The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine Bands

Mike Lawson • • August 30, 2018

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Many musicians know John Philip Sousa composed the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine March, but few people know about the Shrine Bands raising money for the Shriners Hospitals for children.

There are 22 Shriners Hospitals who treat children, regardless of their ability to pay for that care. This includes the four Shriners Burns Hospitals, which are world famous for their groundbreaking work in treating burned children. Every time people see a parade with all the many different Shrine units pass by, from the Shriners riding tiny little motorcycles, to the mounted patrols on horses, they are raising money to operate those hospitals. Among those colorful and fun units, are several different bands and musical groups. If the mind can conceive something musically, the Shriners can make it into a Shrine unit, and put it in their parades, either marching or riding. Some of the many types of musical groups they have range from four or five members to over a hundred.

Shrine musical units vary from Shrine to Shrine, but often have a Dixieland Band, Steel Drum Unit, Pipes and Drum Unit, String Band, Hillbilly Band, Clown Band, Calliope Band, and Chanters (a singing unit). The most common is what they traditionally call a brass band, which is often not a brass band, at all. It can contain a full compliment of woodwinds, but the name lingers on, from an earlier day. But make no mistake, they can play. Their ability level ranges anywhere from professionals in the musicians union and music teachers to former high school and college band members. They might march, or today, usually ride a special-made “rolling bandstand.”

The first Shrine Band was thought to be the Lu Lu Shrine Band of Philadelphia, whose 90 members made their presence known as they marched in a procession on October 2, 1889 in Washington, D.C. The Lu Lu Shriners were chartered on June 4, 1884 and were the sixteenth Shrine to be chartered.

Another very old continuously operating Shrine Band is the Rajah Shrine Band of Reading, Pennsylvania, who has held pops concerts for the last 40 years and was chartered in 1896.

The Sphinx Shrine Band of Newington, Connetticut, which was formed in 1899, is also among the first Shrine Bands. Many Shrines have an Oriental Band. One example is Kosair Shrine in Louisville, Kentucky, whose Oriental Band was started in 1919, and will celebrate their one-hundredth birthday next year.

These 30 men dress-up in colorful and elaborate Arabian costumes and play musettes, horns, drums, tambourines, cymbals, and gongs. Many Oriental Bands march in formations, swing scimitars and wave large fans. The Shrine’s Oriental Bands always have a lot of fun and put on a great show.

The Pote’s Troubadours is a smaller unit, which might consist of a handful of Shrine musicians riding on a special truck, playing some fun dance music. The instrumentation varies, but might consist of drums, keyboard, electric guitars, trumpet and saxophone. Everyone who is a Shriner in the parade wears a red fez, which is a distinctive type of hat with a long black tassel hanging from it.

The Shriners International, or as they were officially known “The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” (which helps explain the fez), were founded in 1872 in New York by five men who set out to form a new fraternity, which would emphasize fun and fellowship.

They decided it might be fun to have it centered around an Arabian theme and applied that to every aspect of the new organization. They would use Arabic terms and Arabic names. Their leader would be called a potentate (hence, Pote’s Troubadours). These men, who were all Freemasons, decided to limit membership to those men who have advanced degrees in either Scottish Rite or York Rite Masonry, which is no longer the case. Today the only requirement to be a Shriner is to complete the first three degrees in Masonry.

John Philip Sousa and many other famous American bandmasters did just that. Sousa petitioned Hiram Masonic Lodge #10 in Washington, D.C. and was raised a Master Mason in November 1881. He became a Shriner on April 21, 1922, in the Almas Shrine, also in Washington. Karl King (1891-1971) was a Shriner in Za-Ga-Zig Shrine in Altoona, Iowa. Fred Jewell (1875-1936) was in the Murat Shrine in Indianapolis. Eugene LaBarre (1888-1956), soloist with Sousa and Pryor, was Shriner with Moslem Shrine Band in Detroit. Merle Evans was an honorary member of 28 Shrine clubs. Henry Fillmore (1881-1956) was in the Syrian Shrine in Cincinnati, as was Herman Bellstedt (1858-1926). Frank Simon (1889-1967), assistant conductor and solo cornetist with Sousa, was in the Antioch Shrine Bandin Dayton, Ohio.

