Most people have weird notions about military bands, say Shawn and Darden Purcell. They think of John Philip Sousa and marching music, and bass drums and bugles.
Shawn, a guitarist, and Darden, a jazz vocalist, will tell you their experiences with the U.S. Air Force bands were quite different.
Darden's main repertoire was pop-rock and jazz; Shawn's was jazz. The venues they played varied as they traveled the world as international ambassadors of music.
Back in the States, they performed at monuments and museums in the Washington, D.C., area, where they were stationed, and at theaters and other venues nationwide.
And they didn't have to live on base.
"It was about as unmilitary as you can get," Shawn said.
The two met in 1999 in a concert series featuring a number of Air Force bands. They later started dating and then married.
They are now studying for advanced degrees at the University of Illinois School of Music and performing often at clubs in Champaign-Urbana. They have been well-received by listeners and fellow musicians alike.
"They've contributed greatly to the scene because of Shawn's guitar abilities – he's extremely versatile and plays with several groups, bigger bands and trios and quartets," said Paul Wirth, owner of the Iron Post in Urbana.
As for Darden, Wirth said she has a distinctive alto with a full range.
"I like to say she could be the next Diana Krall," Wirth said.
Darden, 33, attributes a lot of her musical growth to the Air Force because it forced her to quickly learn and perform music. One day she might have had to learn pop-rock tunes, with choreography, and the next day, big band songs.
"The first gig I had was for the highest ranking officer in the Air Force," she said. "I'd been out of basic training for four weeks. I was told, 'Learn this music, get in your uniform and go over to his house.'"
As soon as Shawn finished his basic training, he found himself in a studio recording an album with Airmen of Note, the top big band in the Air Force, considered the direct descendant of Glen Miller's Air Force band.
Before joining the military, Shawn had an even more unusual musical experience: For two years the guitarist toured with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus band, after graduating from Duquesne University.
"It was a unique gig for musicians, a really good job with a good salary and benefits," he said. "It was kind of strange being around the circus people and traveling two years straight, especially being only 21 at the time."
As a circus musician, Shawn did nine shows a week, visiting 93 cities in two years. He burned out quickly, and six months after leaving the ring, he joined the Air Force. He stayed for eight years.
Darden and Shawn met in 1999 and married three years later; the ceremony was conducted by a two-star general who is the chief chaplain of the Air Force.
"Darden's father has friends in high places," Shawn said of Jon Safley, who as a pilot and career officer in the Air Force had followed in his father's footsteps.
The week after their wedding, the Purcells were touring with Airmen of Note, for which Darden was the featured vocalist during her last six months in the military.
"Our first honeymoon was on taxpayer expense," Shawn joked.
That unofficial honeymoon and "creme de la creme" tour took them to San Diego, Palm Desert and other cities in California as well as Arizona and Nevada.
With Airmen of Note, the Purcells also enjoyed a 21-day tour of the Middle East, performing on R&R bases for American soldiers and seeing parts of the world that most Americans never visit.
Even though her father and grandfather had been in the Air Force, Darden enlisted at the suggestion of jazz vocalist Lisanne Lyons, her mentor/teacher at Virginia Tech. Lyons also had sung with Air Force bands and taught at Virginia Tech the same time Chip McNeill was there. Lyons and McNeill, now head of the UI Jazz Studies Program, have been influential in Darden's career.
As for Shawn's musical influences, they were mainly familial. Both his grandfather and father were trombonists in the Navy band. Shawn's father, Randy Purcell, toured with Maynard Ferguson in the '70s and is on a couple of the jazz giant's best-known albums.
While many musicians make the military a career, Shawn, now 36, and Darden are among the few to return to civilian life. They wanted a change of pace and to live in a big city. They chose Nashville, mainly because of its music scene and location somewhat close to their families. They stayed in Music City for three years and would have stayed longer if they hadn't decided to pursue advanced degrees. They moved to Champaign in August 2007.
"We drove into town on a Wednesday and my first gig was on a Friday," Shawn said. "It was very promising."
In fact, the Purcells play more gigs here than they did in Nashville, which has only one jazz club and many more musicians.
"The thing we really like is the musicians here are really nice to one another and support one another," Darden said. "It's interesting. Here, musicians come out to other musicians' gigs."'
Darden and Shawn Purcell both perform with Dave Dickey's C-U Jazz Crusaders. Darden sings with Dickey's Weapons of Mass DisFunktion as well. And the couple front their own bands, the Darden Purcell Group and the Shawn Purcell Group.
Both Purcells have taught the past two summers at the W.O. Smith Music Camp in Nashville, and Shawn also teaches at the National Guitar Workshop.
Their upcoming gigs:
-- "Glenn Wilson & Friends" Jazz Series, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Ewing Manor, 48 Sunset Road, Bloomington. Free. Wilson, of Normal, is a renowned baritone saxophonist and faculty member at the University of Illinois School of Music.
-- Glenn Wilson Group, 8 p.m. Friday, Swinger's Restaurant , Normal
-- Jazz Vesper Service, 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. next Sunday, Wesley United Methodist Church, 1203 E. Green St., U
-- Darden Purcell Group, 5 p.m. Aug. 1, Iron Post, Urbana.
-- "Live in Studio C" WPLN Nashville Public Radio, 11 a.m. Aug. 5, Darden/Shawn Purcell Group
-- Darden, featured vocalist with Maurice McKinley's Panache, 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 9, Jim Gould, One Main Plaza, Champaign
-- With Weapons of Mass DisFunktion, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Aug. 16, Alto Vineyard, 410 N. Duncan Road, C
-- Darden, featured vocalist with Panache, 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 23, Jim Gould, Champaign
-- Darden Purcell Group, 5:30 p.m. Aug. 29, The Embassy, Urbana
-- Darden with Panache, 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 30, Jim Gould, Champaign
-- Shawn Purcell Group, 7 p.m. Aug. 31, Steak Out, Iron Post
-- Allerton Music Barn Festival with Peter Soave, Chip Stephens, Larry Gray and others, 10:30 a.m. Sept. 1, Allerton Park, Monticello
-- Darden Purcell Group, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 20, The Embassy
-- Darden Purcell Group, 5 p.m. Oct. 3, Iron Post