From horns to harp, Marine Band is drumbeat of America

March 04, 1994|By Victoria White | Victoria White,Contributing Writer

Washington -- "Ladies and gentlemen," a voice of authority booms. "The president of the United States." Up strikes the band, pouring forth "Hail to the Chief," that familiar, toe-tapping tune whose majesty remains undiminished even though nobody seems to know the words.

The music has come down through the ages, in the blare of the horns and the tapping of the drums of the U.S. Marine Band. For nearly 200 years, this official White House band has provided the soundtrack to history.

It played when Thomas Jefferson and every president thereafter took the oath of office. It traveled to Pennsylvania to perform when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It comforted a nation as it said goodbye to John F. Kennedy.

On Sunday, the band will play another of its historic roles: entertaining the public. It will give a free concert at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore at 2 p.m. (Tickets should be requested in advance.) It has scheduled another concert there at 8 p.m. May 8.

Sunday's program is to include a selection of music from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide Suite," a John Philip Sousa march called "Who's Who in Navy Blue," and Richard Wagner's "Overture to Tannhauser."

"I think all the music is accessible" to the audience, says Col. John Bourgeois, the band's director.

The band's reputation in the music industry is strong, and there is stiff competition for each opening. When the last bassoon position was available, 32 musicians auditioned.

"Today, the caliber of the musicians is such that it's like grading pearls," Colonel Bourgeois says of the auditions.

One such pearl is Wayne Webster, 44, a lifelong Baltimore resident. His official title is master gunnery sergeant; his weapon of choice is the drum. He took up the instrument at age 10 and, a decade later, turned music into a career. For half his life, the Marine Band has been a full-time job.

Mr. Webster's black shoes glisten, reflecting the military demand for impeccable neatness and order. But he was spared the rigors of basic training. Band members, though considered Marines, "don't go through basic training, because they are already fully trained in their skills when they come," Colonel Bourgeois says. Their duties, after all, are more artistic than militaristic.

"The priority we have is to provide music for the president," the colonel says. "That is our first military mission."

It is a mission that keeps band members in perpetual motion, preparing or performing for 200-plus events at the White House each year.

Music for everyone

All 143 players do not perform each time. The band has a variety of ensembles that include the concert and marching bands, chamber orchestra, string ensembles, dance bands and a Dixieland band. Members play in several of these groups. So all must be ready at a moment's notice to perform if the president so desires.

The chief executive has a yen for blues? They're there. He wants to hear the latest Broadway show tunes? The music is on file.

"We're ready to go now," said the band's librarian, Mike Ressler. "We can put together anything -- country western, a dance band, all the way down to a solo harp."

"When you go to the White House and play before all his political guests and get to see so many entertainers, it's exciting," Mr. Webster says. "When you're with this organization, you're always making history."

He remembers especially the group's 1990 trip to the Soviet Union to play with a military band there in what proved to be that nation's dying days. "That's an unforgettable experience -- the coming together of Soviet musicians and American musicians," he says. "It truly states that music is the universal language."

In the audience Sunday will be a contingent of Mr. Webster's fans. "It's not often that my relatives and friends get to see a concert," says Mr. Webster, whose musical roots are in rock bands, back in his days at Dundalk High School. "It's exciting. I think I probably hand out the most tickets of anyone."

Playing the tenor trombone will be Chuck Casey, 33, who has lived in Baltimore since 1979. He joined the group in November. "If it hadn't been for the high musical caliber, I wouldn't have auditioned," he says.

Drums and fifes

The band got its official start with the establishment of the Marine Corps in 1798. The nation's second president, John Adams, signed the following order into law: "There shall be raised and organized a corps of Marines, which shall consist of one major, four captains, 16 first lieutenants, 12 second lieutenants, 48 sergeants, 48 corporals, 32 drums and fifes, and 720 privates."

However, in the early years, it was difficult to attract fifes and drums. As legend has it, Thomas Jefferson requested that Italian musicians be sent for, to complement the American ranks.

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