For Marine Band, History Resonates
By Arielle Levin Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page VA10
The President's House hadn't been completed and the nation's new capital was barely more than a swamp when John and Abigail Adams held their New Year's party in 1801. Musicians in bright red coats provided the afternoon's entertainment in a building in which the first and second floors were connected by ladders and a clothesline held the first family's laundry in the East Room.
The Adams party is recorded as the first public reception at what would later be called the White House. Less commonly known is the reception's other first: the White House debut of the U.S. Marine Band.
It is the oldest continuously active unit in the Marines and the oldest musical group in the United States. The band rode with Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg and has played at every inauguration since Thomas Jefferson's in 1801. It performed at the opening of the National World War II Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument and the White House.
Though it was signed into existence by John Adams in 1798, the band was christened "The President's Own" by Jefferson, Adams's political rival, after his own inauguration.
A deep sense of this history underlies the band's affairs, permeating ceremonies that mark changes in directors, the addition of members and an impending move to new barracks.
Earlier this month, Col. Timothy W. Foley, 57, of Arlington, the band's director, passed a gold engraved baton to Lt. Col. Michael J. Colburn, 39, of Burke, who became the band's 27th director. The two conductors wore traditional black with gold cords, nearly identical to the uniforms directors wore a century ago, and the baton was the same one presented to their most famous predecessor, march composer John Philip Sousa. Also, 1st Lt. Michelle A. Rakers, 35, of Woodbridge last night was set to become the first woman to conduct the band as assistant director.
This fall the band will move from the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets SE -- the "oldest post of the Corps" -- to new quarters at Seventh and K streets SE. It will be the band's first move since 1801. The new barracks will have more practice rooms and rehearsal space, and new administrative offices.
Also, in October the band will add 11 positions, including clarinet, trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba players, a percussionist, an assistant stage manager and a library staff member, said the chief librarian, Master Gunnery Sgt. Mike Ressler, 52, of Burke.
These are big changes for an organization of steadfast traditions and precision, steeped in history.
The band's official mission is to provide music for the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps, but its responsibilities now include weekly Capitol concerts and Marine Barracks parades during the summer and a national tour each fall. This year the band will spend seven weeks on the West Coast, playing a different city every night. The band's various ensembles average 800 performances a year.
By providing a backdrop for historic moments, Foley said, the band contributes to the ambiance of the White House for state visitors, honored guests and the first family. Colburn said the band's performances sometimes are background music, but not always.
"You never know when somebody's actually listening with great attention to detail," he said.
Colburn learned that lesson a few years back while he was conducting the English Folk Song Suite at the White House and felt a tug on his elbow. Expecting to see an usher, Colburn turned around. It was President Clinton.
"Clinton said, 'This is one of my absolute favorite pieces; I'm so glad you're playing it,' " Colburn said. Then the president discussed the piece in detail, naming the movements and recalling particular elements.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company