Some join the military to serve their country and others find ways to support the troops and their families. Performing with The U.S. Army Band for their Star-Spangled Spectacular in Manassas, Virginia on November 4, 2023, was just one of the ways that singer and actor Christopher Jackson felt he could give back.
“I love the idea of being in the environment, of discipline and of the sacrifice,” said Jackson. “I'm a very, very patriotic guy, especially when it comes to our military.”
That sense of patriotism stems from his family’s history of military service.
“I have a nephew that serves in the Army as a captain in the Army Reserves,” said Jackson. “My grandfather was a veteran and my great uncle and there's a long line of servicemen in my family.”
Jackson says he was involved with music from a young age and that his first musical connection to the military was when he was playing the trumpet in his high school band in Southern Illinois.
“My first encounter with the power of the connection of music to the service of the military [was when] I played Taps at our at our at our national cemetery that was in our area,” said Jackson.
He said that his band conductor called him and said he needed him to be at the cemetery on a Saturday morning.
“It was a really profound experience to be a witness to,” said Jackson. “It was just a side of music that I didn't know -- I'd never knew existed outside of movies. It's not the same. But then being able to experience that firsthand and be a part of that. [It] gave me sort of an elevated perspective on that process and how powerful that music, what it represents to families and what it represents to the servicemen and women.”
This time Jackson’s call to service was an invitation from The U.S. Army Band to join them for their Star-Spangled Spectacular concert. The concert was initially scheduled for August 2023 but due to unforeseen circumstances the show was rescheduled for November. Just in time for Veterans Day.
“We were delighted to have Mr. Jackson join The U.S. Army Band for our Star-Spangled Spectacular,” said Col. Bruce R. Pulver, Commander and Leader of The U.S. Army Band. “He’s a consummate professional as well as an ardent supporter of the military.”
For this performance two members of The U.S. Army Chorus received the assignment of performing two duets with Jackson.
The songs chosen were from the acclaimed Broadway musicals, In the Heights and Hamilton. Jackson starred in the original run of both shows performing the roles of Benny in In the Heights and his most well-known role, President George Washington, in Hamilton.
“When I learned that I was going to be performing with him [I was in] disbelief,” said Staff Sgt. Jocelyn Pride. “I just was like, no way it's just not real. Then I found it was real. I was a fan of his already. I really love musical In the Heights.”
Pride said she was assigned the role of Nina opposite of Jackson’s Benny for the song “When You’re Home” from In the Heights. It was a role she knew well as she had auditioned for the part before she joined the Army.
While Pride was preparing for her assignment, Staff Sgt. Ian McEuen was making a plan on how to fill the big shoes of those who came before him in the role of Alexander Hamilton.
“I already knew the show because my college roommate actually worked on the production [team for] the original production,” said McEuen. “So, I knew it from the very beginning, but I wanted to approach it in as an authentic manner as I possibly could.”
McEuen said he went back to his roots and immersed himself in hip-hop, listening to groups like The Beastie Boys.
“I started to figure out my approach to the style in a way that would, you know, not just be mimicry, but embody it in as authentic of a way as I could as Ian McEuen,” said McEuen.
After months of preparing for the big show, the band finally got its chance to rehearse with Jackson.
“It was not just like getting together with a bunch of other soloists,” said McEuen of the one rehearsal that the band had with the Broadway star. “It was getting together with this titan of Broadway, and stage and screen but you know, he showed up and was so kind and genuine. [He] was just ready to play.”
Jackson eased into the rehearsals like the true professional he is.
“The rehearsals tend to be the most fun because everyone is just sort of relaxed and in the in the moment,” said Jackson. “The more you listen the more it just feels like time moves a little slower. In a rehearsal setting it's okay to ask questions. I don’t think art can happen unless you make some mistakes along the way and then you get to adjust that. That's the magical part. Then tomorrow is about telling stories.”
History is passed down from generation to generation through storytelling.
“The tradition of storytelling especially in our in our country really takes off at a certain point,” said Jackson. “Music has been an integral part of the telling of our culture and to the growth of our nation.”
Music is another medium to share those stories both with and without words.
“I think because music just transcends everything [even though] we have different languages,” said Pride. “Somebody can still be moved by an aria that's an Italian or German or French. It is a universal language.”
The music the band uses to tell these stories not only has the ability to evoke emotions and a feeling of patriotism from its audience, but it also allows the soldiers to truly make connections.
“We have something so important to say that mere words don't suffice,” said McEuen. “It's incredibly personal. Music allows us to be more personal in our connection with the American people but also [creates] a heightened connection with the American people.”
The U.S. Army Band’s performance with Jackson was a prime example of making that important connection with the audience.
“I can count on one hand, the number of times that I've felt that kind of energy and that level of intensity and energy in a room during a performance,” said McEuen. “Whether it was from my fellow performers or from the audience, you know, they were cheering and screaming in between every single number of the medley. That's a rare experience.”
It’s safe to say that both the audience and the band will be wanting another show with Jackson.
“It was a treat for the audience and the band alike to hear his renditions of several patriotic numbers as well as songs he made popular in hit Broadway shows such as 'In the Heights' and 'Hamilton'," said Pulver. “We hope to have an opportunity to collaborate with him again in the future.”