John Philip Sousa; The Day the Band Began to Play

When the John Philip Sousa Band stepped onto the stage for the first time, it had been two months since the U.S. Marines honorably discharged him.

That was on September 26, 1892, in Plainfield, New Jersey. They would go on to tour until 1931, playing some 15,000 concerts.

Long before kings of rock and pop, there was John Philip Sousa, the march king. For people in the early 20th century, marching music was a real toe-tapper. Sousa was the best.

One can feel the lasting power of Sousa’s influence by attending a military ceremony. The Super Bowl is where one turns to hear the pop hits, but military bands prefer to rock Sousa’s greatest works.

John Philip Sousa remains one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, not bad for a child born from immigrants. This is his story.

Growing Up Sousa

Sousa’s parents |

John Antonio Sousa, Sousa’s dad, was a Spaniard by birth, born to Portuguese parents. John Philip Sousa’s mom was Marie Elizabeth Trinkaus, a Bavarian immigrant.

The pair gave birth to their third child, John Philip, in Washington, D.C. on November 6, 1854. For the record, they would have ten children in the long run.

John Antonio was a musician and a Marine, two factors which would influence young John Philip. The boy started studying music at age six under two reputable names in music, John Esputa, and George Felix Benkert.

John Philip started with a couple of instruments… (big inhale), voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone, and the alto horn.

By age thirteen, in 1868, young Sousa was an apprentice in the Marines. Three years later he would compose his first march, breaking the seal on what would become his life’s work.

In 1880, at age 26, John Philip Sousa assumed leadership of the U.S. Marine band, a role he would retain for 12 years.

Rise to Fame

In 1874, the Marines honorably discharged Sousa. He took a job as the conductor of the Washington D.C. Opera House, where he stayed until 1877.

Souza bounced around playing in famous orchestras, directing, and building his reputation until in 1880, the U.S. Marines took Sousa back into the family as the conductor of the U.S. Marine Band, “The President’s Own.”

Sousa served in that role under five presidents, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison, ending in 1892.

During his tenure in that role, Sousa composed his first opera, and the march called “The Washington Post March.” That was the composition which would bring his first taste of world fame. Like any grassroots ban,  he built his reputation show by show, touring the Marine band throughout the U.S.

In July of 1892 the Marines honorably discharged Sousa again. Two months later, the John Philip Sousa band rocked Plainfield, New Jersey like only a marching band could rock.


The world lost Sousa in 1932, but he remains the march king to this day. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is the official march of the United States. His march “Semper Fidelis,’ composed in 1888 and dedicated to the U.S. Marine corps, remains their official march.

Several schools still play Sousa’s compositions at every ceremony. Those songs are the official marches of five Universities, the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, and Marquette University.

While many bands try to emulate the sounds of the John Philip Sousa Band, there is only one New John Philip Sousa Band, started in 1979 by director Keith Brion.

His intention was to gather the best talent, those who could best emulate Sousa’s sound, forming a band who would tour the same as the original band. They are the only tribute band endorsed by John Philip Sousa, Inc., and they do in fact tour internationally.

Sousa’s Band toured beyond the United States, three times throughout Europe between 1900 and 1905.

He ended up back in the service of the United States when, in 1917, the U.S. entered The Great War. This time Souza joined the U.S. Navy. He was 62 years old, a little mature for trench warfare, but young enough to inspire troops with snappy marching tunes.

John Sousa continued to rock crowds with his band until he passed at age 77 on March 6th. His last composition was “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”