Washington, DC -- “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band’s national concert tour this October marks a special milestone: the 125th anniversary of the organization’s first tour. After crisscrossing the country thousands of times and logging many miles via planes, trains, automobiles, ferries, and bicycles, the band’s tradition of bringing the music of the White House to the American public continues well into its third century with concerts this year in southern Maryland, eastern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, southern Alabama, and Florida.
The tradition began with 17th Director John Philip Sousa in 1891 when his soaring popularity gave him the confidence to ask President Benjamin Harrison if the band could go on a tour outside of the Washington, D.C., region. Sousa’s initial requests for permission to take the band on such a trip were denied due to a busy concert schedule in Washington and the responsibilities at the White House. But Sousa persisted and eventually presented his request directly to the Commander in Chief. In his autobiography, “Marching Along,” Sousa recalls what transpired:
“My years in Washington had taught me that if you wish to see the President, see his wife first. So I asked for Mrs. Harrison. She liked the idea of a tour and promised to speak to the President about it. Next morning I was summoned to see the President. As I entered the room, he rose, shook hands cordially, and leading me to one of the windows which faced the Potomac River, said, ‘Mrs. Harrison tells me that you are anxious to make a tour with the band. I was thinking myself of going out of town, and’—with a smile—‘it would be tough on Washington if both of us were away at the same time. I have thought it over, and believe the country would rather hear you than see me; so you have my permission to go.’”
The 1891 tour took “The President’s Own” to 32 cities and towns in New England and the Midwest. The band performed two different programs: one for matinees and another for evening concerts. Both included Sousa’s unique blend of popular music and orchestral transcriptions, as well as his own compositions. Although the audiences clamored for Sousa’s marches, he included them only as encores, offering his audiences what he called the “solid fare” of Richard Wagner, Georges Bizet, Giuseppi Verdi, Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz, and others. Sousa launched the band’s second concert tour in 1892, this time through 37 cities to the Pacific Coast and back. When this tour proved even more successful than the first, Sousa decided to leave “The President’s Own” to form his own civilian band.
After Sousa left the Marine Band in 1892, “The President’s Own” made five tours—1901, 1907, 1911, 1912, and 1915—before traveling yearly between 1920 and 1931. The band suspended its tours during the Depression years of 1932-1934, but took to the road again in 1935 and continued until 1942. During World War II, the band played many additional performances in Washington, D.C., and at the White House to boost wartime morale. The Marine Band’s national concert tours resumed in 1946 and have continued every year since except 1995 and 2013 when they were cancelled due to government shutdowns.
Marine Band Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig is designing unique programs to honor the occasion. “As a nod to this history and Sousa’s legacy, we will be including a handful of pieces that Sousa often took on his tours throughout his career, as well as several marches that he wrote in his final years at the helm of the Marine Band right around the time of his two tours with the band,” he said. “I can’t say for sure whether or not he took these particular marches on the road in 1891, but many of these marches also happen to be included in the upcoming Complete Marches of John Philip Sousa: Vol. 3.”
In addition to the distinctive programming, Fettig also selected a number of featured soloists to demonstrate thedynamic virtuosity of the band’s musicians. Trumpeter Gunnery Sgt. Amy McCabe and euphonium player Staff Sgt. Hiram Diaz will make their debut as tour soloists when they perform Tom Davoren’s Ascension, a piece they performed together earlier this year. Inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s “Red Bull Stratos Jump” on Oct. 14, 2012, and the global attention on one man’s epic free fall from the stratosphere, Davoren structured the piece in two continuous sections, which he said represent both the ascending and descending stages of the jump by contrasting a gradually unfolding meditation against an adrenaline-fueled scherzo. “The prospect of having this band, with soloists in Amy and Hiram, play my music was both humbling and an honour,” Davoren said. “So much so that I made no hesitation in booking a transatlantic flight to attend the performance. The concert itself was simply fantastic.”
