching Band Center.
Smith and Miller became director and assistant director of bands. The latter, who was supposed to lead the band on its France trip, just resigned to take a college job in Tennessee; Smith will wield the baton in Normandy.
“You usually start a marching band with 80 or 90 players and get bigger and better over time,” says Smith. “To start with 150 musicians, as we did – that’s unheard of. The university backed us from the beginning.”
This trip will cost about $400,000. Donations cut the estimated cost of $3,600 per musician in half; some came from the Johnsons, who remembered Gene’s own time in uniform. (He was in Korea 50 years ago, one week after North Korean forces captured the spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo.)
That generosity let Raven Pfeiffer take her first trip outside America. She’ll see a small portion of the nation her great-grandfather, then Lieutenant Ed Horvath, helped set free.
Though Horvath never talked much about war experiences before dying on Memorial Day weekend in 2005, Raven’s grandmother put together a scrapbook of testimony and letters. He fought in the 95th Division as one of the Iron Men of Metz, who spent two bloody weeks tearing that town from Nazi hands and defending it. (The leader of the company known as Horvath’s Horrible Foxes came home with a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars.)
Pfeiffer, a sophomore percussionist, won’t reach Metz on this trip. Yet the journey has inspired her to see more of France when she studies abroad next year and find out about reunions of the 95th Division. And she expects profound feelings to emerge at the cemeteries, where “I’ll be wearing a sash with great-grandfather’s name on it. A lot of musicians plan to do that.”
Though services in the American cemeteries at Brittany June 3 and Omaha Beach June 4 may bring tears, the voyage begins and ends with joy. The band will be part of a Musical Salute to Liberation June 2 in the town square of Sainte-Mère-Église, the first major location liberated by the Allied landing in Normandy, and will join a D-Day parade there that afternoon. The fourth and final musical outing will come in Paris’ Jardin d'Acclimatation June 6.
Naturally, the mood changes with each locale. Smith says the band has to be ready to play the traditional medley of “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief,” should President Donald Trump show up, or “La Marseilleise,” if a French government official appears.
The sessions in Sainte-Mère-Église bounce from Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” to Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” to Journey’s “Separate Ways.” Calvin Broadus’ “G's-n-Niners” and Larry Blackmon’s “Talkin' Out the Side of Your Neck” add soul to the mix. The UNCC fight song, complete with extended intro, will sizzle the ears of citizens during the June 2 parade.
Along the way, travelers will hit tourist highlights: The Louvre and Eiffel Tower in Paris and Mont Saint-Michel abbey in Normandy, which is accessible by car across a sandbank but isolated by water when high tide sweeps in. Hotels, bus trips and breakfasts come with the $1,800 cost of the eight-day jaunt.
Sousaphone player Curtis Chancy, the band’s only non-traditional student and a senior on a five-year plan, expects to enjoy his time at Notre Dame and along the Champs-Élysées. But the trip has a meaning for him that’s unique among the travelers.
The 31-year-old veteran developed sarcosis on tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, where he transported Air Force and Army combatants in the field. The cancer’s in remission now, and his pulmonologist suggested he pick up the instrument he’d played in a high school marching band to improve his lung capacity. It did, and he joined the Niners.
Chancy’s great-uncle Stedman Chancy died in the 1944 landing at Normandy. Stedman’s brother (and grandfather to Curtis) Isaiah Chancy fought there and survived.
Zacheus Overstreet, Curtis’s great-uncle on his mother’s side, also fought in World War II, though not at Normandy. The Army didn’t permit the Chancy brothers and Overstreet to serve alongside each other, since the Chancys were black and Overstreet was white.
“I didn’t know what my relatives had done until I realized I was going and did some research,” Curtis Chancy says. “Then I began to feel more connected to World War II. There’s a bond that connects all soldiers who have fought in any war, the experiences you went through and the thoughts of ‘Will I ever make it back?’
“These young men were handed guns and told ‘You’re going to fight in France.’ A lot of them had never been away from home. I’ve wondered, ‘How do you repay them?’ These concerts seemed like a way to do that, to give these guys some praise.”
A documentary about the band’s trip and the university’s connection to World War II will be posted June 6 here.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.