John Philip Sousa is a celebrated American composer, a charter member of the NYAC’s American Legion Post 754 and a 1993 NYAC Hall of Fame inductee.
Sousa was born on November 6th, 1854 in Washington DC. His father, a trombone player in the Marine Band, exposed him to music and instruments at an early age. The first instrument that he played was the violin – which he began at the age of six – but he eventually expanded his repertoire to include the piano, flute, trombone and many others.
At the age of 13, Sousa joined the Marine Band as an associate member. His father had goaded him into joining, fearing that his son might otherwise join a circus band. He remained in the band for the next seven years.
Thereafter, Sousa spent several years touring the country as part of a musical company, before being offered the leadership of the Marine Band in 1880. He happily returned to the band with which he spent his adolescence. He conducted the Band for 12 years; during his tenure, they performed at two Inaugural Balls, for Presidents James Garfield in 1881 and Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
As director of the Marine Band, Sousa made his indelible mark on American musical composition and earned his iconic nickname, the March King. He is responsible for the most iconic marches ever composed, including Semper Fidelis, the official march of the Marine Corps and Stars and Stripes Forever, the national march of the United States.
Sousa’s contributions to American arts and culture are too numerous to count, but among his most enduring is the instrument that bears his name: the sousaphone. At the behest of Sousa, a Philadelphia instrument maker designed an instrument that sounded similar to a Tuba but had more versatility. The sousaphone is easily recognizable for its forward facing bell, which Sousa requested specifically; unlike the Tuba, whose horn is pointed upwards, the sousaphone would project the sound out towards the audience. Additionally, with its ergonomic design that fits around the musician’s body, the sousaphone became a fixture in marching ensembles.
Besides music, Sousa’s other passion was trapshooting, hence his election to NYAC membership in 1913. It was far from a hobby; in fact, Sousa is considered by some to be the father of organized trapshooting in America, as he was instrumental in the founding of the American Amateur Trapshooting Association. His passion for trapshooting was so great that he once pronounced that “the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’.”
Sousa was also a charter member of the NYAC’s American Legion Post 754 in 1919. He was one of 939 NYAC member to serve during World War I.
In February 1932, Post 754 held an honorary banquet for Sousa in recognition of his remarkable achievements and his long tenure as a member of the Club. In attendance were a litany of New York sports legends, including Gene Tunney and Lou Gehrig, in addition to a slew of generals and high ranking military commanders. The banquet also recognized Sousa as the longest serving American Legion member in New York State. Unbeknownst to everyone in attendance, Sousa would pass away less than a month later.
On March 5th, 1932, Sousa died suddenly at the age of 77. That evening, he had attended another banquet in his honor, this one at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, PA.