Sousa Still Leads the Band! The Iconic Sousa Baton, a Symbol of Musical Greatness

Mike Lawson • • October 5, 2017

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Within every military service music organization are rich military traditions frequently seen in symbolic artifacts.

July 29 marked the 125th Anniversary of the presentation of a highly symbolic Marine Band conductor’s baton to “March King” John Philip Sousa. The presentation was at Sousa’s final concert with the Marine Band as its 17th conductor. The musicians in the band had been so inspired under Sousa’s 12- years of direction that they had this gold-tipped baton made as a parting gift. Since 1972 this baton has been used at the formal Change of Command ceremonies for each new Marine Band director. This last Change of Command presentation took place on July 12, 2014 when Col. Michael J, Colburn retired from the Corps and as band director. Col. Colburn presented the Sousa Baton to the current director, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig at the Marine Band Barracks.

John Philip Sousa was born a few blocks from the Marine Band barracks, fathered by Antonio Sousa, a Marine Band musician. John Philip planned to join a circus band but was blocked when his father enlisted him as an apprentice musician to the Marine Band. Although the enlistment was only for six months, he remained an apprentice for the next seven years. After his discharge he composed, traveled with various bands and performed until being offered the Marine Band directorship in 1880.

One of Sousa’s most enduring contributions to the Marine Band was the development of a national tour. He had already taken the band to not too distant locations from Washington D.C., including Baltimore and Philadelphia, but his requests for more distant destinations were repeatedly denied. Reasons given were the band’s primary mission of musical support of the President and the White House and the band director’s responsibilities as a musical advisor to the President and his administration. Sousa’s account of how the national tour became reality is: “My years in Washington had taught me that if you wanted to see the President, you saw his wife first! So, I asked to see Mrs. Harrison.

She liked the idea (of a tour) and said she would speak to the President. The next morning, I was summoned by the President, who commented, ‘Mrs. Harrison tells me that you are anxious to take the Marine Band on tour, and even though I was thinking of taking my own tour, l believe the country would rather hear you than see me! Permission is thereby granted.’

“The 1891 tour involved 32 cities across New England and the Midwest, setting the pattern of regional tours that is still followed today. Each stop included two performances, matinee and evening concerts with totally different musical programs. The 1892 tour took the band to the Pacific Coast and 37 towns. It was during this tour that Sousa came under pressure by both followers, his manager and booking agents to leave the Corps and establish his own traveling concert band. He eventually gave in and at a Marine Band concert in Chicago announced his intention to retire. Sousa’s departure from the Marine Band in 1892, while on the band’s second tour was not at all a retirement however, but rather seizing the opportunity to capitalize on the fame he had gained over his twelve years while directing the Marine Band. At a concert in the Washington D.C. National Theater, 1st cornetist Walter Smith presented Sousa with a gift from the band’s musicians, a 17 1/8-inch baton, with silver lining and topped with a gold Marine Corps emblem, an eagle, globe and anchor.

The gold collar is inscribed, “John Philip Sousa — Presented by the members of the U.S. Marine Band, as a token of their respect and esteem, July 29, 1892.” The baton had remained in the Sousa family until 1953 when Sousa’s two daughters presented it to the then band’s director, Lt. Col. William F. Santelmann. Santelmann came up with the idea that the Sousa Baton be established as the symbol of the Directorship of the Marine Band. Sousa’s acceptance remarks after receiving this baton show his high regard for his Marine Band life’s experience, its members and for music. His comment to the audience after the presentation was, “If I have accomplished anything for the good of music in the last twelve years, I will not spoil it now with a speech!”

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