Over video chat, sitting on the porch of his Chicago apartment, enjoying a rare pristine summer day in the Windy City, Hilton Head native and percussionist David Agee told me about his life’s unexpected turn. He’d just wrapped up his last semester teaching percussion at Fenwick Park High School, and was spending the week saying goodbye to friends before starting his new adventure. Agee, who uprooted to Chicago eight years ago to pursue his love of music, recently joined the Navy and is heading to boot camp. He joked, “I never thought I’d be graded on pushups in order to play music.”
Boot camp, believe it or not, is a requirement of the Sea Chanters, the official chorus of the U.S. Navy and Agee’s brandnew gig. He’s leaving city life behind and driving up to Great Lakes, Illinois, where he’ll be stripped of his personal effects and issued a Navy uniform. For 40 hours without sleep, he’ll endure medical tests, standing at attention and verbal abuse, topped off by a buzz cut. He’ll be given two minutes to tell his family he’s “alive and well” — reading from a supervised script — and then it’s radio silence for two weeks. Then, for six weeks, Agee will endure a rigorous schedule of mind-numbing tasks, such as staring unblinkingly into the night on watch duty and cleaning barracks on a diet of overcooked vegetables and bacon the texture of cardboard. He will relish every letter and pay-phone call he can get. If this sounds harsh, that’s because it is. But Agee will be rewarded for the two months of hardship with a coveted tenured position in the esteemed ensemble, which performs at major national events such as the presidential inauguration.
It was only a couple months ago that Agee’s wife, Rachael Smith, whom he met while studying jazz at DePaul University, alerted him to a job opening with the Sea Chanters. Feeling burnt out on a life playing unpredictable gigs at night and waking early to a rigorous teaching schedule, this was a chance at a solid career, musically eclectic yet grounded. Agee was selected to audition live in Washington, D.C., where he read down charts, played through pop medleys and showcased his concert snare chops — all at 9 in the morning. When he heard he’d secured his seat in the group, he recalled, “I was just over the moon!”
Agee, whose father worked in real estate and whose mother was a tennis pro, enjoyed a typical Hilton Head childhood. Growing up in Wexford, Agee recalls, “I played tennis as soon as I could hold a racquet.” And though his dad’s instrument of choice was a golf club, he cherished the importance of music nonetheless. Agee recalls, “In ‘91, Genesis went on a world tour promoting their ‘We Can’t Dance’ album. ABC aired an hourlong TV special that my parents recorded. If I only watched that five times, it felt like 100. My parents noticed I was pulling the pots and pans from the cupboard and using chopsticks, so they got the hint. All I wanted to do was to play like Phil Collins.” For Christmas at 6 years old, his parents bought him a used drum kit and the rest, as they say, was history.
At Hilton Head High, Agee found his niche in the jazz band, concert band and pit orchestras. He also met Ryan Burd, a technical powerhouse who had mastered the snare drum and lit a fire under Agee. Agee found himself playing with Mike Geib on the bass and Lowcountry Boil’s Kieran Daly on the mandolin.
After high school, Agee enrolled in Clemson, where he hit the skins in marching band, finding himself playing to a sea of hooligans during nationally televised halftime shows. In his junior year, Agee was selected for the Disney All-American college band. His senior year, a visit from the house band of New York’s iconic Village Vanguard jazz club inspired Agee to enroll in DePaul’s jazz studies master’s program to hone his craft.
With money saved from several summers, he moved to Chicago to study with master musicians, practicing drums and making nightly rounds of the city’s many musical haunts, soaking up the best of jazz, blues, rock and pop.
After finishing his master’s degree, Agee had some tough decisions to make. Though he had some reservations about teaching high school, an opportunity to run the drumline at Niles West High School quickly warmed him to the idea. He took pride in sharing the joy of rhythm to kids just as had been done for him. He explains, “I was about a month or two into teaching when I was like 'wow I get it.'” From that moment on, he made it a cornerstone of his path.
After boot camp, Agee will move to D.C. along with his wife, Rachael, where he’ll rehearse regularly with the Sea Chanters, mastering their songbook and perform about once a week at various functions — some joyous affairs like outdoor concerts at the Capitol, and others more somber, such as memorial services after national tragedies. He will also tour with the Sea Chanters four weeks out of the year, performing nationally and internationally.
For his skill, diligence and perseverance, Agee will be rewarded with a fulfilling and steady music career. But for now, he’ll be judged on just how tall he can stand — and his pushups, of course.
Note: At 18, I left the island and never looked back. I struck out to New York City where I write and play jazz. Now I’m coming full circle, catching up each month with a Lowcountry native who also set sail for new horizons. We ask ourselves what it meant to grow up on a resort island and how far we’ve come. To nominate someone special, email email@example.com.