Childhood & Early Life
John Philip Sousa was born in Washington D.C. on November 6, 1854, to John Antonio Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus. His father was a Portuguese and his mother a Bavarian. John was the third of the ten children of his parents.
His father played the trombone in the U.S. Marine Band and consequently, young John grew up in an environment of military band music.
During his childhood, he attended several public schools in Washington and from the tender age of six also enrolled at a private conservatory, where he studied music for four years.
It was during this time that he became familiar with vocal music and also learned to play a number of instruments like the violin, flute, piano, baritone, cornet, alto horn, and trombone, often receiving instruction from his father too. His extraordinary talent was noticeable even at that age.
From the age of ten, he began attending the rehearsals of the ‘Marine Band’ along with his father. The Civil War had transformed Washington into an army camp and he was deeply influenced by the sights and sounds of war, including the music of military bands.
At the age of 13, he almost joined a visiting circus as a musician, however, his plans were foiled by his astute father who procured him instead, an apprenticeship in the same Marine Corps Band that he served.
The turn of events proved to be fortunate; John Sousa sharpened his music skills in the ‘President's Own’ as the band was called. At the age of 16, he composed ‘Salutation’, his very first march. Except for a brief interlude of six months, John remained in the band until the age of 20.
Besides the music training that he received during his apprenticeship with the band, he was taught music theory and composition by George Felix Benkert, a reputed orchestra leader and music teacher in Washington. ‘Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes’, at the age of 18 was his first published composition.
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In 1875, at the age of 21, John Philip Sousa took his discharge from the Marines and began his musical career as a civilian, performing with the violin, touring and going on to conduct theater orchestras.
In 1890, he, however, rejoined the U.S. Marine Band, this time as its head, a position he would occupy for the next 12 years during which, he led the band under no less than five presidents.
Under Sousa’s leadership, the Marine Band became nationally famous and was considered to be the best military band in the country. During this time, Sousa composed some of his most celebrated marches, including ‘The Thunderer’, ‘The Washington Post’, and ‘Semper Fidelis’ that remain popular even today.
The Marine Band recorded its very first recordings with the Columbia Phonograph Company. The company released 60 cylinders of recordings in the autumn of 1890. The tours in 1891 and 1892 also helped considerably to popularize military music.
After the conclusion of the 1892 tour, Sousa was persuaded by David Blakely, a promoter, to resign from the Marine Band and form his own civilian concert band; ‘Sousa's New Marine Band’. On July 30, 1892, he conducted a farewell concert before the president at the White House and took his discharge the very next day.
The new band had its first performance on September 26, 1892, in Plainfield, New Jersey, however, bowing to criticism, Sousa dropped ‘New Marine’ from the band’s name.
In 1896, Sousa commenced writing ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, his most famous composition, while returning home from a vacation cut short rudely due to David Blakely’s death.
During the period, 1892–1931, the ‘Sousa Band’ became the most popular American band. It played military music at 15,623 concerts in their extensive tours around the U.S., Great Britain, Europe, and the Canary Islands.
On May 31, 1917, after the U.S. entered the World War I, Sousa entered military service as a lieutenant in the ‘United States Naval Reserve’. He performed at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago leading the ‘Navy Band’.
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In November 1918, with the war having ended, Sousa was discharged from active duty and he resumed conducting his own band. During this time, he became a strong advocate of music education for children. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in the ‘Naval Reserve’ in early 1920, however, he never returned to active duty.
His last public appearance with the Marine Band was in 1932 in Washington when as a distinguished guest of the ‘Carabao Wallow’, he took the baton from the director of the band and led it in a rousing performance of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’.
Personal Life & Legacy
John Philip Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis on December 30, 1879; the couple had three children; John Philip, Jane Priscilla, and Helen.
On March 6, 1932, at the age of 77, John Philip Sousa died of heart failure in Reading, Pennsylvania. Just the day before, he had led the ‘Ringgold Band’ in a rehearsal of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’. He was buried in the ‘Congressional Cemetery’, Washington, D.C. in his family plot.
The Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge across the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. was dedicated to the memory of John Philip Sousa on December 9, 1939.
The John Philip Sousa House in Hicks Lane, Sands Point, New York, also known as ‘Wild Bank’ was declared a ‘National Historic Landmark’ in 1966 though it remains a private residence and is not open to the public.
'SS John Philip Sousa’, World War II Liberty ship was named after him.
'Hollywood Walk of Fame’ star was dedicated in his name at 1500 Vine Street.
He was inducted into the ‘Hall of Fame for Great Americans’ in 1976.