The history of the United States Navy Band is a twofold one that tracks not only the existence of the current U.S. Navy Band, but the legacy of music in the Navy as a whole. Since the very existence of the present-day Navy, music has been an ever-present element that reflects the growth of both the Navy and the nation. While the warships existed and the construction of new frigates was under way by order of Congress in 1794, it was in on April 30, 1798 that Congress established the Department of the Navy, bringing greater organization and stature to the Navy. In May of that same year, the USS Ganges became the first ship put to sea under the command of Captain Robert Dale. Capt. Dale's orders very clearly stated that he was to assemble an enlisted crew that included 21 privates, 1 sergeant, 1 corporal and 2 musicians to serve as Marines. Those two musicians were a fifer and a drummer, a combination that had persisted throughout the Revolutionary War and would show up on the personnel listings of subsequent ships.
Over the next 30 years, the use of musicians in the Navy expanded, but it was not until August 1826 that a seaman on the USS Constellation, John H. Page, was promoted to “Master of the Band.” Page is the first recorded bandmaster in the history of Navy music. Just a month later, a young Ordinary Seaman, William Tuton, was promoted to the rank of “musician.” By 1830, it was possible to enter the Navy as a musician as the enlistment of William Raymond in April attests. Not only was music in the Navy expanding, but it was turning into its own respected skill and profession. Over the next century, music would continue to flourish in the Navy and become inextricably intertwined with the traditions and ceremonies of the Navy. In fact, it was during this period that a fife and drummer ensemble was commonly referred to as the “Band” from the very founding of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1845. It didn't take long for this group to be officially expanded and renamed the United States Naval Academy Band. The Naval Academy Band has since grown and exists today as the oldest band in the U.S. Navy.
In the Navy as a whole, music continued to flourish. Rather than a centralized strategy and approach, this expansion was a result of the commanding officers on the ships, fleets and shore establishments throughout the Navy. A broader, more national interest in band music brought along military music as a staple of national identity. Ironically, many of the professional musicians who were attracted to the Navy during the 1830s and 1840s were foreign-born musicians who joined overseas. U.S. citizenship was not required for enlistment, giving some of these musicians the opportunity to join. In truth, many of them joined solely for free passage to America where they heard rumors that musicians were paid particularly well. A number of these musicians simply left their ship after a few months on board, never to be seen again.
Not all foreign-born musicians proceeded in this manner, however. In fact, one of the musical celebrities of these early Navy music days was Theodore Thomas, a German immigrant who came to the United States with his family in 1845. Thomas joined the Navy in 1849 as a 14-year old. Following his enlistment, Thomas began conducting studies under Karl Ekert and Louis Antoine Jullien in New York City. Over the next few decades, Thomas established a reputation as one of the premier conductors in the United States. He had served as music director of a number of prestigious groups, including the New York Philharmonic in 1877-1878. His own Theodore Thomas Orchestra toured regularly and had wildly successful summer concerts in New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago.
It was later in Chicago that Thomas received an offer he couldn't refuse. His own orchestra had dissolved the previous year in 1888, and Charles Norman Fey, a Chicago businessman, offered him the prospect of a permanent orchestra in Chicago. In 1891, the Chicago Orchestra made its debut under Thomas at the Auditorium Theatre. Today, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is recognized as one of the most reputable and finest orchestras in America and the world at large.
Another musical luminary, John Phillip Sousa, served as a Navy bandmaster from 1917 to 1919. Known most often for his work as head of the United States Marine Band in the late 19th century and his own band in the early 20th century, Sousa was brought back into Naval service during World War I at the record age of 62. He was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and and led the Navy Band at Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago, Illinois. Throughout Sousa's career in the Marines, he had served in the enlisted ranks and attained Warrant Officer status by the time of his resignation. Therefore, his Lieutenant Commander rank marked both the first time he had attained commissioned officer status and the first time any Navy musician became a commissioned officer. Interestingly, by this time, he was independently wealthy and donated all but one dollar a year of his salary to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund.
The Navy's confidence in Sousa paid off as young musicians rushed to enlist and learn under him in the recruit training band. Sousa reorganized the existing bands into smaller groups that could still carry out duties on ships and Naval stations. Meanwhile, he formed a large band of 350 musicians that he used to tour in major cites. These tours would be used to support Liberty Loan bonds, the Red Cross, Navy relief and recruiting. The tours were massively successful and raised over 21 million dollars for the war effort. Though we may never know how much this particular activity contributed, Sousa would often auction off one of his batons to contribute to the fundraising. Sousa was relieved of duty in January 1919 due to illness, having accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time. He reportedly enjoyed his rank and uniform so much that he continued to use it for the rest of his life.