Sousa, John Philip (1854-1932) | University of Illinois Archives
John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, DC on November 6, 1854. It was an era of the 5-cent cigar, Saturday evening baths, the horse and buggy, candle-lit parlors and gas-illuminated street lights. During his formative years Sousa witnessed the destructive forces of the Civil War as a child growing up in his nation's Capitol. Later in life he experienced the new-found joys of Ford's automobile and the painful trauma of the War to end all wars.
Sousa joined the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician on June 9, 1868, not even fourteen years old, and remained until 1875. His Portuguese father, a trombonist with the band since 1850, believed if his son was a member of the band he could more readily monitor his son's youthful exploits and mentor his gift for music. Five years after leaving the Marine Band Sousa was asked to return as its director in 1880, a post that he retained until August 1, 1892.
It was under Sousa's leadership that the Marine Band finally gained permission from President Benjamin Harrison to tour beyond the immediate region surrounding Washington, DC (i.e., Richmond, Baltimore and Philadelphia). This first tour performance took place at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre. After meeting David Blakely in Chicago Sousa was convinced that his talents would not be utilized to the fullest with the Marine Band. Sousa signed a contract with Blakely on May 27, 1892 to form and direct a civilian band of his own creation. On July 30, 1892 Sousa received a second honorable discharge from the Marine Band and began establishing what today has become best known as the John Philip Sousa Band by seeking out and engaging the finest nationally and internationally recognized musicians from America and Europe. Among the most celebrated soloists to play with the band were Herbert L. Clarke (cornet), Arthur Pryor (trombone), Simone Mantia (euphonium), Estelle Liebling (soprano) and Maud Powell (violin).
Sousa made annual transcontinential tours with his famous band from 1892 until 1931. In those thirty-nine years the Sousa Band traveled over 700,000 miles and presented over 10,000 concerts in 1,000 cities throughout the world. Between the months of May and October 1893 the Sousa Band, for a repeat performance, furnished the music for the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas in 1492. This engagement solidified Sousa's legacy in the annals of music and band history. During his life time Sousa composed 137 marches, 15 operettas, 5 overtures, 11 suites, 24 dances, 28 fantasies, and 322 arrangements of nineteenth-century western European symphonic works. In addition he wrote numerous reviews, articles on music and music education, and seven books.
Sousa's "The Washington Post" march, written for the Washington Post Amateur Author's Association ceremony held at the Smithsonian Institution on June 15, 1889, became a sensation as the accompaniment to the newly created "two-step" dance. This truly new American dance replaced the popular western-European waltz as the most popular form of entertainment in America and Europe. On Christmas Day 1896 Sousa composed his most recognizable work, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the only march ever declared the national march of the United States. This work was the last piece that Sousa conducted in public before he died in Reading, PA on March 6, 1932.