Washington, DC --
There is no item in the Marine Band’s archives that is more unique, treasured, symbolic, and slightly shrouded in mystery than the revered Sousa baton. July 29 marks the 125th anniversary of the day Marine Band musicians presented 17th Director and “March King” John Philip Sousa with the gold tipped baton on the occasion of his final concert with “The President’s Own.” The baton is now used in Marine Band change of command ceremonies when the retiring Director passes the baton to the newly appointed Director, as most recently as July 12, 2014, when 28th Director Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig accepted the baton from Col. Michael J. Colburn, USMC (ret.).
Sousa accepted the baton under very different circumstances. By 1892 Sousa’s star was on the rise as he completed his second national concert tour with the Marine Band, after receiving permission directly from President Benjamin Harrison. The band and its Director were received by large and enthusiastic audiences as they performed night after night in communities across the country. The popularity of Sousa’s compositions was adding to his rising fame and that’s when opportunity knocked. David Blakely, a music manager, approached Sousa on several occasions and suggested he leave the Marine Corps and start his own band. Sousa demurred until the spring of 1892 when he decided to give the idea some serious thought. The band was on tour in Chicago at the time and word travelled quickly about Blakely’s proposition. Sousa wrote in his autobiography, “Marching Along,” “The next morning, before any reply had been given to the offer, the Associated Press carried a story that I was going to leave Washington and organize a concert band in Chicago. Within a week I received hundreds of letters, some congratulating me, others hoping that I would not leave Washington.” On April 19, 1892, the Washington Post published an article with the headline, “Want to Keep Sousa, Washingtonians Amazed at the Presumption of Chicago, Fear He Will Accept the Bid.”
Undeterred, Sousa finally accepted Blakely’s offer to manage Sousa’s own band and requested his release from the Marine Corps. The New York Times reported on Aug. 1, 1892, that Commandant of the Marine Corps Col. Charles Heywood granted Sousa’s discharge, but did so with “extreme regret.” The article quotes Col. Heywood as telling Sousa, “Your management of the band ever since your connection with it has been most satisfactory to every one and you leave it with the good will and plaudits of all. I trust your future career may be as brilliant as your past.”
Sousa gave his farewell performances with the Marine Band on July 29 at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., and July 30 on the south lawn of the White House with President Harrison in attendance. At the July 29 performance Walter Smith, the first cornetist, presented Sousa with a gift from the musicians: a 17 1/8-inch wooden baton, partially lined with silver and topped with a gold Marine Corps emblem, the eagle, globe, and anchor. The inscription reads: “John Philip Sousa—Presented by the members of the U.S. Marine Band as a token of their respect and esteem, July 29, 1892.” Sousa went on to conduct his brand new march, “The Belle of Chicago,” and then turned to the audience and said, “If I have accomplished anything for the good of music in the last 12 years, I will not spoil it now with a speech.”
The baton remained in the Sousa family’s possession until 1953 when his daughters Jane Sousa and Helen Sousa Abert personally delivered it to then-Director Lt. Col. William F. Santelmann who was struck with inspiration. According to a Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Division of Public Information press release, “Colonel Santelmann is giving serious consideration to the thought that the baton might well be passed on from leader to leader as a symbol of his office.” Since 1972, the baton has been used in every change of command ceremony to symbolize the Directorate of the Marine Band with the baton of the March King.