Saturday night's annual Islip Arts Council concert in the park, featuring the Long Island Philharmonic, remains an all-services "Salute to the Armed Forces." But thanks to a Bayport composer and amateur historian, the evening will shine a spotlight on the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.
Reynard Burns, a retired music teacher in the Bay Shore schools, created a new arrangement of Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," the unofficial anthem of the historic African-American squadron that was based in Tuskegee, Ala. No African-American had served as an armed forces pilot before Tuskegee formed in 1941, months before the United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Attached to the Army Air Corps (later renamed the U.S. Air Force), the squadron flew its first combat missions in 1943 over North Africa and Italy. That same year, Cole recorded "Straighten Up."
JAZZ TO ORCHESTRAL Burns' first arrangement of the song was for his jazz ensemble, Rey Burns' Crossroads Quintet. But when he heard that this year's Heckscher State Park concert, which typically draws 30,000 Long Islanders, would honor the armed forces, he called arts council director Lynda Moran to suggest inviting New York area Tuskegee Airmen. "We saw this as an opportunity to salute them," says Moran, "without overlooking current returning veterans." Burns immediately went to work adapting "Straighten Up and Fly Right" for a full orchestra and auditioned it for Philharmonic music director David Stewart Wiley, who added it to tomorrow's program.
Like other surviving World War II veterans, the Tuskegee Airmen are in their 80s and 90s. Three members of the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter, one of 55 nationally, will attend the concert: Dabney Montgomery of the Bronx and Julius Freeman and Clayton Lawrence, both of Springfield Gardens, Queens.
INSPIRED BY HISTORY Burns and his daughter Regan, who plays cello in her father's quintet -- he plays bass -- are members of the New York City-based chapter. "I'm very interested in history," Burns says, "particularly contributions by people who are sort of omitted from history books."
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Inspired by the dozen or so former airmen in the chapter, which includes family members and others, like himself, who've become Tuskegee supporters, Burns is writing some original music in their honor. "They may be old, but they're sharp as tacks," he says, "and very forward-looking about education and raising money for scholarships. So I wanted to write a piece for them. But I put it aside to do this rearrangement. I'll get back to it now."
Fireworks by Grucci follow the concert. A portion of funds raised by concert sponsors, including Bethpage Federal Credit Union, will be distributed through United Way to military families in need.
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Heckscher State Park, East Islip
ADMISSION $10 parking fee before 6 p.m., $10 suggested donation after 6, parking gates close at 7:30; islipartscouncil.org, 631-224-5420