The EUSPBA Circle of Honor
The Eastern United States Pipe Band Association Circle of Honor was created in order to focus particular attention on a select group of individuals chosen by the Executive Committee. These special persons, whether now living or dead, represent the highest ideals of our association as demonstrated by their service and commitment, which extends far beyond that expected in a volunteer-based organization.
It is with great pride in their accomplishments, with esteem, and affection that they are presented and remembered in this fashion.
By Nathaniel Green
When your band is shuffling on nervous feet in the on-deck circle before a competition, or when you’re taking deep breaths as you walk to the judge’s table to present your tunes in a solo event, it may be helpful to remember one thing: if it’s Sandy Jones sitting on the far side, he feels that most pipers today are a lot better than they were twenty years ago.
So you’re already starting on a positive note with at least one judge. And with more than fifty years of piping experience with some of the top players in the world, Sandy Jones should know good piping.
He began piping under the tutelage of George Mars in Victoria, British Columbia at the age of eight. He played through high school in competition bands and solo events on the west coast and in Canada, including having the opportunity to play with three people who’d studied at the Pipe Major Course in Edinburgh with Willie Ross, including Angus Scott and Alec Oliphant.
After high school, Jones joined the Air Force and went straight to the Air Force Pipe Band in Washington, DC (which requires top-secret clearance). Then, he “played bagpipes the next 20 years for a living.”
The Air Force Pipe Band, which has since been dissolved, primarily served to support Air Force bases through public relations work (perform concerts to draw positive attention to the base and the Air Force in general). The band, based out of Washington, DC, would also play frequent concerts locally and for foreign and domestic dignitaries, including the president.
“We used to play when we were in town at the Capitol steps every Tuesday, and on Friday nights we used to play at the Watergate concerts near the Lincoln Memorial,” says Jones. “When I first went in, the Air Force band was part of the Drum and Bugle Corps, but we got so busy they ended up separating us and making a separate unit of it. We were the band that played at the gravesite for President Kennedy.”
And the band wasn’t limited to domestic performances. Its members traveled internationally, including high-profile events like playing for the independence of Jamaica from the UK in 1962. “I toured the Far East, and a lot of the islands on the way,” says Jones. “We used to do European tours for about a month at a time. Concerts in all the major cities in Europe. We played in Scotland, England, all over Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Sweden … all those in one trip.”
As much as the Air Force Pipe Band was meant as an ambassador to develop goodwill toward the United States, they may well have developed goodwill for the instrument, as well. When asked about the reception of the highland pipes in mainland Europe, Jones says, “They really enjoyed the pipes. When we came back off those trips, I’d end up corresponding with people who were interested in learning how to play and I’d try to put them in touch with somebody.”
Not only did Jones help connect would-be players with instructors in Europe, but he also found some inspiration of his own there. It was with the band on a trip to Scotland where Jones first met John MacFadyen, with whom he’d develop a long friendship. “The last year [the band was] together, we asked him to come over and we took lessons from him as a bunch of us wanted to teach piobaireachd.”
Though the band was later dissolved as the armed forces cut spending, much of their influence in the area remains—though officially Air Force pipers weren’t supposed to play off-base without permission. Jones and other Air Force pipers tutored local bands, including the Annapolis Pipe Band, which has produced a number of notable players. Also, “Just before we got out of the Air Force, we started a band in Washington … a lot of them were Air Force pipers and we weren’t really supposed to be doing it. It was the Denny and Dunipace Pipe Band, which is now City of Washington.”
Since leaving the service, Jones has shifted his role from performer to teacher. “I retired from the Air Force in 1978, and just about that time I got a phone call from The Citadel in Charleston, SC. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in an opening from the fellow down there about to retire. I put my name in the pot and I ended up with that position. I taught pipes down at The Citadel [Military College of South Carolina] for twenty-five years.”
And The Citadel weren’t the only ones seeking out Sandy Jones for help. Says Jones, “I got a call from Agnes MacRae Morton, founder of the Grandfather Mountain Games. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in being director of piping and drumming for the games. I went down and talked to them about it and took it over.”
As Jones took leadership of the games, he also examined outside ways to help promote them, and decided to enlist one of the premier players he’d met on his travels. “I thought one of the things that would certainly help would be a piping and drumming school. I had John MacFadyen come over and judge the first year I was responsible for [the games]. We talked about it, and that’s how the piping school began.”
Now, after co-founding the North Academy of Piping and Drumming, it is celebrating its 41st year and draws hundreds of students from across the country with some of the premier players as instructors. Jones has also written his own bagpipe tutor, Beginning the Bagpipe, and continues to offer lessons from his home and workshops for bands, as well as judging at highland games and playing recitals.
As if his time since retiring from the Air Force weren’t filled enough, Jones has been called upon again as part of a reunion with that band. Many of the pipers reunited in 2002 to play a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dulles Airport, and another reunion for the 50th anniversary this November seems likely. (The Air Force Pipe Band played at the airport’s dedication by President Kennedy in 1962.)
While the Air Force doesn’t maintain a full-time pipe band anymore and only reunites the members on rare occasions, the Air Force Reserve does still maintain a band. And when they were tasked with making a recording, it seemed only natural that they invite Jones’ group to help with it.
“When we got together to do that recording [with the Reserve band], it had been a minimum of thirty years since any of us played together. We got a lot of the guys together, too. It was a lot of fun. It didn’t sound bad … but it sounded like we hadn’t played together for thirty years.”
As a full-time judge and teacher, Jones sees more bagpiping than most, and he notes that the standard of playing has risen over his years. Partly, he says, this is due to the availability and emphasis on good teaching from the start. Also, changes in the instrument itself have made it possible for better piping.
“Part of being a good piper was knowing when not to play your bagpipe,” he says. “When I was in the Air Force, people on the other instruments, string players and so forth, could play hours and hours a day. With our instrument, you couldn’t do that. So we’d have to do most of our practicing on the practice chanter. And there’s a difference in playing the practice chanter and the bagpipe.
“Today, with the water control systems and synthetic reeds, people can play for hours a day and it’s obvious in their playing. I’m real tickled with the standard of play today.”
Of course, there’s always room for improvement, and Jones offers up a caution of diving into tunes that may be too far above your ability without devoting enough time to basics and easier tunes: “I think a lot of the younger players hear the older and the really good players play the hornpipes and jigs, and they try to get into some of that too soon. They could work a little harder on the MSRs and their big tunes, especially if they’re going to compete.”
If there’s one more piece of advice we can take from Sandy Jones, it’s to surround yourself with the best musicians you can find. “The caliber of the pipers and drummers that were in the Air Force … helped me develop my piping because I was surrounded by such talent. I owe much of my success to being surrounded by such good players.”