Pershing to President, America’s Military Bands, Part I: History and Organization: An Overview of Bands, Orchestras and Ensembles in our Military Service, Career and Education Opportunities

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • September 8, 2017

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Fourth of July concerts brought out every level of U.S. military band and orchestra all across the nation.

Previous SBO articles have mentioned the historical impact that military bands and music have had on today’s school, university, community bands and orchestras, as well as many special musical events and organizations. This article will present the current military music organizations and address their role and importance in the overall music scene. 

While military bands receive much of the attention, due in large part to their long history and origins, all services have orchestras and many other ensembles as well. Most have a variety of smaller groups formed out of the larger marching, concert, and symphonic band organization. These include jazz, calypso, herald trumpets, rock, country, fife and drum corps, and choral groups. 

Where did all this begin? One of the strongest images of the American Revolution is the painting Spirit of ‘76 portraying a single fife and two drums leading the Revolutionary Army into battle. The fife player, with bloodied headband, is apparently a wounded soldier. The drummers, an older man and a boy, are clearly civilians whose patriotism brought them to the fore on the battlefield. 

Going back even further, the Bible tells us of Joshua’s trumpet choir “bringing down the walls of Jericho!” It is perhaps the most graphic of many Biblical mentions of the role of music in the military environment and mission. 

Each service has its premier band and other active duty musical organizations, as well as unit level, reserve and national guard bands. In all services, the same rigorous readiness standards of standard combat units must be met and maintained as well as the necessary rehearsal time to be ready to perform at a moments’ notice. The usual musical duties include ceremonial, funeral, and community concert appearances with an eye towards encouraging enlistments in their particular service 

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) and Department of Defense are currently evaluating meaningful measurable that can, and should be, applied to military music organizations. This issue will be dealt with next month in Part II of the Military Bands topic. Each military service is organized in a somewhat different fashion. These service bands will be described in the order of their founding. 

Marine Corps 

The United States Marine Band, the “President’s Own,” perhaps is the poster group of the service bands. The oldest service band, it was established by an act of Congress in 1798 and made its first White House appearance in the then unfinished Executive Mansion early in 1801! It has played for every Presidential Inauguration since Thomas Jefferson that same year. This band introduced “Hail to the Chief” for President Jackson in 1829, was at Gettysburg when Lincoln delivered his famous address, was directed by John Philip Sousa and led President Kennedy’s funeral procession. With its bright red dress uniforms, it truly represents the United States and its core values. A history of this band is the history of America! 

The Marine Chamber Orchestra came into being with band members who doubled on strings. It was not until 1955 that a standalone chamber orchestra was formed. Continuing the “President’s Own” mission, this orchestra has performed 200 times each year at the White House. 

Other Marine musical units include “The Commandant’s Own” the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. 


The Navy Band traces its history back to two shipboard Marines (a department of the Navy), a fife and drummer, in 1798. In 1826, the first Master of the Band and a single additional bandsman became the band, which continued to mean fife and drum. 

After the Naval Academy was established in 1845, the United States Naval Academy Band became the Navy’s premier band. The concert and ceremonial band formats are joined by ten different chamber ensembles and also the Cruisers with contemporary repertoire and Country Current country/bluegrass groups. 


Although the army is our oldest military service, the Army Band didn’t come into existence until 1922 under then-Army-Chief-of-Staff Gen. “Black-Jack” Pershing. Pershing had seen, heard and was impressed by various European military bands during his tour of duty in WW I. Over its first decade, the Army Band became popular by broadcasting over the relatively new media of radio. The band also toured extensively setting the pattern for all of today’s military bands. 

The U.S. Army “Pershing’s Own” Band, the service’s premier band, also offers the Army Blues big band jazz, the Army Strings quartet, Herald Trumpets and popular music Downrange group. 

