“Close Enough for Jazz” Review

4 star rating
"Close Enough for Jazz" cover

When last we left our hero, author Steve Smith, he had just escaped the fell clutches of a tyrannical Staff Sergeant for the idyllic life of a trumpeter in the Kitzingen Area Band.

And at first, life was indeed idyllic. The band was, in a word, untouchable. No morning PT (physical training), no onerous details, no inspections. All the band members had to do was practice and play, welcoming the 5th Artillery Division’s Commanding General when he arrived on post each morning, conducting a “rouser march” to get the other soldiers’ day going, and playing gigs off post to keep up good relations with the local community.

The band had been formed at the General’s insistence, and one of the junior members of the band had grown up next door to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm. That caused more than a little excitement at Flak Kaserne when a card from the White House arrived, congratulating the band member on his latest birthday.

Life was good. Until it wasn’t.

Like in any military organization, long-time members depart when their tours of duty are up, and new ones come in. The band, being a small unit, was more susceptible than most to the changes in personality those departures and arrivals bring. As the original band members departed without being replaced right away, the band’s performance suffered. After one particularly poor unit parade, the General threatened to disband the band.

Horrors! Smith and the others might have to return to being actual soldiers! That would never do, yet the band’s “leader,” a Master Sergeant, froze up. It fell to Smith and his fellow junior bandsmen to light a fire under him and bring in new people. The band survived—barely.

Life went on. Not as idyllic as before, but Smith and the band remained in the Army, but not of it. Even the advent of an Inspector General (IG) visit, did little to change the routine, other than generate the usual panic of cleaning everything in sight, and even things that were out of sight. This thrashing about ended in frustration, as it so often did, when the only time a member of the IG team visited the band’s building, he discovered the unit he was looking for was next door.

As the book winds down, Smith and some friends take a vacation trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. During the visit, Smith meets a winsome lass and love blooms. Birthe eventually leaves home, work, and family to be close to the author in Bavaria. There is sure to be more to this story in the final book of the trilogy.

As we reach the end, Smith once again abandons friends and colleagues for grass that appears greener, this time literally so. An opportunity comes along for him to pitch for the Kitzingen Red Socks [sic], an intramural team. Intramural sports have long been a staple of military life, a way for soldiers to blow off steam and keep a competitive attitude. Before he joined the Army, Smith had had a tryout with a professional team, so the chance to get back on the mound was something he couldn’t pass up. Life as a bandsman had lost its luster, apparently, and the green grass of the baseball field beckoned.

As with Single Striper, the first book of the series, Close Enough for Jazz reads easily, something I should have noted in my previous review. Smith’s penchant for the fancy word remains, but while it’s never a good idea to require the reader to keep a dictionary handy, the tendency does not hurt the pace or flow of the story. The detailed notes he took at the time bring the settings and stories alive. The tension between the draftees like Smith and the “lifers” remains, augmented by the tension between the band and the “real” Army all around them. This tension gives the book much of its forward motion, driving many of the actions of the junior bandsmen.

As he did with Single Striper, Smith captures a unique look at a special corner of the peacetime Army of the late 1950s. The target market for this book will be small (and getting smaller by the day, sadly) but veterans of that era, and many others will find Close Enough for Jazz an enjoyable read.

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