Simon conducted The Dayton Antioch Temple Shrine Band from 1922 to 1928. This Shrine Band holds the distinction of having three members of Sousa’s Band as past conductors. Paul G. Blagg played cornet in the Sousa Band and conducted the Dayton Antioch Shrine Band twice, from 1935 to 1952. He was followed by another Sousa Band veteran, clarinetist Don Bassett (1892-1974), who conducted the band from 1953 to 1962. Blagg again returned and led the band from 1963 to 1969.

The Antioch Shrine Band has many distinctions and connections with the Sousa Band. Sousa Band clarinet player Joseph Franklin Saum (1889-1957) played clarinet in the Dayton Antioch Shrine Band after he performed with Sousa.

His nephew, Ralph C. Saum, whom he taught, holds the record for the longest continuous membership in the Antioch Shrine Band. Ralph started playing in the band on May 12, 1944 and is still active. Ralph, along with his twin brother, John, their father, Howard (1898-1983), and uncle Joseph, all played in the Antioch Shrine Band at the same time. Ralph Saum also serves as assistant conductor and concertmaster for the band. Long service to the Shrine music is not unique. Antioch Shrine band member Kenny Lipps has been playing the bass drum for over 48 years.

To many Shrine Band members, their service with the band is a labor of love. The current conductor of the Antioch Band is Ed Molen, who holds the record for the longest service as conductor. Molen, who is also a Past Potentate of the Antioch Shrine, has led the band from 1990 to 1992 and from 1993 to 2012. He came back to conduct the band from 2014 to the present, for a total of 25 years.

John Philip Sousa was made an honorary conductor of the Almas Shrine Band of Washington, D.C. This band would later be led by Kenneth Burton Slater (1917-2005). Slater came from a musical family. His father played euphonium in Arthur Pryor’s Band. Kenneth, a member of Naval Masonic Lodge #4, graduated from the New York Military Academy and played in the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band from 1937 to 1947. From there, he played ten years in the newly formed U. S. Army Field Band at Fort Meade. During the 1950’s, he conducted the Almas Shrine Band and won the National Shrine Band competition in 1955. Alexander Robert Varela (1880-1933), Sousa’s nephew through his sister Catherine (1850-1939), was a member of Washington Centennial Masonic Lodge #14, in the District of Columbia, and worked in the banking industry. Varela, who had only been a Noble since October 14, 1921, was the first-line signer of Sousa’s petition to Almas Shrine and asked his uncle to compose this march for the Shriners.

Sousa chose to introduce his Nobles of the Mystic Shrine March during their international meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C. in June 1923, part of which was held at Griffith Stadium. All of the Shrine Bands in attendance assembled in one massive unit on the grounds and formed the largest band Sousa had, or ever would, conduct in his long and interesting life. Sousa conducted the 6,200 Shrine band members from an elevated platform festooned with bunting, located on the field near where second base would have been. Sousa appeared on the field to thunderous applause at 9:30 am, wearing a trim navy- blue uniform and a size seven and one fourth, red, Almas Shrine Fez.

At five minutes after ten o’clock, Sousa lifted his baton and thousands of Shriners in the bleachers and the musicians on the field played and heard the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine March for the first time. The Shriners went wild with enthusiasm and loved their new march and the man who composed it. Their thunderous approval prompted Sousa to have the bands play it again; which they did.

The audience wanted more, so Sousa conducted The Thunderer, which was thought to have some Masonic connection, after which he repeated it, too. Sousa conducted this march, his new march, and exercised his spectacular control over this massed band without even one rehearsal! After the second time through The Thunderer, Sousa turned the baton over to William C. White, conductor of the Almas Shrine Band, who conducted America and The Star-Spangled Banner. It should be no surprise, after Sousa became a Shriner and wrote this challenging and interesting march, about half the Sousa Band also became Shriners. Sousa was pleased with the march and would use it repeatedly on every tour until his death.

There are Shrines in every state and several foreign countries. Many of them have musical units whose presence at parades and Shrine Circuses raise the necessary funds to allow the Shriners Hospitals for Children to continue to treat children, regardless of their ability to pay. No wonder the Shriners are referred to as Noble.

Major Patrick W. Dugan is a Shriner and past conductor of the Dayton Antioch Shrine Band. He conducted the massed bands in The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine March and The Thunderer at the 139th Imperial Session, International Council of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, at the Indianapolis Convention Center before a crowd of about 6,000 Shriners on July 3, 2013, commemorating the 90th anniversary of John Philip Sousa conducting the same event in 1923, where he first introduced The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine March.

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