Middle school teacher Jason Burt has always had a passion for history, and that’s exactly what he found while going through his grandparents’ attic after their passing last year.
Burt discovered vinyl recordings of his grandfather’s WWII Army band performing jazz hits of the day. His grandfather, who chose Drake for his Bachelor’s and Master’s in music after attending Julliard, was drafted into the Army in 1943.
“He ends up in the military, goes through basic training,” Burt said. “And he’s supposed to be a latrine technician, some guy who was supposed to be digging ditches for latrines.”
However, a college acquaintance who had been drafted with him recommended him to the Army band.
“Basically that guy put him on a completely different path,” Burt said. “He got pulled to be in the band. So he wasn’t even originally supposed to be in the band, even though he was a musician.”
Burt said he grew up hearing about his grandfather’s experience in the Army band and the recordings he had made while overseas.
“In the 80s, he had taken two of the songs from the recordings that he was a featured soloist on and put them on tape, just kind of a posterity and a family history type deal,” Burt said. “And he also recorded his 28 minute narration of his time in the war with the band, all that kind of stuff and how the recordings were made in the Philippines.”
After the original recordings were discovered in his grandfather’s attic, Burt was not sure what to do with them. They sat untouched until a friend of his invited him over to play the records on his record player.
“He gives me his record player and I finally stuck them on and I played them,” Burt said. “They sounded really good for being 75 years old, and the recordings being made in a tent in the Pacific. It was like sitting for a private concert in the middle of WWII, it’s kind of cool. And by the end of it, I just had this feeling like, you know, I need to do something with this.”
Burt began researching the rarity of such recordings, and quickly discovered that an entire album’s worth of original, never-before-heard recordings was almost unheard of.
“I started researching how unique it was and things like that, and talking to the WWII museum,” Burt said. “And just based on speaking with other people who would have knowledge of that, it was a pretty rare thing to have, especially a whole album. This is unique, I need to find a unique way to celebrate these guys.”
Thus, Burt undertook the project of compiling all the songs onto a single album with the help of renowned sound engineers in New York City. The album, entitled “Sentimental Journey,” was released late last year on streaming platforms like iTunes and Spotify.
“As historical objects, [these recordings] provide a record of the past that is more immediate and detailed than just a written description,” said Drake Professor of Music History Eric Saylor. “We can see what sort of music was important to the soldiers in the field, make assessments of the performers’ and arrangers’ skill, and appreciate how making art like this must have been a big priority for them, despite the danger and difficult conditions they faced.”
According to Saylor, recordings like these are important to understanding the role of music in times of war.
“Music can play a few different roles. It can be used in day-to-day settings as a means of coordinating activity or marking different occasions or, if brought in from outside, as a means of entertainment and distraction,” Saylor said. “There are a lot of records of soldiers’ songs, particularly in the First and Second World Wars, that acted as a way for soldiers to complain about their current circumstances, or people higher up the chain of authority, in a manner that could be both socially acceptable and broadly accessible to a lot of people.”
With the “Sentimental Journey” project, Burt aims to make this one-of-a-kind music accessible to even more people–and possibly win those soldiers a posthumous Grammy in the process.
“I actually looked up the whole Grammy process because I knew about the best historical album Grammy. I was like, that’d be kind of cool, but that seems kind of far-fetched,” Burt said. “But the more and more this goes on, the more attainable that goal seems to be. That kind of gets exciting, the possibility of being able to do something for those guys on that level of musicianship would be pretty awesome.”
For more information on the project or to purchase the album, visit 746thfeaf.com.