The Musical Bridge: Salute to America's Bandsmen – John Philip Sousa and Glenn Miller

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

The Patriots West Suburban Home School Band in the Swedish Days Parade in Geneva, IL 23 June, 2019

What says, "summer" more than a parade? And, what says, "parade" more than a band—complete with brass, woodwinds, drums and more? Music has been the flint to strike up the fire of the patriotic spirit since time and memorial. For this journey across The Musical Bridge, let's get to know two great composers for band, who also happen to have served as U.S. military bandsmen, John Phillips Sousa and Glenn Miller.

John Phillips Sousa

John Philip Sousa is very likely the most well-known composer of band music in history. In fact, his association with marches is so strong that he is still known as "The March King" or "The American March King." Sousa remains one of the most popular composers of American music.

Sousa was born on Nov. 6, 1854 in Washington, DC. His father, John Antonio Sousa, had been born in Spain to Portuguese Parents and had immigrated to the U.S. where he served as a musician in the U.S. Marine Band. Sousa complete his early education in Washington's public schools and enrolled in a private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa, Jr. where he studied piano and most of the orchestral instruments as well as ear training and sight-singing. However, Sousa's preferred instrument was the violin. He became so accomplished at the violin at a young age that at 13 he was nearly persuaded to join a circus band. However, his father stepped in and enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band, which he remained with until he was 20. Besides musical training in the Marine Band, he studied music theory, composition, and violin with noted music teacher and orchestra leader, George Felix Benkert. After being discharged from the marines in 1874, Sousa performed as a violinist and worked as a conductor in various theater orchestras in Washington and Philadelphia.

Marching Band in the Swedish Days Parade in Geneva, IL 23 June, 2019

By 1880, Sousa's reputation as a conductor, composer, and arranger had been established, and he was appointed leader of the U. S. Marine Band, a position he held for the next 12 years. Sousa is credited with turning the U.S. Marine Band into the finest military band in the world. In 1892, he left the Marines to form his own civilian band. His farewell concert was given at the White House on July 30, 1892. Sousa's concert band gained a reputation equal to that of the finest symphony orchestras of the time. Many notable musicians played with Sousa's band and audiences sold out the band's many American and International tours.

The Stars and Stripes Forever

On Christmas Day 1896, Sousa envisioned what would become his most famous composition, The Stars and Stripes Forever. Sousa and his wife were returning from a trip to Europe on an Ocean Liner. The manager of the Sousa Band had died suddenly and Sousa had to return to conduct the band's business affairs before an upcoming tour. In his autbiography, he vividly described his sudden inspiration:

Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career. As the vessel (the Teutonic) steamed out of the harbor I was pacing on the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager's death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York. Suddenly, I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed. – John Philip Sousa

Like many of Sousa's popular pieces, The Stars and Stripes Forever is a march. Sousa conducted his band performing it at nearly every one of their concerts after its debut until his death over 35 years later. The ma became an immediate success, and it is still one of the most popular pieces in the band repertoire. Sousa later penned lyrics for the piece. The Stars and Stripes Forever was named the National March of the United States of America by an act of the U.S. congress in 1987, 91 years after the music was originally composed. Click on the video above to hear Sousa's own band performing the march along with a short slideshow of 21st century military bands.

The Geneva High School Band in the 2019 Memorial Day Parade in Geneva, IL

I would rather be the composer of an inspired march than of a manufactured symphony. – John Philip Sousa

Although Sousa is best known for his marches, he composed music of a wide variety of genres, including notable operettas. His published output includes 137 marches, 15 operettas, five overtures, 11 suites, 24 dances, 28 fantasies, and 322 arrangements of symphonic works for band. He was a man of integrity and believed music should be inspired. He is quoted as saying, "I would rather be the composer of an inspired march than of a manufactured symphony." Sousa was a hard-worker, and declared that "When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead." Sadly, this turned out to be true, Sousa died after a rehearsal in Reading, PA on March 6, 1932 at the age of 77. The Stars and Stripes Forever was the last piece he conducted.

Sousa's Lyrics:

Let martial note in triumph float And liberty extend its mighty hand A flag appears ‘mid thunderous cheers, The banner of the Western land. The emblem of the brave and true Its folds protect no tyrant crew; The red and white and starry blue Is freedom’s shield and hope.

Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom’s nation.

Hurrah for the flag of the free! May it wave as our standard forever, The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with mighty endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray That by their might and by their right It waves forever.

Let eagle shriek from lofty peak The never-ending watchword of our land; Let summer breeze waft through the trees The echo of the chorus grand. Sing out for liberty and light, Sing out for freedom and the right. Sing out for Union and its might, O patriotic sons.

Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation, But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom’s nation.

Hurrah for the flag of the free. May it wave as our standard forever The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with might endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray, That by their might and by their right It waves forever.

