My good friend Molly Skardon, a fellow volunteer with the National Park Service here in New York City, wrote this guest piece about Percy Grainger, who was born this week in 1882. The musician and composer was already in his 30s when the war broke out in 1914. The next five years however would prove crucial in his personal and artistic development. Molly is uniquely suited to writing about Grainger. She has run the Oral History Project at Governors Island for many years and has interviewed many Army band musicians who were stationed on the island. She also works at Juilliard. New York City was the focal point for the American war effort, and even then becoming a nexus for the nascent jazz scene.

Happy Birthday to Australian musician Percy Grainger, born July 8, 1882. Grainger was pursuing an international career as a pianist and composer when the Great War began in Europe. Publicly criticized for not joining the British war effort, he sailed for America in 1915 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1917, at age 34.

His first Army assignment was with the 15th Coast Artillery Band, stationed at Fort Hamilton, which is the ensemble pictured above. Grainger is the saxophonist in the center, above the small white X. Since it appears to have been chilly when the picture was taken, the time might be late 1917 or early 1918.

In June of 1918, Grainger came to Governors Island as an instructor in the program founded by the Institute of Musical Art (later part of what is now The Juilliard School) to train Army bandmasters and band musicians. Classroom instruction took place at the Institute, at Broadway and 122nd Street in Manhattan, and performing and conducting were taught on the Island.

Grainger was not particularly skilled on either the saxophone or the oboe, which he also played, but he was fascinated by wind, brass, and percussion instruments and wrote a great deal of music for them in various combinations, thus earning the gratitude of concert and military band players of succeeding generations. However, his most popularly known work is probably “Country Gardens,” an old English tune that he arranged for piano while at Fort Jay, as noted at the end of the published sheet music (“Written out, Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, N.Y., June 29, 1918”).

Grainger was discharged from the Army in 1919, and lived for the rest of his life in White Plains, New York just north of the city.

(image/Library of Congress Bain Collection)