The United States Marine Band is truly what Thomas Jefferson called it, “The President’s Own.”
President George W. Bush took that literally when he once surprised the 2,600 guests at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner by conducting the Marine Band in a medley of patriotic compositions, and although sometimes missing the beat, receiving a standing ovation for his leadership ability in that area.
The band has played at almost every presidential Inauguration and State Dinner since its White House debut on New Year’s Day, 1801. It played when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, at Grover Cleveland’s White House wedding and at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Ronald Reagan once called the Marine Band “a national institution and a national treasure.”
The primary purpose of America’s oldest professional music group is to provide music and pageantry for the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps. “Given our mission, we work for whoever is in the office,” says clarinetist and Colonel Jason Fettig, Director of the band. But this being a democratic country, the rest of us get to share the privilege. “The band performs in many different capacities,” says Fettig, “and is enjoyed by many different audiences.”
The band gives some 500 public and official performances each year — the concert on the U.S. Capitol grounds, a tradition started by President Martin Van Buren more than 160 years ago, is perhaps the best-known.
“The President’s Own” plays at the White House for more than 300 occasions each year – though it may assume different forms. A half-dozen ensembles – ranging from a solo violinist in the East Room to all 143 musicians together – may play at any given State Dinner. Typically, strolling string players perform during dinner, a dance band plays after dinner and another group may play patriotic music. When the string orchestra plays, it’s always in the grand foyer. Musical styles range from patriotic band selections to pieces written for smaller chamber groups.
“It’s most exciting when we go to the White House to lend entertainment or atmosphere for guests,” says Fettig. “It’s also awe-inspiring to be on the balcony playing a concert for guests on the South Lawn.”
Fettig says musicians must be able to adapt to almost any musical situation or style. Some functions call for a solo from the band’s harpist, for instance; others, a full concert. “We’re one large band, and from that, we can supply a chamber orchestra, a jazz band, a dance band for a state dinner, various chamber ensembles and a country music ensemble,” he says. “It is a challenge to find such versatility.”
As in the past, most of today’s band members attended prestigious music schools. The first woman enlisted in the Marine Band in 1973. Band members are selected at highly competitive auditions, then enlist in the Marine Corps for duty solely with the Marine Band. They’ve got some famous shoes to fill, after all. During his dozen years with the band, beginning in 1880, bandmaster and composer John Phillip Sousa brought “The President’s Own” to its standard of excellence; in 1891 he initiated the band’s annual concert tour throughout the country. The band still marches frequently in the footsteps of its famous former director.
And although President Bush made a splash with his conducting debut, he wasn’t offered a post-White House position leading America’s oldest professional musical group who for many years have offered free weekly concerts at the marine barracks in SE DC.
Breaking tradition for President Joe Biden’s Inauguration, the band members wore black masks between songs and were distanced over a larger, 90-foot platform and separated from one other by clear protective shields. But in keeping with tradition and the uplifting energy, John Philip Sousa’s marches were a prominent part of the Inaugural program. The band played “Hail to the Chief,” the traditional salute to the president, then proudly accompanied Lady Gaga with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And the show goes on.