John Philip Sousa, nicknamed “The March King” for his proficiency as a composer of that genre, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1854. Besides being known for his energetic marches, he was also a conductor and band leader.
Sousa began studies on the violin and in music theory and composition at age six. At 13, he was enlisted by his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, as an apprentice in the United States Marine Corps. This move was designed to keep Sousa from joining a circus band, and it worked.
Sousa spent the seven years of his apprenticeship learning every wind instrument he could. When it concluded, he joined the pit orchestra of a theater and used the opportunity to learn conducting. He did return to the Marine Band, however, as its conductor in 1880 and continued in that post until 1892. During this time he wrote some of his best known marches including “The Gladiator March,” “Semper Fidelis,” “The Washington Post,” and “The Thunderer.” “Semper Fidelis” is the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps.
When Sousa left the Marine Band, he started his own band—the Sousa Band—which toured until 1931 and played 15,623 performances. During this time, he wrote more of the marches he is known for, including “The Liberty Bell,” “Manhattan Beach March,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “El Capitan,” “Fairest of the Fair,” and “U.S. Field Artillery.” The last march mentioned, in a modified version is known as “The Army Goes Rolling Along” is the U.S. Army’s official song.
It was during this period that Sousa had the idea for the instrument that came to be called the Sousaphone. He wanted an instrument in the tuba range, but the sound of which would carry up and forward over the band, whether the performer was standing or sitting. The first one was created by C.G. Conn in 1898.
Besides marches for his own band, Sousa also wrote marches for several universities. Less well known is the fact that he wrote a number of operettas, such as El Capitan, and orchestrated Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. He died in 1932, and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.