Bill Mayhugh, WMAL-AM's overnight personality, remembers it clearly. "I was first introduced to serious music when my mom and dad used to drag my brother and me down to the Capitol and we'd sit out on the blankets and listen to the military bands give concerts . . . I was 5 or 6 years old and used to run and crawl into the percussion section of the Navy Band."

More years later than he might care to remember, Mayhugh is saying "thank you" with a five-part series of five-hour programs spotlighting each of America's service bands (from 1:05 a.m. to 6 a.m.) on WMAL-AM (630). The U.S. Army Band (the focus of this morning's broadcast), the U.S. Navy Band (Dec. 3), the U.S. Marine Band (Dec. 7), the U.S. Coast Guard Band (Dec. 14) and the U.S. Air Force Band (Dec. 21) are internationally respected as the premiere service bands; with the exception of the Coast Guard unit out of New London, Conn., all are based in the Washington area. Mayhugh will talk with each unit's bandleader and play recordings and tapes showcasing the variety of the bands' music.

There are often several units within each band: The U.S. Army Band stationed at Fort Meyer comprises the Concert Band, the Army Chorus, the Army Blues, the Ceremonial Band, the Army Strings, the Army Brass Quintet and the Herald Trumpets -- "seven units within the 210 men and women who make up the Army Band," Mayhugh points out. Elsewhere there are Singing Sergeants and Strolling Strings and Sea Chanters. "In the case of the Marine Band, they don't have a separate dance band as such, or a separate string quartet, but when they are called upon to do that, they draw from the big band and they just do it . . . and they make beautiful music."

"I've always thought that they haven't received the acceptance due them," Mayhugh says of the service bands. "They give an enormous amount of concerts in Washington [and around the country] for free. They're on the steps of the Capitol twice a week, at the Jefferson Memorial twice a week all summer long; there's the Beltway series, shows at schools and auditoriums; the Navy and Air Force bands go out on tour. . .

"I wanted to give them exposure and show the listeners how versatile these musical units are; how much they work is not known by the general public."

American military bands, which have become such an integral part of cultural life in Washington as well as ambassadors of good will both at home and abroad, date back to 1775, when a fife and drum corps with the motto "Don't Tread on Me" helped recruit marines for Revolutionary War duty. The Marine Band, known as the President's Own (originally referring to Thomas Jefferson), is a year older than the Constitution.

Mayhugh's programs will cover the long and colorful history of each unit as well as the gamut of their duties, which include performing at inaugurals and other official functions, parades, dinners and receptions, and funerals at Arlington Cemetery. "Their crescendos have voiced the nation's rejoicing, their muted strains have spoken the nation's grief," one observer wrote in 1963 when Jacqueline Kennedy chose the now-disbanded Air Force Pipe Band to play the haunting Scottish lament "Mist Covered Mountain" at John F. Kennedy's funeral.

But the service bands play more than moving laments or rousing martial music. In addition to such groups as the Marines' early-music Jefferson Consort, over the last 20 years jazz bands, soul groups (Port Authority) and country-western bands (Country Current) have been formed.

Because the service bands are "military," some people might believe their standards are lower than those of private bands. "That's only until they've heard them," Mayhugh says. "The major big jazz/dance bands -- the Army Blues, the Airmen of Note whose concerts he started emceeing in 1957 and the Commodores -- there just aren't any better in this land anywhere. I've had that statement made to me by Count Basie, Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson, anybody you'd want to name who has ever appeared with them as a soloist -- and they have worked with almost everybody at one time or another. All the guys in the bands are super musicians who can sight-read anything you put in front of them." It helps that the service bands tend to have very slow turnover in personnel. It's a solid gig for any musician, with security, benefits, free lodging and travel; there are far more applications than positions.

"I think the big surprise is going to come with the variety of music that's played," says Mayhugh. "People who listen to me will know about the jazz bands, but to explore the rest . . . I think I'm going to enjoy it more than anybody. They're a great bunch of professionals, and I want to draw attention to them."