Remembering Martha Jean “Martye” Awkerman 1928-2008
By Jan Duga, CMSgt, USAF (ret)
This article was first published in 2009 and reprinted here with the kind permission of Chief Duga
BOLLING AFB, D.C. — I first met Martha Jean “Martye” Awkerman at the 1993 International Womens’ Brass Conference (IWBC) in St. Louis. At that time, I was performing as tuba soloist and with a joint-service brass and percussion ensemble. In introducing herself to me, she made me aware of the existence of the Women’s Air Force (WAF) Band, an ensemble with which I was unfamiliar. This was quite awkward, since I was already a 10-year member of The USAF Band in Washington, DC. I didn’t have a clue about the history that preceded me!
(editor’s note-see history of the WAF Band at the end of this post)
Martye, an accomplished trumpet player and former Cornet Soloist and dance band leader with the WAF Band, was stationed at Lackland AFB from 1954-1961. The band toured all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico. At that time, The USAF Band in Washington, DC was not open to female musicians.
At our first meeting at the IWBC conference, she relayed to me her dream of playing in the “DC” band, but never had the opportunity. That particular story became very real to me a few years later. I saw an archived out-processing document listing the WAF Band members’ wish list of what they wanted to do when they disbanded in the early 1960s. Some wanted to be “flight hostesses,” others wished to start families, etc. The very last entry was Martye’s, “…to play in The USAF Band in Washington, DC.” Women did not begin serving in the “DC” band until 1973, and here I was, living Martye’s dream.
Martye studied music with J. Richard Burkholder, and graduated from Mount Union (Pa.) High School in 1946. She was appointed 1st Chair Solo Cornet at the Pennsylvania Schools State Band Competition. Martye received a scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where she taught trumpet, and was a soloist on the Young Artist Series–a traveling concert tour of different colleges. She was a member of Sigma Alpha Iota Music Sorority and was given the Sword of Honor award for being an outstanding musician.
After graduation, she remained at the conservatory as a teacher of trumpet until 1951. Martha then joined the George Hormel Band, traveling the U.S. in an all-girl promotional group, which also did coast-to-coast radio broadcasts on ABC and NBC radio, until 1953. She spent time with the USO Band in New York City until 1954. She formed her own girl combo, which was flown by the Air Force, playing at different military bases on a tour of Alaska. This was followed by a return to Mt. Union to teach and do postgraduate study at Pennsylvania State University.
Martye was always a great letter writer and would also keep in touch by phone. I visited her a few times after she moved back to Carlisle, Pa. Over the past 15 years we shared stories, talked at length about music and music-making, and laughed a lot. Martye always had lots of questions regarding my career with the Band, and she was a constant source of encouragement and strength. She was proud of my accomplishments. Her enthusiasm for learning and teaching was contagious and far-reaching.
Martye set a high bar with her solo cornet and trumpet playing, even stumping a few of my colleagues who thought the recordings they were listening to of “La Virgen De La Macarena” and “Willow Echoes” were played by other well-known male trumpet players!
She spent 22 years of her distinguished musical career with the Long Beach (Calif.) Municipal Band, playing at different concert venues, and was the first woman ever taken into that organization. Martye’s recognized musical achievements were evidenced by her involvement in popular TV programs and shows, such as “What’s My Line”, “Johnny Carson Show”, and the “Today Show.” She played with the Barnum and Bailey Circus Band. She also played musical theater shows, including “West Side Story”, “Damn Yankees”, “Redhead”, and “42nd Street.”
Over the years, Martye worked with musicians from the former Big Bands, including Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Jack Teagarden, Ray Anthony, Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, and Glenn Miller. She also worked with many popular singers, including Sarah Vaughn, Della Reese, Charo, Lennon Sisters, Nat King Cole, and Ethyl Merman.
MSgt Martye Awkermann sadly passed away a year ago this past June. A few dozen family members, former WAF Band members and friends gathered for a simple ceremony and interment in her hometown of Mt. Union, Pa. I was honored to present our nation’s flag to her next of kin. After returning home I began thinking about Martye’s Air Force career, her varied accomplishments, and her dreams for the future.
Martye left an indelible mark as a pioneer for women brass players and as a legendary musical icon. Her stellar musical and leadership contributions began paving the way 30 years before I joined The USAF Band. I honor her legacy as one of many who have realized Martye’s dream and continue to carry on the tradition of excellence that was her forte. In the Air Force we call it “Being faithful to a proud heritage.” I think her life speaks volumes for all women brass players who set their sights high and persevere in attaining their musical goals.
About the Author
Jan Duga joined the U.S. Air Force Band, Washington, D.C., and served until her retirement in 2013.
Jan Z. Duga is a freelance tubist and educator in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Jan served in The United States Air Force Band, Washington D.C., until she retired in 2013 as a Chief Master Sergeant after 30 years of service. Travelling to all 50 states, she participated in the 50th Anniversary of VE-Day in Moscow, Russia in 1995 and in 1996 performed at two International Military Tattoos in Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo, Norway.
