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Celebrating Women's History: Chief Master Sgt. Jeanne Gartner, a woman of many firsts

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Christine Jones
  • The United States Air Force Band

Chief Master Sgt. (ret.) Jeanne Gartner served an incredible 30 years as a member of The United States Air Force Band. Her musical talent and leadership prowess paved the way for her ascent through the ranks. Her career culminated with her role as Chief Enlisted Manager of the Band, making her the first female Band Manager for the unit - one of just many "firsts" she achieved throughout her shining career. 

Hailing from Gaithersburg, Maryland, Gartner earned her Bachelor of Music Education degree from Shenandoah University in 1972. She went on to study at the prestigious Conservatoire National de Région de Bordeaux in Bordeaux, France, where she earned an Artist Diploma before returning to the D.C. area to earn her Master's degree in Music Performance from Catholic University in 1976. 

Following her formal education, Jeanne won an audition with The United States Air Force Concert Band. The Band had been an all-male unit until 1972 when clarinetist Karen Erler joined the ranks. When Gartner enlisted in 1976, she was only the sixth female instrumentalist and the first female saxophone player. She recalls, "Getting the position wasn't about being a "first" for me, it was having the opportunity of doing something I loved — playing the saxophone."

Gartner served as a member of the Concert Band for eleven years. One of the highlights of her time in the ensemble was performing Jerry Bilik's "Rhapsody & Variations." The piece featured Chief Master Sgt. James Scott as soloist, and near the end of the work, the remaining sax section joined him on stage as "co-soloists." This work was performed on several national tours, at Constitution Hall, at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and on the album "Spotlight, Outstanding Solo Performances" recorded in 1980.

Sgt. Gartner began serving as Copyist in 1987. At that time, the Music Production team wrote out scores and parts by hand using pen and ink on onionskin paper! As computers and music notation software became widely available in the 1990s, the team began using the new technology. Gartner recalls that this was a very challenging time in her career. "I knew absolutely nothing about computers at the time, and I can remember thinking to myself, 'I'm going to lose my job!' Out of necessity, we went cold turkey in 1999 and completely changed the music production process." 

Gartner reflects that this adversity helped shape her career: "We all stumble and face our own sets of challenges. In this case, I found that if it weren't for all the challenges and failures that I learned valuable lessons from, I would not have gone as far as I did." With this mindset, it's not surprising that she led the Music Production team as Superintendent and later as the Chief of Music Production. In this leadership role, she oversaw the Band's creation of "Born of a Dream," the first-ever Broadway-style musical production by a military band. 

Following her long tenure in Music Production, Gartner was selected for the Band's highest enlisted position, the Chief Enlisted Manager. In this role, she served as the principal enlisted advisor to the commander. She describes her three years in this role as the most challenging and rewarding of her entire career. "Nothing is more satisfying than to be able to do work that can truly make a difference. I've been lucky to have had many opportunities to do that, but this one was as good as they came.  

Over the course of her career, Chief Gartner marched in seven inaugural parades, spanning Carter through George W. Bush. She recalls her final inaugural parade as one of the greatest moments of her career. In that particular parade, she marched as part of the Command Staff at the front of the formation. "The 99-member band bursting into 'The Air Force Song' as we marched in front of the presidential reviewing stand, and rendering a salute to the commander in chief as we passed by, was one of the greatest moments of my career." 

During this parade, the Band debuted their new ceremonial uniform. Chief Gartner stood out from the group with a modified version of the uniform, worn exclusively by the Chief Enlisted Manager, which had silver trim and a belt with a Hap Arnold device. Instead of the ribbons that enlisted members of the Band wore, she wore full-size medals that were developed exclusively for Band Officers and the Band Manager. The most distinctive part of her uniform was The U.S. Air Force Band sword and scabbard, an item identical to the regular, full-length Air Force Sword except for its smaller 14" blade and a plain scabbard tip. Gartner wore this uniform again during the 2006 St. Patrick's Day Parade, where she had the distinct honor of being the first and only senior enlisted leader to march in the Officer's position with the Band. The 2006 St. Patrick's Day parade was the final one of her career, and she was the only Chief Enlisted Manager ever to wear this uniform!

In case you weren't keeping track, Chief Gartner achieved five historic "firsts" throughout her career. She was the first female saxophonist, the first female Chief of Music Production, the first female Chief Enlisted Manager, the first senior leader to march in the Officer position with the Band, and the first woman to retire after thirty years of service! With a heart for serving others, she helped pave the way for countless others to follow in her footsteps.