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John Philip Sousa

The Brass Band, The Bandleader and The Bandshell

By Joan DeMeo Lager, Curatorial Director

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John Philip Sousa, noted composer and bandleader and a Sands Point resident since 1915, was impressed with their performances and was scheduled to conduct one of the 1932 summer concerts, but sadly died beforehand.

John Philip Sousa, born in 1854, was enrolled in a music conservatory at age 6 where he showed an unusual musical talent. He studied the violin, piano, flute, trombone, cornet, and alto and baritone horns. At the young age of 13, he was offered a position as

bandleader with the travelling circus, which he thought sounded absolutely smashing. Sousa’s father, a trombonist with the U.S. Marine Band, did not concur, and instead enlisted him in the Marines as an apprentice with the Band.

At 20, Sousa requested a discharge from the Marines and became a professional musician. He toured, taught, composed, and also conducted Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, leading to its season on Broadway. The USMC had kept their eye on Sousa, however, and at the age of 25 he became their bandleader, their first American-born conductor.


His service record as bandleader was exemplary and unusual in that he served in different arms of the military. When he left the Marine Band, he formed his own 

Sousa Band and toured much of the world, joining the U.S. Navy Reserves as bandleader in 1917–1918 during WWI. Following the war, he returned to his position of conductor of his Sousa Band until his death.


Sousa, our nation’s “March King,” wrote 137 marches over the course of his lifetime in addition to his numerous other works. They included marches for the Boy Scouts and universities and most notably the 1888 Official

USMC March, “Semper Fidelis,” and the United States National March, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” written on Christmas Day 1896.


John Philip Sousa was very particular about his appearance. His Brooks Brothers Parade Coat was carefully tailored with no distorting pockets, and the elaborate hook closure down the jacket front provided a perfectly flat appearance. He always wore a pair of pristine white kid gloves when conducting and it is said

that he wore and discarded over 10,000 pairs

of gloves 

John Philip Sousa was a firm believer in live performances and likened the new recording industry to canned music. In fact, his 1906 submission to a congressional hearing stated:

“These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a front of every house in the summer evenings, you

would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal

cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

So great was our community’s respect for this musical luminary that the John Philip Sousa Junior High School built in 1958 was named in his memory.

We celebrate our peninsula’s affinity for music with a look at some of our musical figures and groups from the “good old” days.


The Port Washington Brass Band, established in the late 1890s, provided immense enjoyment for all (including their own band members). They performed at all town events and even traveled, both near and far, to cheer on our residents…and even our country’s President.

Lower Main Street was then the hub of the town’s activities and the band headquartered itself there. They were located at 266 Main Street, known as Flower Hill Avenue in the day, and were roughly across the street from the current day Shield’s Hardware.

Just around the block from them was Atlantic Hook & Ladder Company No. 1, known as Liberty Hall. All sorts of activities were centered there,


from theater to religious services to sports games. And yes, the band played there, too. It was reported in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January 1901 that, “Liberty Hall, in this village, last evening was the scene of what the laddies of the local fire companies called a 'big time.'” The Port Washington Brass Band was there, formally accompanying the firemen to the hall for festivities lauding the brand-new fire engine that was just housed. A celebratory feast ensued, followed by band music and cigars and the playing of games.


In 1963, Gay Pearsall, our town crier and the ultimate John Philip Sousa fan, later reminisced to the Port Washington News that, “…the nights, three in all…Sousa’s invisible presence seem to wake her…demanding she build a Band Shell for him.” Well, Pearsall did just that. She immediately started a fundraising campaign and in just four years Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” was heard emanating from Port Washington’s newly dedicated John Philip Sousa Band Shell. Thanks to Pearsall’s inspiration and energy, we can still enjoy summer evenings at the Band Shell

listening to a broad range of musical


And let’s not forget our High School Bands and Orchestras. Among these many groups with numerous achievements over the years, most recently the Manhasset High School Marching Band won its seventh consecutive New York State Championship in 2015. The Paul D. Schreiber Marching Band of Port Washington was selected to perform at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall (2000), participate in the Tournament of Roses Parade (1996), the Orange Bowl Parade (1990), and the Sugar Bowl Parade (1989).

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In 1936, their predecessor, the Port Washington High School Band, tied for 1st Place at the National Contest and was greeted by 6,000 celebrants upon their return!


Theodore Roosevelt and his friends with the Port Washington Band at Sagamore Hill;

Everyone loved a band enlivening sports events. Two of the Cow Neck baseball teams, those of Port Washington and Manhasset, shared a very strong rivalry. During the 1905 season, Port Washington had an away game in Manhasset. The support of the townspeople was so great for their team with its impressive record that an overwhelming number of supporters just had to witness this match.

Their best method of transport to Manhasset was the train, as our end of the railroad line was completed in 1898. The baseball players piled onto the train, the spectators piled onto the train, and the Port Washington Brass Band who accompanied the team on all their away games (along with all their instruments) piled onto the train. The overcrowded train was bursting with fans and had to be stopped so the conductor could collect all the tickets. The band commenced playing for the duration, furthering the party atmosphere, to the delight of those onboard.

The Port Washington Brass Band travelled to Washington D.C., to proudly march in President Theodore Roosevelt’s first inaugural parade on March 4, 1905. President Roosevelt had assumed the presidential office in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated, but did not have a parade until his second term. When the President spotted the little brass band from Port Washington, he jumped up and shouted, “That’s my band!” The President was so excited he is reported to have hopped down from the reviewing stand to shake each band member’s hand vigorously.

As an item of interest, in addition to the small Port Washington Brass Band, this parade had over 35,000 individual participants, including six Native Americans on horseback with full headdresses, Indian Chiefs and warriors from the Comanche, Ute, Sioux, and Blackfeet, and the Apache warrior Geronimo. The Spanish-American War Rough Rider veterans made their presence known as they fiercely galloped on horseback through the parade route.

Four years later, on the occasion of President Teddy Roosevelt departing office and President-elect Taft’s inaugural parade, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on March 3, 1909:

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