Jan graduated from The Ohio State University in 1980 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree and a Master of Music degree in solo tuba performance from Arizona State University in 1982. Her teachers include her father, Jules Duga, Robert LeBlanc, Raymond Nutaitis, Arnold Jacobs, Michael Bunn and Paul Krzywicki. As a student at Ohio State, Duga was a member of The Ohio State University Marching Band and just six years after women were permitted to join the band, she became the first woman to dot the “i” in Script Ohio. Prior to joining the Air Force, she was a music educator in the Chillicothe, Ohio public school system.
Jan was a featured soloist with the Brass Band of Columbus at the 1992 International Tuba Euphonium Conference (ITEC), and also with the 34th Minnesota Infantry Division Band at the 1998 ITEC. She is a charter member and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Women’s Brass Conference (IWBC), and conducted and performed in the Joint Service Brass Ensemble at the IWBC conferences in 1993, 1997 and 2001. She was honored at the 2012 conference with the first Lifetime Service Award for her contributions to the brass world.
She has performed with Monarch Brass at the 2015 International Trumpet Guild conference, the 2016 International Trombone Festival, the 2016 Midwest Clinic and at the 2017 IWBC conference. Jan is principal tuba of the Manassas Ballet Theatre Orchestra, the Capital Wind Symphony and Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra and Brass Quintet, and also performs with the Virginia Grand Military Band.
Here is Martye playing the Post Horn on Tally Ho
This recording, along with others I will post on our TapsBugler YouTube Channel, is courtesy of Dr
This recording, along with others I will post on our TapsBugler YouTube Channel, is courtesy of Dr Donald Roeder. Don met Martye in the 2000s when she was invited to play in the Carlisle (PA) Town Band. She had moved to Carlisle to be with her brother. Martye was no longer playing at that time but gave him some recordings she had done during her time with the WAF Band. Some time later Martye suffered a stroke and passed away.
Don was responsible for insuring Martye received full military honors at her funeral and sounded Taps at her interment.
MORE INFORMATION ON MARTYE AND PHOTOS
Martha graduated from Mount Union High School, Class of 1946, where she studied music under the well known band director, J. Richard Burkholder, and was named to the 1st Chair Solo Cornet at the Penna. Schools State Band Competition. Martye received a scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where she taught trumpet, and was a soloist on the Young Artist Series, a traveling concert tour of different colleges. She was a member of Sigma Alpha Iota Music Sorority, made up of renowned musicians; and was given the Sword of Honor award for being an outstanding musician.
Martha served in the U.S. Air Force for six years, as a member of the Women’s Air Force Band, where she was recognized as cornet soloist and dance band leader, touring all of the U.S. and Puerto Rico. She reached the rank of Master Sergeant.
Her brother Charles served in the Marine Corps for 30 years retiring as a Sgt Major
In addition to fine cornet playing Martye played the Post Horn.
THE WOMEN’S AIR FORCE BAND
The 543rd Air Force Band (WAF) was organized in January 1951 by Colonel George S. Howard, Chief of Bands and Music for the Air Force. Eighteen women musicians were directed by Private First Class Mary Divens. In December 1951, MaryBelle Johns Nissly was recruited by Howard to return to military life at the rank of captain to be given the tasks of conductor and commander of the WAF Band. Nissly had left Army service in 1946 as a warrant officer and had previously gained attention as a sergeant by starting the first Women’s Army Band at Fort Des Moines in 1942 while she was with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps (WAAC).
In its ten-year lifespan, the WAF Band was served by some 235 women musicians with approximately 50 members at any one time. Attrition from the organization was often caused by marriage, as band members were required to be single. They also had to be white; the Air Force knew the WAF Band would be touring the segregated Deep South and they did not want to cross the race barrier. Concerts were played all over the nation, including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. At least one concert took them to Mexico.
The band marched in Eisenhower’s two inaugurations, played in the freezing cold for JFK’s inauguration and appeared occasionally on live television broadcasts. Home base for the WAF Band was first Lackland, moving in 1953 to Bolling AFB in Washington, DC, where, by Air Force Regulation 190-21, published June 13, 1955, they were officially designated “United States WAF Band”, acknowledging their de facto status as USAF representatives rather than their former status as a simple base band. Their official mission became to “assist, within their capabilities, in promoting Air Force objectives and enhancing the prestige of the Air Force and the United States.” This meant there were now two bands serving as ambassadors of the USAF: the all-male Air Force Band and the WAF Band.
In 1957, while flying aboard a C-124 Globemaster II, the WAF Band was invited by General James L. Jackson, Deputy Commander of the San Bernardino Air Materiel Area, Air Materiel Command, to move to his headquarters at Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California. The move took place in January 1958. The band retained its training and chain-of-command connection with the USAF band school at Bolling. At Norton, the band found it easier to schedule C-124 planes and pilots to keep up their touring schedule.
The WAF Band was inactivated in 1961. Nissly retired at the rank of Major in 1968.
The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music holds the Martha Awkerman WAF and Long Beach Band Papers, 1940-2002 which consists of scrapbooks, photographs, and recordings of cornet soloist Martha Awkerman and the WAF Band.