MODESTO — Jim Sanders remembers being in France during World War II, when a USO crew came to entertain the troops in 1944.
"(Actress) Marlene Dietrich came and played the saw," recalled Sanders, a Modesto native who drove an ambulance while serving under Gen. George Patton. "Then she changed from fatigues to a slinky dress, and got guys up there to dance with her."
And when, while recuperating from surgery back home after the war, Sanders enjoyed the show Bob Hope brought to the hospital in Van Nuys.
Fast forward to the fall, when Johansen High School music instructor Brad Hart introduced the theme of this weekend's concert to his Modesto students: Stars and Stripes Forever/A World War II Concert Experience.
Hart's own grandparents served in the military. They were big Glenn Miller fans. Miller suspended his own band operations back home to form an Army Air Corps band and died in 1944 when his plane crashed into the English Channel while on his way to entertain the troops.
Working with social studies teacher Ann Amador, Hart wanted to use the concert as a teaching moment beyond flats, sharps and working as a group to create music.
Indeed, only a student or two among them had ever heard of the USO. Most had never heard of Glenn Miller or Bob Hope.
Now they know about Miller, Benny Goodman and the big band era. They're playing John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." They're learning about the bombing of Dresden, Germany, by performing Daniel Bukvich's Symphony No. 1, In Memory of Dresden 1945.
The performances, Friday and Saturday nights, involve Johansen's concert and jazz bands, with vocalists and dancers.
"We're feeling what that generation felt, instead of this age of technology," said Jason Pierce, a senior who plays the drums.
The jazz band will play Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and "American Patrol," the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm" and Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing."
The concert band will play Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" and Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down" along the Sousa and Bukvich pieces.
Sophomore Stephanie Seitzer, who plays the oboe and alto saxophone, appreciates the link between the music, the show and the schoolwork.
"We're studying the history of World War II," she said. "In English, we're reading a book about that time period ('A Separate Piece,' by John Knowles). And we're playing the piece about the bombing of Dresden. It's more than just the regular concert repertoire."
Preparing for the show involved some homework, said senior Brianna Siegman, one of several students who will be swing dancing. "We really had to do a lot of research beyond the music itself," she said. "We did the choreography ourselves. I've watched a lot of old movies. It's not just music. It's singing and dancing. A lot of fun."
Which surprised Seitzer somewhat.
"The full big band swing era," she said. "I never would have connected that with war. War and dancing usually don't go together. Everything we're doing relates to that time period."
Thus, senior bassoonist Morgan Morales can now tell you a bit about Miller and about the USO.
"Big-name artists meeting with the troops and performing," she said, though admitting, "I'd never heard of Bob Hope."
Gwyn Davis, a junior, knew a little about Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman because her mom, Cindy, loves big band music. "The bands went overseas to entertain the troops," Davis said.
And, as World War II veteran Sanders can attest, Marlene Dietrich could play a pretty mean musical saw.
Contact Hart at (209) 202-4586 or email@example.com for tickets priced at $10 for dinner and the concert, $6 for the concert only. Dinner begins at 5 p.m. each night, followed by the concert at 7:30 p.m.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.
Johansen Jazz Band Performs USO Music: