Sgt. Major Vincent J. Battista, Percussion Section Leader
-The United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own”-
Fort Myer, Virginia, 1940 through 1969.
-Official United States Army Band photograph of Vincent Battista with the draped “Kennedy Drum”-
For lovers of culture, The National Mall in Washington, D.C. rivals any destination in the world. The nineteen buildings that enclose its 2 mile, 300 acre rectangle, are part of the Smithsonian Institution and house some of the world’s greatest art and precious artifacts of the United States. These treasure houses, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, are open without charge to the public.¹
My wife and I visited The Mall in early February, 2009. Our first stop was the newly refurbished National Museum of American History. Its interior had been gloomy, filled with an uninviting pastiche of poorly organized, dowdy exhibits. Now, its interior is bright and there are many well designed exhibits.
Just a few feet from the restored Star Spangled Banner, the great flag that waved O’er the ramparts of Fort McHenry while the U.S. beat the Brits for the second and last time, we came upon a U.S. Army rope tensioned field drum and drum sticks that had been used in President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession. Above them was a photograph of the man who had played that drum, Vincent Battista.
This was a surprise. Vince is a friend of ours, a quiet, reticent man who had never mentioned the existence of a public display such as this. We had been introduced to him and his wife Phyllis, by Bill Platt, Principal percussionist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (ret.), probably during the 1999 Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Columbus, Ohio. According to Bill, no mean drummer himself, Vince was one of the all-time great snare drummers and section leaders. Recently, Bill wrote:
“In 1965, I think, Jack Moore became the Principal of the Rochester Orchestra, having just completed 3 years with Vince in The Army Band. Jack was very much influenced by Vince’s playing and passed along many of Vince’s concepts to me during the year. I graduated from Eastman on June 3, 1966 and received my draft notice the very next morning! Jack suggested I go to DC and play for Vince. I did, however the band had no immediate openings, BUT Vince talked with the Colonel and they made an opening for me. This gesture on Vince’s part saved my deployment to Vietnam and probably saved my life.
The next 3 years along side Vince in the band were probably the best years of my life – I learned so much from him – all who knew him at that time would agree that no one got the sound out of a snare drum like Vince did! There are a lot of great snare drummers, but Vince showed me that you can actually make MUSIC on an instrument that basically produces noise. Vince’s hand positions are impeccable thanks to his affinity for Moeller and his hands are a model for me to this day.
Sanford A. “Gus” Moeller (1886-1966) was Vince’s close friend and mentor. In response to my query regarding his teachers, Vince wrote:
“My main teacher influences were Ferdinand Lhotak, former Sousa euphonium player and my band leader at Valley Forge Military Academy. He certainly was an inspiration. Also Bill Kieffer, retired drummer and xylophone soloist from the U.S. Marine Band (Charles Owen’s predecessor). Above all, whatever I have accomplished as a snare drummer, I credit my association with dear friend Sanford A. (Gus) Moeller.”
Recently, Battista made a 37 minute DVD (email@example.com) titled Vince Battista Presents a Tutorial, The “Gus” Moeller School of Drumming in which he demonstrates Moeller’s snare drum techniques. The Moeller Book (Ludwig Drum Co., ©1956) contains three film strips showing Moeller, frame by frame, playing a right and left hand stroke and they help clarify what Vince recalls as Moeller’s “arms around a barrel” motion.¡
“I like to make drums so well it is never tiresome”, – Gus Moeller
Moeller was a dedicated snare drummer and gifted drum maker. His drums are collector’s items, much revered by devotees of the “Ancient” Style of field drumming. His last drums-1960-were assembled by Baltimore drum maker Buck Soistman and can be seen behind the snare drummers in The United States Army Band (TUSAB) photograph below and, unassembled, behind Moeller in the photo of his workshop. ²
It is one of those drums that resides today in the Museum of American History. Vince explains:
“The joint services drum corp came into existence because of a request from Jackie Kennedy. She wanted the President;s body to be transported from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda at the sound of drums only. Hence, the “joint service drum corps” was assembled in about 24 hours. Our assistant band leader, Col. Gil Mitchell immediately contacted the other military services and within hours assembled all drummers in our rehearsal room at Ft. Meyer. He appointed me as lead drummer and asked me to play the beat to be used in the procession. When I received a certificate signed by Gen. Wehle,³ it was for performance of duty as principal drummer of joint service drum corps.
