Governors Island’s Musical History

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Many visitors know Governors Island as a destination for music. Musical events, festivals and performances delight visitors throughout the public season every year, like this year’s annual Porch Stomp and African Film Festival Inc.’s Family Day Celebration. These modern musical events continue the long tradition of music on Governors Island that stretches back centuries, much of it accompanying the Island’s history as a military base.

As early as 1750, the American provincial regiment stationed on the Island included a band. Musicians remained part of military postings through the following decades as the Island changed hands in theAmerican Revolution. In the early 19th century, music took a more prominent role on the Island with the establishment of the Sixth Infantry Band School. Though the school remained on the Island for only a short time before it was moved to West Point, it began a tradition of training musicians on Governors Island that lasted over a century.

12th Regiment Band marching at Fort Jay, 1896

The new School of Practice for U.S.A. Field Musicians opened on Governors Island in the 1830s. The school trained musicians in fife and drum, adding bugle after the Civil War. Between fifty and ninety students, initially quartered in the casements of the South Battery, attended the school at one time. They were known as the Music Boys, an apt nickname for a group that skewed young; in 1860, two-thirds of the 60 Music Boys were between the ages of 13 and 16. Field musicians would perform multiple times each day, performing bugle calls like reveille in the morning and retreat in the evening, as well as at daily dress parades. The army band would also play at ceremonial occasions, like welcoming visiting dignitaries, at military funerals, and at the Island’s esteemed garden parties.

Soprano Anna Fitziu performing in a gazebo with the U.S. Army Band on Governors Island, 1908. Photo courtesy Ann Buttenwieser

In the 20th century, one of two Army Music Schools for bandsmen calledGovernors Island home. It boasted a highly selective bandleader training program; only five of 75 applicants were admitted for the inaugural class in 1911. Demand for military musicians grew during World War 1, with the ranks of the Recruit Band swelling to nearly 50 enlisted soldiers being trained for duty at home and abroad. In 1916, the War Department created the Third Disciplinary Band composed of prisoners housed in Castle Williams to raise morale and provide vocational training. Within a few years of its formation, over 115 men had been members of the band and about 90 percent had qualified for assignment to a military band when restored to duty or allowed to reenlist. The Castle Williams band was so popular that it competed with the famed Sixteenth Infantry Band for Saturday night spots and holiday parties at the Officers’ Club, sometimes performing even more frequently than the enlisted band.

16th Infantry Band with Lower Manhattan in background, 1925

The Army Music School departed Governors Island in 1921, relocating to Washington, D.C., though multiple bands remained. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a particular fan of the Sixteenth Infantry Band, often inviting them to play at Wall Street parades. The U.S. Army Band called Liggett Hall its home as it traveled to perform around the world until the Army left Governors Island in 1965. The Officers’ Club continued to host musicians, one notable regular being Burt Bacharach, who played nightly for a time during his enlistment in the early 1950s. Bands were often present at social events for the rest of the 20th century, including during the Coast Guard years, as when the U.S. Coast Guard Band played for two days around the July 4th festivities in 1992.

U.S. Army Band playing at the 37th anniversary of the First Army on Organization Day, 1955. Photo courtesy Ann Buttenwieser

Today, visitors can expect to hear and see all sorts of live musical performances on Governors Island during the public season. This music, spanning genre, era, arrangement and scale, echoes the performances of centuries past to keep the tradition of playing music on the Island alive. While the 2020 public season has ended, Governors Island’s music venues are never quiet for long.

Header image: 8th Infantry Band at Fort Jay, 1906.