If you were to mention the names Giuseppe Creatore or Patrick Gilmore to a group of average Americans today, you would probably receive shrugs or blank stares of incomprehension. Say the name John Philip Sousa, however, and almost everyone’s eyes will light up in instant recognition – despite the fact that all three of these gentlemen were renowned band masters in America during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, it is Sousa whose musical mystique, stirring marches and nearly legendary career has stood the test of time and still captivates the hearts and ears of listeners and musicians alike nearly 90 years after his death.

Let’s take a brief look at The March King’s life and career—and see what connection there may be between the great bandmaster and the Charlottesville Municipal Band.

G. Creatore, courtesy of the Boston Public Library
P. Gilmore, courtesy of Our Irish Heritage

Sousa was born November 6, 1854 in Washington, DC, the son of Portuguese and Bavarian immigrants. His father was a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, and young Philip early on was exposed to a constant stream of music. He learned to play a wide variety of instruments and as a youth planned to run away with a traveling circus to play in its band. Sousa’s father, however, quickly put an end to that notion and enrolled Philip in the Marine Band as an apprentice member. Following his apprenticeship, Sousa played in a variety of theater orchestras and local opera companies as a violinist, during which time he furthered his knowledge of musical theory, harmony and conducting. In 1880 the directorship of the Marine Band came open and Sousa was tapped to fill that role. He was 26 years old.

Sousa served as director of the Marine Band for twelve years, during which time he transformed the group from a barely average organization into the highly competent and talented group it remains today. During this time he also composed not only some of his best known marches – Washington PostSemper Fidelis and High School Cadets to name just a few – but also a host of songs, ballads, descriptive pieces and other works that today receive far less performance time than they deserve. A multi-talented man, Sousa also wrote an autobiography, magazine articles, short stories and several novels. He was also an avid trap-shooter and helped organize the first national trapshooting organization in America and is a member of its Hall of Fame for his shooting skills.

John Philip Sousa, courtesy of the US Marine Band
John Philip Sousa, courtesy of the US Marine Band

In 1892 Sousa resigned from the Marine Band and organized his own group, known simply as Sousa’s Band. For the next 39 years this organization would perform over 15,500 concerts all across America and around the world. As a result, the name John Philip Sousa would become a household word throughout the United States and known to countless people the world over. And here we come to Sousa’s Charlottesville connection.

The Sousa Band performed in Charlottesville six times during Sousa’s touring career, first in 1897 and then again in 1898, 1900 and 1908. Each of those appearances consisted of single concerts and all were many years before the Municipal Band was founded. The Sousa Band’s final visit to Charlottesville, however, took place on October 8, 1925 and offered to the town both an afternoon matinee and an evening performance. At this time the Municipal Band had been in existence for three years and was already gaining local renown of its own. In those days it was often the case that Mr. Sousa would be met at the train station by the local town band and kindly requested to lead the group in one of his 140 marches. Charlottesville Kiwanis Club officials, in fact, organized a track-side welcome for Mr. Sousa, and thus, one would expect the Municipal Band to be there on the platform when the 11:57 AM Southern Railway train pulled into the station with Mr. Sousa and his band aboard. But – they weren’t. The Municipal Band’s Board of Directors minutes of October 13, 1925 state the reason why:

Board unanimously approved the action of President Kaufman in declining the services of the Band in a parade of welcome to Lt. John Philip Sousa upon the occasion of his visit to Charlottesville…  The sense of the Board was to the effect that the proponents of the parade had acted hastily in planning such a parade and upon the conviction that such a demonstration would not be welcomed by Lt. Sousa.

So, the Municipal Band lost its one and only chance to claim bragging rights that John Philip Sousa, America’s fabled March King, had once conducted the Municipal Band of Charlottesville.

Courtesy of sousamusic.com

Nevertheless, according to Daily Progress reports, the Sousa Band gave two rousing performances that afternoon and evening in the University of Virginia Memorial Gymnasium with hundreds of enthusiastic townspeople and local school children in attendance. It’s safe to assume that most, if not all, the members of the Municipal Band were present in the audience at one or both performances. It was reported that at its evening concert the Sousa Band played as one of its encores The Stars and Stripes Forever, a piece Sousa actually rarely used as an encore. Charlottesville was highly privileged that evening—and highly entertained.

John Philip Sousa died on March 6, 1932 at the age of 77. He is buried in Washington, DC’s Congressional Cemetery. For many years the Municipal Band has played a Sousa march on most of its concerts, both to honor Sousa’s memory and for the pleasure of playing and performing his fine music. This is a tradition that doubtless will continue for as long as there is a Charlottesville Municipal Band!