Shortly after the Kennedy funeral, the commanding officer of the TUSAB received a request from the Smithsonian Institution for a drum that was used in the funeral procession, to be used as the basis of a future public display. At that time, all inquiries, questions or comments about drums or drummers received by the band were referred to me for solution. It was certainly an easy decision for me to donate the drum that I used! It was not my own drum but one of the five drums ordered by TUSAB as shown in the Gus Moeller photo. Col. Gil Mitchell was happy to approve the transaction and made the necessary arrangements to transfer U.S. Army property (Drum) to the Smithsonian.
I have been told that the Smithsonian has a facility in Arizona where they hold in storage items intended for display at some future date. Initially, I did not include sticks and sling because I continued to use them until my retirement in 1969. In fact, it was not until about 5 years ago that I made an appointment with a Mr. Rubenstein of the Smithsonian, at which time I presented him with the sticks and sling I used in the funeral; together with an official army photo of me with the drum and a copy of a “certificate of Appreciation” for performance as principal drummer of the joint services drum corps. Mr. Rubenstein was happy to receive these items and they all became part of the final exhibit. Shortly thereafter, I received a certificate from the Smithsonian acknowledging the “gift” of these items and signed by Director Brent D. Glass.”
-From A Revolutionary War Drummer’s Book, ca. 1778, Massachusetts Historical Society-
At age sixteen, Vince attended Valley Forge Military Academy (founded 1928) outside Philadelphia, PA on a band scholarship, graduated from high school at Valley Forge in 1938 and and graduated junior college in 1940. Vince auditioned for the US Army Band in 1939 and joined in September the following year after graduating and completing ROTC camp. Vince served overseas in Algiers during the 1940s. His wife Phyllis, in Bill Platt’s words, “mother to all us kids in the army band”, passed away in November, 2008 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA..(Vince died on the morning of November 29, 2010. His son and family were at his bedside.)
I am grateful to Vince Battista and Bill Platt for sharing their memories and giving me permission to quote them. Vince sent me copies of a Moeller speech and a personal letter from Moeller dated 1954 as well as all the photographs in this article with the exception of “The Valley Forg” & “The Civil War Veteran”. I also thank George Carroll, Canadian by birth, who was a member of TUSAB, established the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and, in 1962, retired from TUSAB and established the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums and, later, the fife & drum corps of Epcot Center in Florida. A historian, author, teacher and drum maker, Carroll’s American Drums of War-1607 to 2007 , (© Coleraine Incorporated, Alexandria, VA., 2008) is an historical reference deserving a wide readership.
J. Burns Moore, Moeller, Eames, Soistman, Reamer and Cooperman are some of the great field drum manufacturers. Their interconnectedness is as fascinating as their drums. So too are the percussionists of the United States military bands throughout the 20th century.
¹ The Library of Congress is not officially a part of The National Mall, but its vast resources and visual grandeur are as impressive as any of its brethren on the Mall.)
² The six small drums in front of the Army Band were made by “Buck” Soistman in 1968-69 for Richard M. Nixon’s first inaugural parade. Soistman was very close to Moeller. After Soistman’s death in 1975, his widow Marie, passed on Moeller’s “Bending Machine” and other drum making tools and materials to Bill Reamer.
³ Phillip Campbell Wehle (1906-1978), Maj. General US Army, Commanding General of the District of Washington, D.C.-1962-65. Wehle oversaw three state funerals in a span of 12 months: John F. Kennedy, Nov. 1963; Herbert Hoover, October, 1964 and Douglas MacArthur, April 1964. Wehle helped plan all three of these funerals which featured Black Jack, the riderless horse. (Black Jack was used once more for the funeral of Lyndon Johnson in 1976.)