Even the U.S. Marines couldn’t overpower Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
That’s when the Marine band, known as “The President’s Own,” was last scheduled to play in south Louisiana.
“We were in Monroe at the time, and we knew there was no way we could go to New Orleans,” says Gunnery Sgt. Mark Jenkins, who plays euphonium — it resembles a small tuba — in the band. “So, we called Slidell. They said they would have been happy to have us, but the venue where we were supposed to perform was no longer there.”
Now, only weeks after the storm’s 10th anniversary, the U.S. Marine Band will invade all of south Louisiana, beginning with a performance at the LSU Union Theater in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, Sept. 30, then heading to Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium for its first New Orleans appearance in a decade. The band wraps up its week in the Heymann Performing Arts Center in Lafayette on Friday, Oct. 2, before heading to Texas.
The concerts are free but require tickets, and though the three performances are “sold out,” those who want to hear the band are asked to come anyway.
“We ask the ticket holders to come 15 minutes ahead of time, and once it’s 15 minutes until the concert, the remaining tickets become void,” says Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, the band’s director. “So, everyone waiting at the door without tickets is let in. We usually find seats for everyone who wants to hear the concert.”
Fettig says the band will get to spend some time in Louisiana and experience its culture.
“And, yes, we’ll get to eat some Louisiana food,” he adds. “Everyone in the nation knows how good the food is in Louisiana, and we look forward to it.”
Fettig has been a band member since 1997 and was named its conductor in July 2014. He was the band’s assistant conductor when it performed in Baton Rouge in 2010.
“We were going to try to perform in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans that year, but Baton Rouge is as deep as we were able to travel in south Louisiana,” Fettig says. “New Orleans still couldn’t take us.”
The band, in full dress uniforms, will perform such crowd favorites as “Semper Fidelis” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Both are a given with this group, because the songs’ composer also is the band’s most noted conductor — John Philip Sousa. The composer known as “The March King” became the band’s 17th leader on Oct. 1, 1880, almost a century after the band was established by an Act of Congress in 1798, making it the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization.
The band was formed with the unique mission to provide music for the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps, thus its nickname, “The President’s Own.” But Sousa expanded the band’s horizons.
“John Philip Sousa realized a lot of people didn’t come to Washington, which was the reason he got permission to take the band on tour in 1891,” Fettig says. “He believed the band was a national band that belonged to the people. The same spirit guides our tour today.”
As for music selections for the band’s Louisiana concerts, Fettig has assembled a mix of patriotic, classical and Broadway favorites to appeal to a wide range of musical tastes.
“We chose to play songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’ this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day and honor those who fought in World War II,” he said.
And its in this musical mix that Jenkins will be playing his euphonium with the band and stepping out as one of its soloists. He began dreaming of joining “The President’s Own” at age 11 and was accepted in 2002.
“That was my only goal, and, being a musician, our goals usually aren’t practical,” Jenkins says. “We set a goal, and that’s what we set out to achieve.”
Jenkins accomplished his mission, and he’s never taken for granted the privileges that come with it.
“One of my fondest memories is playing at the inauguration for President Obama in 2008,” he says. “Washington was on lockdown, and the Secret Service was everywhere. We had to spend the night in the Marine Barracks the night before, and when we arrived that morning, and when we walked in, the Secret Service parted to let the band through. There I was, sitting in the same place where John Philip Sousa had been, just below the president taking the oath of office, and I realized that the only reason I was allowed to be in this place is because I was a member of the Marine Band.”
Jenkins also has performed at White House and Wounded Warrior functions.
“In 2013, we were invited to perform at the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle,” Jenkins says. “That was another poignant moment, because we were performing where the Marine Band performed when President Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address.”
The band’s tours have provided their own memories, especially when the road leads south.
“We love playing in the South,” Jenkins says. “The audiences are always so appreciative, and they love the military. And we love Louisiana — the hospitality is so great there.”