Summertime and patriotic holidays bring band concerts featuring works of John Philip Sousa. His marches are as popular today as when he conducted them himself in Peoria. The Peoria Municipal Band's "Solid Sousa" program at 7:30 p.m., June 26, at the Glen Oak Park amphitheatre showcases some of his enduring favorites.
Born in 1854, Sousa came to Peoria with bands of musicians at least 17 times before he died in 1932, according to Municipal Band Director Dr. David Vroman. "Sousa knew how to entertain people. He played a mix of his own works and other favorites and spotlighted talented soloists. That's what we do at our band concerts too," Vroman says.
One of Sousa's well-traveled soloists came to call Peoria home, and at least one member of the Municipal Band in its earliest days had performed with Sousa. And Sousa's 1928 autobiography, Marching Along, was ghost edited by a woman who later became a Peorian.
Sousa was always composing and writing, Vroman observed. "It's said that he finished his suite 'Looking Upward' while he was in Peoria."
From 1892 to 1931, the Sousa Band made annual transcontinental tours, four European tours (1900, 1901, 1903, 1905) and a World Tour in 1910-1911. Soloing with the Sousa Band in 1906, 1907, and 1919 was Jeannette Powers, a distinguished violinist who had grown up in Decatur, where the Opera House carried her family name.
In his autobiography, Sousa recalls "sweet and lovable Jeannette Powers who left us to marry Carl Block, the Wanamaker of Peoria." Sousa was referring, of course, to Block's involvement with Peoria's largest department store-Block and Kuhl's.
Ernie Paulson, a Sousa Band veteran, was an early member of Peoria's band and taught trumpet here.
Sousa's autobiography, replete with humorous stories, first appeared in several editions of the Saturday Evening Post starting in 1924. For book publication several years later, Sousa was assisted in the rewriting by Mariesta Dodge Howland Bloom. At the time, Howland worked for a publishing company and had once been known as the youngest newspaperwoman in the United States.
Her marriage to Elmer Jacques Bloom brought her to Peoria, where she raised two children-including the late Senator Prescott Bloom-and was active in educational and musical affairs. In her 1959 history of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, The Song That Didn't Die, she tells of her role with Sousa. Her book encompassed the years 1898 to 1958 and was reprinted in 1997 in Jerry Klein's book, A Century of Music, for the Symphony's centennial.
Bloom also recounted a 1938 Peoria Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Jeannette Powers Block with her Stradivarius violin. Bloom noted that Jeannette Block "early showed violinistic talent of the same stature as Maud Powell's" and "elected to follow in Powell's footsteps by touring…as soloist with John Philip Sousa's Band." Powell, of Ottawa, traveled the world with the band. When Sousa's band came to Peoria in the 1920s, he welcomed Block as a guest soloist.
Sousa generally preferred to present his band concerts indoors. In Peoria, these venues included the Coliseum that opened in 1901, the Majestic Theater that opened in 1906, and the Mohammed Temple at 207 NE Monroe that opened in 1909. The Coliseum on NE Adams at Hancock could seat nearly 7,000 people before a fire destroyed it in May 1920. The Majestic, located on Jefferson Street, is now part of the Civic Center Plaza building. The Sousa Band also presented a 1912 concert at Pekin's Standard Theater.
In October 1918, Sousa brought 300 U.S. Navy bandsmen to Peoria for a noon parade as part of a fund-raising tour for Liberty Bonds. Into his 60s but ever the patriot, Sousa was helping the Navy and the country. Early in his career, he directed the Marine Band, which he joined when he was 13.
The University of Illinois in Urbana now archives Sousa's materials, the result of a close friendship between him and the U of I's founding band director. In 1929, Sousa composed the University of Illinois march, dedicated to faculty and students. In all, Sousa composed 137 marches, plus operettas, overtures, suites, waltzes, dances, fantasies, and arrangements and wrote seven books.
When Sousa died in 1932, he had just finished a concert rehearsal of his immortal march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever." In 1987, that work was declared the National March of the United States.
Experience Sousa's legacy by hearing it live and playing in Peoria this summer. AA!