There came a time in Ryan Rager’s life where he says he realized he just couldn’t throw a curveball. Instead, he knew he was on the path toward a career in music.
But unlike other young performers who might pursue opportunities playing local gigs or giving lessons to children, his band entertains audiences all over the world while in service of its country.
He is a member of the United States Air Force Rhythm in Blue Jazz Ensemble, whose next gig will be a free concert at Mattituck High School.
“We have very diverse backgrounds and we all came together to serve and perform,” Staff Sgt. Rager said of the 19 musicians who will teach a master class for the school’s jazz band before entertaining the community Monday evening.
The full-size big band, which includes two singers and performs a wide range of music, tours the eastern seaboard, playing about 125 gigs a year from Maine to South Carolina. Most of its members have also deployed to play for troops and local nationals overseas.
The ‘Rhythm in Blue’ jazz ensemble performs at Mattituck High School Monday, March 14, at 7 p.m.
Staff Sgt. Rager, who serves as the band’s tour manager and music director, is also the ensemble’s keyboard player. The South Sioux City, Neb., native deployed in 2012 to Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Afghanistan and other locations in southwest Asia.
“That’s definitely been one of my favorite experiences,” he said. “We go into communities where they have no concept of the U.S. military. We play songs for them and within 30 minutes they’re our biggest fans.”
The band members also provide comfort for their fellow servicemen and women by bringing acoustic instruments and entertaining them during periods of downtime overseas.
It’s not a fluke that Staff Sgt. Rager and his fellow ensemble members play in the band. They are highly educated and skilled performers who, as with a symphony, had to audition for their roles. Only after they passed the audition were they asked to enlist.
Staff Sgt. Rager joined the Air Force in 2008, after first learning to play the piano more than 15 years ago. He studied music education in college, taught for a brief period afterward and even entertained crowds in local bars. While in the Air Force, he earned a Master’s of Music Theory from the University of Nebraska.
For each of the ensemble’s members, the military is their career. They will serve in the Air Force for 20 years and receive a full pension.
Afterward, Staff Sgt. Rager said, many will go back to school to pursue new career paths. He pointed to one recent retiree who now manages a BMW factory.
Some, however, will simply move on to the next chapter in their musical lives.
“They’re born a musician and will continue to do the musician thing,” he said.