Hollywood composer and film score pioneer John Williams (b. 1932) is rightly known as one of the greatest movie composers of all time. He has not only produced iconic soundtracks to franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, or movies such as Jurassic Park, JFK, and Schindler’s List, but he also is a veteran of the United States Air Force.
In 1951, Williams was drafted into the Air Force, where he played the piano and various brass instruments. He also conducted and arranged music for the Air Force Band as part of his assignments. In a 2016 interview with the U.S. Air Force Band, he recounted having attended basic Air Force training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. During his service, he was stationed at Davis-Monthan A.F.B., Arizona, where he also attended music courses at the University of Arizona. Later, he was stationed at Pepperrell A.F.B. in St. Johns, Newfoundland, which closed in 1960.
When asked about his time in the Air Force, Williams reflected, “This was a wonderful experience, and it seemed I was the only one there who could write arrangements for that band. I conducted some of the rehearsals, and the band played summer concerts in a gazebo during which the base commander often requested his favorite songs.”
While serving in Canada, Williams was a part of the Air Force’s early international outreach initiatives. In 1953, he composed original music for a documentary short titled “You are Welcome,” a travel documentary film about the Maritime Provinces of Canada commissioned by the Canadian government. For that project, Williams wrote his very first original film score, using folk tunes he discovered in the library at Newfoundland and incorporated into the background music. He recorded the music with members of the Air Force Band Music Program. At that time, the band’s command served not only Newfoundland but also other areas, including Greenland and Iceland, allowing Williams and his fellow band members to serve as ambassadors of the Air Force. The experience “was certainly one of the most significant events in that period of my life,” Williams said in 2003.
Fifty years after that first documentary assignment, Williams conducted the U.S. Marine Band for their 205th Anniversary in a special concert featuring many of the arrangements (including “You are Welcome”) from his earliest Air Force days.
Williams credits the Air Force for advancing his music education. He was able to use his experience to play with and study from others within the band and in the local areas where he was stationed. In 1955, following his military service, Williams moved to New York City and entered the Juilliard School, where he studied piano with Rosina Lhévinne and worked as a jazz pianist in the city’s many night clubs. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles, and began working as a session musician, most notably for composer Henry Mancini on the Peter Gunn soundtrack.
In a 2002 interview on National Public Radio, John Williams was asked if he could remember all of the scores he composed. He responded, “I can’t remember them like Steven Spielberg does. He’s amazing. I mean, he’s got some kind of photographic memory, where we’ll talk about a film like The Reivers that I did 40 years ago, or nearly that, in the 1960s, and he can immediately sing not only the principal theme, but the second theme and the third theme.”
In 2005, the American Film Institute selected Williams’s score to 1977’s Star Wars as the greatest film score of all time. The Library of Congress also entered the Star Wars soundtrack into the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
If you enjoyed learning about the military service of John Williams, then please consider these works from the NLS Music Collection that relate to this blog. To check out the materials listed below, you can download the digital files through BARD, or borrow hard copies of braille music and talking books on digital cartridge. Call the Music Section at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.
Brown, Bill. Across the Stars: for Piano. As composed by John Williams for The Clone Wars. In this all-audio lesson you will learn a piano arrangement of John Williams’s composition from The Clone Wars.
____ Peter Gunn: A Lesson in the Style of The Ventures. Bill Brown teaches how to play both the rhythm and lead guitar parts to the Ventures version of the Peter Gunn theme (composed by Henry Mancini) without the use of music notation. John Williams worked for Mancini in Los Angeles in the late 1950’s. (DBM02941)
Coates, Dan. The Best in Movie Sheet Music. Includes selections from Star Wars, Les Miserables, and The Wizard of Oz. Bar over bar format. (BRT37097)
Favorite Movie Themes for Flute. Includes themes from E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. Single line format. (BRM34551)
Kreader, Barbara. Popular Piano Solos for all Piano Methods. Level 4. Includes themes from the motion picture E.T. Bar over bar format. (BRM28156)
Williams, John. The John Williams Piano Anthology. Film and television music by John Williams arranged for solo piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM37657)
____ Selected Themes from the Motion Picture Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Arranged for piano in bar over bar format. (BRM36178)
Bock, Jerry. Fiddler on the Roof. John Williams adapted Jerry Bock’s original score for the 1971 film, and he composed an original violin cadenza for Isaac Stern. For voice and piano with chord symbols. (LPM00865)