BRANDON — Johnny Seay, joined the Eastern Hillsborough Community Band not because he wanted to dust off his trumpet and see if he still had "it."
For starters, Seay's trumpet had never gathered dust.
"I've done it for so long, it's a part of me now, like breathing," said Seay, 66, who started playing at age 11. "It's a habit that is ingrained in me. It feels natural. It feels like something I have to do every day."
Seay joined the band for the people, the connections, the camaraderie.
Like Seay, the community band members, from professional to amateur musicians, joined for their shared interest but have stayed for so many more reasons.
"It's a huge part of my life, especially through all the friendships I've made," said the band's president, flute player Sandy Townsend. "At first I joined for the music, but it's grown to so much more. To be able to pull together all the talent in the community has been amazing."
In its five-year history, the band has given residents from Brandon to Sun City Center enjoyable, and often patriotic, performances. It has provided an outlet for area musicians of all ages who want to be part of a concert band and make meaningful contributions to their communities.
For many of the band's 60 members, the common thread goes beyond the notes on the page, reaching more deeply into the footnotes of history. Almost a full quarter of the band — 23 percent — is composed of veterans.
There are veterans from the Vietnam and Korean wars. There are colonels and captains, aviators and reservists, a dentist and a lawyer. Three served in official capacities as musicians. Conductor Ken Watts was a sergeant in the Air Force from 1972 to 1976. Watts played trumpet in three Air Force bands, including at MacDill Air Force Base.
Seay was a staff sergeant in the Army, who arranged and composed music throughout a military career that might have taken a far different turn had he not been eavesdropping on a conversation between other recruits.
"I was not aware of the Army's music program when I went in," said Seay, who began his military career in July 1975. "I just heard some of my fellow trainees talking about this great job they'd have when they made it through basic training. I asked them what jobs they were talking about, and they said music."
Seay immediately called his wife, Brenda, and asked her to mail him his mouthpiece. He practiced awhile, requested an audition, and soon found himself at the Army School of Music in Little Creek, Va.
During his 20 years in the Army, Seay played trumpet in four bands and eventually became an arranger and composer, writing 40 pieces for various occasions. He did two stints in Korea, toured Thailand, Nepal and parts of India, and saw most of the United States.
"We were involved in almost any ceremony on or off post. A lot of people in military service are rarely part of ceremonies," Seay said. "We did a lot of arrival and departure ceremonies when I was in the D.C. band and got to see some dignitaries up close from time to time."
Those dignitaries included Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Ronald Reagan, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., and Olympic athletes. One of the bands played at a polo match in Palm Beach, where Seay got to see and play for Prince Charles.
The biggest honor during Seay's career was playing taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
"I did that for several years and that was the ultimate duty," Seay said. "I remember spending time with the Old Guard guys, the Third Infantry (Regiment), and seeing how meticulous they were and how much they did to prepare every day."
Seay thinks that the large number of veterans in the East Hillsborough band can be explained through the bonds they share through their service.
"Our memories and experiences draw us together," Seay said. "That, and our love of music."
The community band will perform a patriotic concert on Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Brandon at 7 p.m. The concert, a salute to the Armed Forces, will feature an original song composed by Seay, Pledge of Allegiance, his first since his retirement, but not likely his last, he said.