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Alumni Profile: Billy Buchanan '06

Valuing Freedom


 
  From the left: Billy Buchanan '06, an unidentified Iraqi school teacher, and Major General Mark P. Hertling. The teacher made a treacherous three-hour drive from Balad to Tikrit to hear Buchanan's music and meet a composer. To hear a live performance, click here

A stint in the U.S. Army Band taught Billy Buchanan to value freedoms that many Westerners take for granted-such as listening to music and practicing an instrument. During his 14-month deployment in Iraq, Buchanan met many Iraqis who love music but are afraid to play or even listen to it because of death threats from extremists. When Buchanan returned home to Rhode Island in late November 2008, he had a new perspective on life in the United States.

"Iraq was a stark contrast to what we experience in the West," Buchanan says. "As a whole, the Iraqis have a somewhat secular society and just want to live their lives. But jihadists from other countries have come there to fight and impose their views."

Buchanan enlisted in the U.S. Army just before completing his degree in jazz composition. "I knew it would be tough to pay my student loans while launching a career in jazz," Buchanan says. "From [professors] Ken Pullig, Dick Lowell, and Bill Scism, who had all served in the military, I heard that military band experience had been helpful to a lot of jazz musicians. After a recruiter told me that the army offered a $65,000 college loan repayment plan for a three-year enlistment, I signed up. A month after graduation, I was in boot camp."

A versatile bassist and composer, Buchanan explored Latin, rock, and jazz styles at Berklee and worked out regularly at a gym to stay fit. Consequently, he was ready for the rigors of basic training and the Armed Forces School of Music. After finishing both programs, he was stationed for seven months in Germany before going to Iraq in September 2007.

"Ken Pullig, who served in Vietnam, had told me, 'Keep your head down, your ears open, and your mouth shut, and you'll get through.' And that's what I did." Though Buchanan wasn't in a combat unit, there were scary moments. During a June 2008 concert tour of Iraqi provinces, a bomb exploded behind Buchanan's vehicle in Tikrit. "Luckily, no one got seriously hurt," he recalls. "Major General Hertling told us after the concert that we were taking sniper fire throughout the show. It was a reminder that we were in a combat zone. The other stops on the tour were pretty quiet."

Buchanan's commander tapped him to write an original piece for the band to play on the tour. He wrote a nonet for the instrumentation featured on the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool album (trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, alto and baritone saxes, piano, bass, and drums). The seven-minute work titled "Bien Venue en Arri?re" ("Welcome Back") portrayed Buchanan's impressions of life in Iraq. It included a dissonant depiction of a car bombing, Middle Eastern musical elements, an army cadence, and a chromatic harmonization of "Taps."

Buchanan and the band played for provincial leaders and the first lady of Iraq, but one of the Buchanan's more memorable acquaintances was a teacher from Balad. "The guy drove three or four hours over dangerous roads to Tikrit to hear us play," Buchanan says. "He went way out on a limb just to hear music. After the concert, he grabbed the general's translator so he could talk to me. He'd never met anyone who had written music before, and it was a big thing for him."

During downtime in Iraq, Buchanan completed coursework for a master's degree in education at the Touro University International online school. After his discharge from the army this June, he hopes to enter Brown University's Urban Education Policy program.