Understandably, Sousa soon chose to leave military life behind. At the age of twenty, he was honorably discharged from the service and the Marine Corps band. His days, however, were still filled with music. Now an accomplished violinist, Sousa taught privately during the day and in the evenings played in two orchestras—one at Ford Theater and one at the Washington Theater Comique where he eventually became the conductor.
Sousa thrived on music working as an arranger, conductor, and composer establishing his professional brilliance and in 1880, the U.S. Marine Band contacted Sousa asking him to be their new leader when Louis Schneider resigned. Things got a little crazy as Sousa was unable to get out of his professional contracts in Philadelphia. Everyone was happy, however, when his father, Antonio, finally accepted the position by proxy on his son’s behalf. On October 1st, Sousa, now sporting his famous beard, became the fourteenth and first American born, leader of the U.S. Marine Band.
It was no easy job. The forty member Marine Band’s repertoire left much to be desired. Also known, as ‘The President’s Own Band’, they were the only group of musicians that played at the White House. Their lackluster music, however, was outdated and the instruments themselves not up to Sousa’s high standards. He demanded much from his men, strictly running rehearsals, which caused many of the less serious musicians to drop out.
With their numbers dwindling, Sousa personally recruited new band members to replace them. He took in only those he knew and trusted. In between his official duties, he even penned six lively new marches for the band to play. Single-handedly, Sousa turned his Marines into sharp looking, professional sounding musicians. Making their debut at a White House reception on New Year’s Day in 1881, the refurbished U.S. Marine Band led by John Philip Sousa had more than just a new leader. They had a new sound and stepped into a new era.
Sousa himself has gone down in history as a remarkable American who wrote remarkable music. Affectionately known as The March King, he will forever be linked with the rich sounds of America. A true patriot who believed in his country, he gladly took on the role of musical ambassador around the globe bringing a taste of America wherever he went. Respected worldwide for his talent and personal commitment to music, Sousa not only raised the standard of American music, but also truly became a superstar before the word even existed
Sousa left behind a musical legacy of 15 operettas, 136 marches, 11 suites, 2 descriptive pieces, 70 songs, 7 other vocal works, 11 waltzes, 13 dances, 14 humoresques, 28 fantasies, 6 incidental music to stage productions, 5 overtures, 2 concert pieces, 4 instrumental solos, 12 trumpet and drum pieces, and 322 arrangements and transcriptions. He also left us his words with 7 books, 27 letters to the editor and 138 magazine and newspaper articles, many of which were written on topics other than music.
“If, out of the cadences of Time, I have evoked one note that clear and true, vibrates gratefully on the heartstrings of my public—I am well content.” John Philip Sousa has done way more than that. Even now, his music inspires us. In it we still find comfort, courage and strength. Thanks to him when we hear those high-stepping sounds we remember with pride and dignity exactly who we are.