July 10, 2008

Wilmington Marine Coming Home: Fellow Musicians Mourn Loss of ‘Natural’ Musician

By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Jul. 10--WILMINGTON -- You could say that Steven West had music in his blood.

His paternal grandfather, Robert West, played guitar in a military band while stationed with the U.S. Army in Guam. His paternal grandmother, Elizabeth West, has composed hundreds of songs and musicals. Both are part of the Tewksbury-based West & MacRae music-writing team.

His father and three of his paternal uncles, meanwhile, run West Brothers Music, a network of music schools that teach everything from piano and guitar to percussion and singing.

"Steven grew up to have a love of music," said Bruce Gertz, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, who taught West as a young teenager. "He was a quick learner, a very talented musician and a very sweet kid -- the kind of person you don't want to lose."

But the music community in Greater Lowell and beyond was left with no choice but to mourn Steven West last week, when word spread that the 20-year-old Marine lance corporal had died in Thailand.

West had been on a goodwill tour with the Third Marine Expeditionary Force Band at the time. He played bass for the elite band, which is based out of Camp Foster in Japan, and was a member of its jazz combo.

He was pronounced dead at a hospital in the Bangkok area on July 2. The Marine Corps has refused to release any details about the circumstances of his death, saying that it is still under investigation.

After days of uncertainty, his family finally received confirmation

from the military that it would be flying West into Boston's Logan Airport tomorrow, Veterans Agent Lou Cimaglia said yesterday.

A procession of state police and Wilmington police cruisers is expected to accompany his casket from the airport to the Nichols Funeral Home in Wilmington, where visiting hours will take place on Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m.

A funeral Mass will then be held on Monday at noon in the town's St. Thomas of Villanova Church. Internment will follow at Wildwood Cemetery.

Gertz said he was "in total shock" when he learned of West's death.

He remembers West's father, David, asking him to write a recommendation letter for Steven when he was first preparing to enter the Marines.

"When his dad told me that he wanted to go into the service, my first question was: 'Are you sure he's going to be safe?' " Gertz recalled. "David said: 'Sure, it's a band.' I guess you don't have to be a fighter to die."

West joined the Marines after attending Billerica Memorial High School and Wilmington High School.

Gertz, who had taught one of West's uncles the electric bass in the 1980s, said West was a hungry learner with an uncanny musical ability.

"It took him a day and a half to learn the 'Musical Sonata' on a guitar that he had just picked up," he marveled. "He was shy at first, but once he got comfortable, he couldn't stop. He was a natural."

Although he quickly settled on the bass as his instrument, West was curious about other musical styles.

Barbara Morash, who runs the Music Is Art agency in Stoneham, remembers him sitting by quietly as his father once took a voice lesson with her.

"I found him to be quite precocious in a most charming way," she wrote in an e-mail. "He smiled throughout the lesson and shook my hand afterward, letting me know he enjoyed meeting me and observing. I was very impressed with Steven's social ability and charisma."

West quickly immersed himself in the music scene, participating in Strings Attached programs -- he taught younger students at some of them -- and performing as a member of the Lowell Philharmonic Orchestra.

There, he played bass alongside Billerica resident George Bibler in 2003 and 2004. Bibler remembers him as a "very serious, very quiet" young man.

"By choosing to play in an orchestra, he was definitely wanting to push himself to a higher level," Bibler said yesterday. "I thought it was unusual for a younger person, especially a high-school student, to commit to this instrument and to stick with it for so long. It's pretty difficult."

That dedication is also what helped West successfully audition for the U.S. Marine Corps Band.

He attended the Armed Forces School of Music in Virginia after completing basic training on Parris Island.

"Steven is one of the most talented musicians I have ever known," his father said recently. "We were very proud of his service to our country."

Memorial donations may be made to the Steven M. West Memorial Fund, c/o Lowell Five Savings Bank, 240 Main St., Wilmington MA 01887.


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