Marshall Hawkins, 82, recalled when he was about 8 years old, going to the U.S. Capitol with his parents to see the Army or Navy bands performing, but 30 years later Hawkins would exchange his mother’s hand for a conductor’s baton as the first black Master Chief in U.S. Navy Band history.
The Fort Washington resident isn’t quick to admit he was a pioneer, crediting his trailblazing path to hard work and a love for music.
“I think I look at a pitcher as half-full,” Hawkins said. “I just go out there and get what I want done.”
Hawkins said he joined the U.S. Navy in 1949 as an enlisted musician, a year after the Navy was integrated by president Harry S. Truman in 1948. He said he learned how to play the French horn, string bass, bass trombone and the euphonium.
That era, which still legally allowed discrimination, presented challenges — the first black officer in the Navy wasn’t commissioned until 1944, but Hawkins said musicians were better than others when it came to race. He counted whites and Asians among his friends during his 22-year career, but he encountered racism.
“When we were out playing, people would ask the lead alto [a white man] to play a specific song, and he would tell them to ask the band leader,” he said. “They would just go back to their seat instead of talking to me.”
Scott Shelsta, who has known Hawkins for 10 years, said the military typically was ahead of the curve when it came to equality, even if it wasn’t perfect all the time. Shelsta served in the U.S. Army from 1974 to 2004.
Shelsta said that Hawkins’ talent and positive personality coupled with the timing of integration put him in a position to be successful in the military.
“We always felt that we were on the cutting edge and getting things straightened out,” Shelsta said. “So hats off to him. He was in the right place at the right time.”
Hawkins said he obtained the rank of Master Chief, the most senior rank for non-officers, after he became the first black assigned band leader in modern U.S. Navy Band history. As Master Chief, he led the NATO band while overseas in Naples, Italy. And in 1969, Hawkins returned from Italy to lead the Navy Commodores, a jazz ensemble band he created with an officer friend. The band played all over the country, he said.
“It was a proud moment since I was the first black assigned leader since the Navy School of Music opened in 1935,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins retired from the Navy in 1971 after 22 years of service. Music would stay part of Hawkins’ life as he turned his talents into a piano technician business and still offers training to aspiring musicians.
John Taylor, who plays in the Virginia Grand Military Band with Hawkins, said the musician’s talent speaks for itself and that likely led to his great success.
“He is certainly well deserving of being Master Chief,” Taylor said. “Marshall lets his horn do his talking for him. He has a lot to be proud of.”
Hawkins currently plays with the Virginia Grand Military Band and the City of Fairfax Band and he doesn’t plan to stop playing anytime soon.
“I’ll play until I can’t play anymore,” he said. “As long as I have the health and strength to play, that is what I will do.”