Even the U.S. Marine Corps Band couldn’t beat Hurricane Katrina.
The band, called “The President’s Own,” was last scheduled to play New Orleans in 2005 in the wake of the storm. The tour was to stop in New Orleans, then Slidell.
“We were in Monroe at the time, and we knew there was no way we could go to New Orleans,” said Gunnery Sgt. Mark Jenkins, who plays euphonium 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.”
The U.S. Marine Band will visit south Louisiana this week, playing at Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium Thursday at 7:30 p.m., its first New Orleans appearance in a decade.
There’s also a stop in Baton Rouge, and the band wraps up in Lafayette on Friday.
“We’ll get to spend some time in Louisiana and experience the culture,” says Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, the band’s director. “And, yes, we’ll get to eat some Louisiana food. 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. The tickets to Thursday’s concert, which are free, have all been distributed, but nonticket-holders 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,” Fettig says.
“So, everyone waiting at the door without tickets are let in. We usually find seats for everyone who wants to hear the concert.”
The band will appear in full dress uniforms, performing 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 director, Fettig also continues other Sousa traditions of serving as music adviser to the White House and music director of Washington, D.C.’s historic Gridiron Club.
“The Girdiron Club was formed in 1885, as a way for the media to have some fun poking fun at Washington, and as its first music director, John Philip Sousa had to teach these reporters how to sing,” Fettig says. “Every Marine Band director has served in this position since that time.”
And Fettig continues his predecessor’s quest to improve reporters’ singing voices.
“Some of them are pretty good, but some are a challenge,” he says, laughing.
For the band’s Louisiana concerts, Fettig has chosen a mix of patriotic, classical and Broadway favorites.
“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.”
Mark Jenkins will be playing his euphonium with the band but 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.
Jenkins has never taken his position, or its privileges, for granted.
“One of my fondest memories is playing at the inauguration for President Obama in 2008,” he says. “Washington was on lock-down, 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.”
The band’s tours have provided its share of memories, too, 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.”