Air Force 

The Air Force Band, a symphonic band ensemble based in Maryland, is the largest premier musical organization of any military service, with 177 members. Their nickname, America’s International Musical Ambassadors, describes their function and value to the country and our Air Force. Like the other military services, the concert band and ceremonial brass are the most widely known, but they are supplemented with other ensembles including the Air Force Strings and the Strolling Strings, a group of 22 musicians. The Strings typically perform at official functions as both entertainment and/or ambient music. The Air Force was the first military service to organize a string ensemble. 

Another Air Force ensemble is the Airmen of Note jazz band, formed in 1950 to continue the tradition of the WW II Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Additional formats include Max Impact a percussion backed rock group and the Singing Sergeants choral group. The overall Air Force musical function is carried out by ten active duty domestic, four active duty international and eleven Air National Guard bands. 

The most unique convergence of a military music organization and a public high school music program is the Miami Beach Senior High Drum Corps which is the only Civil Air Patrol (the CAP is a USAF official auxiliary) drum corps in the nation. Another unique CAP military music group, currently reorganizing, was a Maryland Wing Concert Band with both concert and swing band formats. 

Coast Guard 

The Coast Guard Band may be the least known of the service bands. Based at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut they actually began in 1925 with the assistance of the United States Navy Band director, the New York Philharmonic conductor and John Philip Sousa. It wasn’t until 1965 that they became the official musical representative of their service. Today they are also the official band of the Department of Homeland Security. This fifty-five member Coast Guard Band has represented the United States on concert tours to Russia, Japan and Taiwan. 

What do these military musical organizations offer to school and university music programs and the student musician? A professional music career for those who want to pursue the military for patriotic reasons or as a career with benefits and retirement as well as assistance with higher education costs. 

Military bands also offer many resources to school and university music education programs. One example is the Marine Band library, offering downloadable resources to educational organizations. Each service band’s website includes a variety of free resources for the music educator. 

What all the service’s premier bands have in common is that they frequently appear at the music education workshops, conferences and conventions including the ABA, various state music education associations and their halls of fame, the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic combined with performances at many universities and high schools across the country. 

Marine Band Director Col. Jason Fettig, then assistant director, expanded the band’s educational outreach establishing the Young People’s Concert initiative, an annual event with an original concert, program and script. In 2008 the Marine 

Band also initiated the Concerto Competition for High School Musicians, which awards scholarships and a performance with the Marine Band. The 2018 competition has all application information including a list of required compositions for each instrument and deadlines (November 15, 2017) at educational. 

The Army Band music outreach programs offer Skype sessions, traveling clinic teams and STEAM, a unique program directed at how science and math create music, as well as hosting annual workshops. 

It is important to note that military musical organizations are military units. In time of conflict they have defined responsibilities and readiness training requirements like all other military units. A 1943 US Army School of Music memorandum defined the “Duties of Military Bands During Combat” as to “participate in and furnish music at military formations, and for the command and perform suitable combat duties for the unit to which the band is attached.” These combat duties are then listed and include various forms of security of headquarters locations against ground and air attack, assistance with logistics and supply missions, and providing assistance to medical units. Specifically stated, “all bandsmen must be thoroughly trained in the employment of the weapons with which they are armed!” 

As a former member of a national guard infantry division band, we were required to meet all infantry training requirements and exercises in addition to the musical needs of rehearsals and performances. These requirements included proficiency with our weapons and participation in field exercises and other readiness activities. 

Perhaps the intangible but very real importance of military musical performances at war comes from a famous film. One of the most memorable scenes from the movie “The Longest Day,” is the true story of the lone unarmed kilt-clad Scottish bagpiper leading his unit across Sword Beach on the Normandy D-Day landing with shell bursts all around him and men being hit. This same piper later led the survivors of his significantly decimated unit, the 1st Special Service Brigade (Commandos), across Pegasus Bridge, a key bridge allowing the Allies to move inland from the beachhead. This visually epitomizes the historic role of military music. “Piper Bill” Millin was a relative of my recently deceased best friend, Tom Millin of Atlanta. RIP Tom! 

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