Notes From Baghdad

When his National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq in October, UNO jazz student William Thompson left behind his studies -- but brought his music with him.


When William Thompson IV envisioned December 2004, the UNO jazz student always thought he would be graduating, receiving his diploma surrounded by friends and family and then going on to build a music career as a jazz performer and composer. Instead, the 24-year-old Louisiana National Guard sergeant and counterintelligence agent found himself in Baghdad, fighting a war surrounded by friends who have become like family -- and writing a new kind of music.

Thompson, a senior studying jazz performance and philosophy at the University of New Orleans, is assigned to the 256th Military Intelligence Company, part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team. He joined the Guard when he was 18 to help pay for college, signing on to a six-year commitment composed of once-a-month drill and an annual two-to-three-week training stint. "I was just waiting for December '04 to get out," he writes via email. "Normally, this would be the termination of my contract. But that isn't going to happen." Thompson is one of thousands of soldiers whose service has been indefinitely extended by the military's "stop-loss" order.

He was counting down the days, he says, because he had decided long ago that a military career was not for him. "I've always been into music, maybe because my mom's side of the family is very musical," he says. "My grandfather, George Kramer, was a Dixieland jazz bandleader in the '30s and '40s. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort.

"Music is my life," he adds later.

Before he left New Orleans, Thompson was playing early sets at local institutions like Funky Butt and Cafe Brasil and what he calls "society gigs Š not for passion but cash." Not eager to leave his music behind when his country called him overseas, Thompson persuaded his company commander to ship a keyboard to Iraq along with the unit's military equipment.

That keyboard, plus a Powerbook G4 outfitted with music software, allows Thompson to spend every spare moment in the trailer that he shares with other soldiers composing and producing what he calls "a musical journal written from the standpoint of one soldier's experiences throughout his one-year tour in Iraq."

The pieces -- which Thompson describes as a mixture of modern classical, jazz and electronic music -- incorporate digital audio samples. Some are just about a minute long; others are longer. Few follow any kind of traditional song format. "I am using anything from the sounds an M-16 makes and live recordings of Iraqi radio to unrehearsed dialogue from both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians concerning political issues and all else," Thompson writes in a draft of a press release for his soon-to-be-launched Web site, "The result is an extremely unique musical style with a bit of political and social edge."

This new approach to composition still relies on a music student's old habits. "Upon deployment, I decided to treat the laptop computer the same way I formerly treated the piano," he says. "Practice, explore and create. How many other musicians can draw from this type of experience? As an artist, when you go to create, what comes out is your consciousness, in other words your experiences. What was Walden all about anyway?"

When Thompson talks about the war, he is quick to say that he's not a politician and doesn't know the answers to the current conflict. "However, there is no backing out now," he says. "We must finish what we started. Š I do believe that good can be brought out of this situation." Part of that good, he hopes, are his musical creations. "My intent with this project is to depict an unbiased view of the war, so others can see it through the musical ideas of one soldier. In a world where all media is slanted one way or another, maybe music has a chance. I don't know, but we'll see."

In the meantime, Thompson practices, explores and creates. He looks forward to reuniting with his wife, whom he married just before shipping out, and to completing his studies. (UNO allowed him to retain the grades he had earned in the fall semester prior to his deployment.) "As far as philosophy, these days I'm into Kierkegaard and Kant, but have little time for anything more than thought. I often think of my comrades and the ironic John Lennon lyric 'Happiness is a warm gun,'" he says. "To be honest, I'm really more into Bach."


Add a comment