The cover to the 1897 sheet music

Besides composing and conducting,, Sousa was involved in many areas of music, including instrument development. instrument maker J.W. Pepper developed the sousaphone (pictured above on the right) under his direction and named the instrument after him. Sousa wanted a tub that could be played when the player was either seated or marching. Pepper designed and made the original sousaphone in 1893, and an updated version was made by C.G. Conn in 1898. Sousa preferred the 1898 version.

Sousa's passion for music and the United States has garnered him a lasting reputation as a model American and composer. Bands of all levels from students to professional military bands to civilian bands—and even orchestras—continue to play his music year after year. If you attend a parade or fireworks show this Fourth of July, you are certain to hear his music. Join in; sing or hum along. Just like the title of his famous march, Sousa's legacy will live on...forever.

Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller in 1942

Glenn Miller is perhaps one of the best known band leaders of swing music. Along with Benny Goodman, "Duke' Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Tommy Dorsey, Miller was one of the preeminent swing band leaders in the Jazz Era. You probably know his music well, even if you didn't know his name before reading this article. His band produced the iconic recordings of such beloved Big Band tunes as "In The Mood,""Moonlight Serenade," "Pennsylvania 6-5000," "Little Brown Jug," and Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Miller is known as "The King of Swing."

The Glenn Miller Orchestra Performs "In The Mood" (1941)

Miller was born Alton Glenn Miller on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. He was raised in Grant City, Missouri and made enough many to buy his first trombone by milking cows. He also played mandolin and cornet. He played trombone in his high school band in Fort Morgan, Colorado and became a professional trombonist upon graduating playing with Boyd Senter's Orchestra, a big band. Then he headed to Los Angeles, Californiat o work with Ben Pollack's band. After that, he headed to New York City, freelancing as a trombonist and arranger. In 1934, he became the musical director for the popular big band lead by fellow trombonist Tommy Dorsey and his brother Jimmy. Miller composed several hits for them. Miller then formed an American orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble. coming up with the band's signature sound of lead clarinet over four saxophones. With Noble's band, Miller had his first movie appearance and later would appear in two more movies. In 1937, he complied his arrangements and formed his own band for the first time. However, they failed to stand out from the many bands of the time.

Miller being award the first Gold Record.

Success finally came after disbanding and then reorganizing the band. Miller finally found commercial success at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York in 1938. The band played for a recording-breaking crowd of 1800. After that, the Glen Miller Orchestra began selling records. "Tuxedo Junction" sold 115,000 copies in its first week. The orchestra was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. In 1942, Miller received the first gold record for "Chattanooga Choo-Choo” which has gone on to become one of the most successful records in history.

Army Air Forces Band

In 1942, at the height of Miller’s popularity, World War II was in full swing. Miller was too old to be drafted. (He was 38.) However, he decided to quit life as a civilian and volunteered his services to the war effort. Miller became the leader of an Army band. He rose up through the ranks to Captain. He, along with his band, entertained the Allied Forces. Miller was passionate about his band and its mission writing to his friend, drummer, and jazz writer, George T. Simon , “We didn’t come here to set any fashions in music. We merely came to bring a much-needed touch of home to some lads who have been here a couple of years.”

“We didn’t come here to set any fashions in music. We merely came to bring a much-needed touch of home to some lads who have been here a couple of years.”– Major. A. Glenn Miller in a letter written to George T. Simon from England in 1944

Captain Miller formed the 50-piece Army Air Force Band. The band travelled to to England in the Summer of 1944 and gave more than 800 performances. He was then promoted again this time to Major and started recording music at Abbey Road Studios for the war effort. On December 15, 1944, Miller and other were to fly from the United Kingdom and to France to make a home for the band in Paris. Tragically, the single engine plane was lost at sea over the English Channel. His band continued its morale-boosting mission until the war ended in 1945.

Miller left behind his wife Helen and their two young children. In 1953, Glenn Miller’s life story was made into the film “The Glenn Miller Story” starring Jimmy Stewart. Today, Glenn Miller’s legacy continues through his many recordings, arrangements, and compositions. His orchestra and its distinctive sound left a lasting imprint on our collective musical memory.

Resources and Further Information

U.S. Military Bands

Air Force Bands.

Army Bands.

Army School of Music.

Naval School of Music.

The Navy Band in Washington D.C.

Navy Musicians Association.

The Marine Band

The Old Fife and Drum Corps.

Pershing's Own – U.S. Army Band.

John Philip Sousa

John Philips Sousa: Composer, Conductor, Patriot.

Library of Congress Biographies: John Philip Sousa.

University of Illinois: The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.

U.S. Marine Band – Our History: Sousa.

U.S. Marine Band – The complete Marches of J.P. Sousa.

Glenn Miller

American History Museum.

American Music Research Center - University of Colorado at Boulder - Glenn Miller Archives.

Glenn Miller Birthplace Society.

Glenn Miller.

The World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra.

USO - Glenn Miller - The Military's Music Man.

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, songwriter, sound healer, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Visit for more about music lessons and for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.


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