He went on to say that, “Receiving news that Ascension would be programmed for ‘The President’s Own’ national concert tour was similarly unexpected, but also a genuine delight, honour, and a highlight of my career. The reason that I write music is not necessarily to tell a specific story or make social commentary. I compose in the hope that listeners and performers will find some kind of personal relevance through what they hear in my music; be it a memory, emotion, or perhaps a feeling of the expectant, the key for me is feeling something. I’m so proud to have had my music realized by this wonderful band and hope that the [tour] audiences find joy, serenity, adrenaline and excitement in my vision of Baumgartner’s feat, all whilst enjoying the unique musical experience that is ‘The President’s Own.’”
For Diaz, a Miami native, this duet is the culmination of a 15-year dream come true. “I am absolutely thrilled to be playing a solo with the band on the Southeast tour,” he said. “I saw the Marine Band on tour in Miami in 2001 and from that day forward I knew I wanted to become a Marine Band euphonium player. I am looking forward to seeing and playing for my parents, mentors, and friends who helped guide me to this goal.” One of those mentors is Rodester Brandon, Diaz’s high school band director who has recently retired as dean of music at Miami-Dade College. Brandon signed on to sponsor the band’s Miami performance and is beyond thrilled to see how far Diaz has come. “Mr. Brandon was a huge aspect of my success as a musician,” Diaz said.
Diaz will be joined by McCabe, another first-time tour soloist. She explained the technical and musical pyrotechnics that go into the performance of Ascension: “For a brass player, it’s challenging because of long, sustained phrases accompanied by acrobatic multiple-tonguing and exciting melodies in the upper register. It’s such a fun piece of accessible new music, which I think audiences of all ages can connect with. Playing music out in America’s communities is one of our most important and rewarding jobs as Marine Band musicians.”
Another first-time tour soloist is French horn player Master Gunnery Sgt. Amy Horn, who will perform Gilbert Vinter’s “Hunter’s Moon.” The piece depicts a hunter on horseback under a bright, full moon. During a brief rest, he falls into a deep dream, characterized by a lush, lyrical section. When he wakes, he continues on his quest and the music comes racing to the end. Horn said, “It’s easy to enjoy and showcases the best characteristics of the horn.” She hinted at a possible encore and would only reveal that it would be a collaboration with the rhythm section and “fulfill every hornist’s dream of being a ‘jazzer’!”
Tour soloist veteran and co-principal clarinet Master Gunnery Sgt. Jeffrey Strouf will also showcase his “jazzer” side with Morton Gould’s Derivations, which was composed for Benny Goodman and his dance band in 1955. “I think the audience will like this work because of its jazz influence and the clever counterpoint between the soloist and the different sections in the band,” Strouf said. But he is mostly looking forward to celebrating the 125th anniversary of the band’s first tour with the concertgoers. “I love the music at the end of our tour concerts because the patriotic music that we play always brings the audience to their feet!” he said. “I’m honored to be a part of this historic trip and I am looking forward to sharing our music with the public.”
Mezzo-soprano vocalist and concert moderator Gunnery Sgt. Sara Sheffield has the unique responsibility of not only performing but also being the glue that brings the band and the audience together. She relishes the role, and as a native southerner finds that in this tour region her drawl resurfaces quickly. “I feel more at home in general on this tour,” she said. “I can address the audience as ‘y’all’ and no one finds it strange!” But most of all her favorite part of touring is sharing her love of music while also connecting with the patrons. “As moderator, I love that I can thank them personally for their attendance, thank the veterans in the audience for their service, and for the continuous support of our Marines around the globe.”
She will perform Giacomo Puccini’s famous aria “O mio babbino caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi. “As a mezzo-soprano, I rarely sing works by Puccini, so I am thrilled to have our Music Production Chief Master Gunnery Sgt. Donald Patterson’s new arrangement. We are also working on some big band charts, jazz standards, and Broadway tunes so there is a little something for everyone!”
Complete Tour Itinerary
The Marine Band will hold concerts in southern Maryland, eastern Virginia, eastern North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, southern Alabama, and Florida. See the tour itinerary for dates and locations. All concerts are free, but tickets are recommended. Please note, ticket distribution is managed by the local sponsors and will not begin until approximately one month before each concert. Distribution methods and release dates will vary. For cities using TicketLeap, more information about each concert will be posted the week of July 18. Thank you to all of our wonderful sponsors for hosting us.