JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. –
After begging his parents to play anything from their extensive selection of classic jazz albums, 5-year-old Andy Axelrad, too young to run the record player himself, sits by a record player with his legs crossed and eyes closed. The sounds of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, The Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Paul Desmond, The Dorsey Brothers, and The Glenn Miller Band fill his Mount Prospect, Illinois, home.
Only ten miles northwest of Chicago, a hotbed for jazz music, Axelrad was introduced to jazz legends.
As the youngest of three boys who played instruments, it didn’t take long before Axelrad’s parents picked up an old rental saxophone for him to create his own sound with.
“He was excited about getting his own instrument, but we were not,” said Marcia Axelrad, Andy’s mother. “We seemed to think Andy wasn’t very good at first and it didn’t quite click for him, but his first music teacher, Mr. Kuhl, told us there was something there and to give him some time. That same year we went on a summer road trip and all the boys took their instruments with them. When we got back Andy had gotten so much better. He just loved it and kept at it.”
Emulating the ghosts of jazz, Axelrad didn’t stop with just the saxophone, but learned to expand his sound through an array of wind instruments including the flute, clarinet and piccolo.
He continued to progress as a musician during his time at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and took his individual sound to North Texas State University.
“He was from Chicago and had that ‘A’ type personality, but was still very kind and often lent a helping hand to me and anyone who needed it,” said Ed Harlow, Axelrad’s college roommate and friend of 30 years. “He used to help me with my sight reading, something I needed help with, all the time. He’s a good friend and we shared a lot of good memories at North Texas.”
The 22-year-old went from receiving his diploma on one stage, to performing with the famous Glenn Miller Orchestra on another.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra is a ghost band, which in big-band jazz-terms means a band that performs under the original name of the deceased leader. It is regarded as the most popular and sought after big bands in the world today and performs an average of 300 live shows a year around the world.
Glenn Miller was a famous jazz musician who, at the peak of his civilian career, volunteered to join the Army in 1942 and was put in charge of modernizing the Army Air Forces band.
After two years of Axelrad traveling the world, performing for thousands, and adding his personal sound to the greater sound of the orchestra, he discovered the sound of another jazz ensemble. His band mates had started to audition for and become members of the U.S. Air Force’s Airmen of Note.
“I didn’t ever consider going into the military until I learned about the Airmen of Note. Of course, I was a little apprehensive,” Axelrad said. “You never know what you’re getting into. That’s a huge culture shift.”
Although Axelrad never pictured himself in the military, the two bands were surprisingly similar as the Airmen of Note was formed in 1950 to continue the tradition of Major Glenn Miller’s Army Air Corps dance band.
The same musician that was the inspiration for a ghost band had also made a lasting impression on the U.S. Air Force.
The irony wasn’t lost on Axelrad who jumped at the opportunity when a chair in the saxophone section opened.
“At the time of my audition, I was performing on a cruise ship in Europe, but I came back just for the audition,” Axelrad explained. “I finished out my contract and then shortly after found out I got the gig.”
After almost 24 years of service in the Airmen of Note, now Master Sgt. Andy Axelrad found himself performing in front of thousands of fans just miles away from where a ghost of his past, a 10-year-old boy sat listening to a record player.
“It’s always a pleasure to go back to the Chicago area which I still consider home,” Axelrad reminisced. “It was a joy to see some of my oldest friends, some from as far back as first grade. It was a great, appreciative crowd.”
The Airmen of Note toured from Naperville, Illinois, to Detroit during the Labor Day 2016 weekend – marking the last time Axelrad would perform in front of friends, family and home town as a master sergeant.
In February 2017, he will put down the saxophone as a member of the Airmen of Note and retire from the U.S. Air Force.
“The Air Force feels like home and I’ll miss playing with such an incredible ensemble,” Axelrad said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for me and has been a great way to serve my country.”