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Foot-Tapping, Heart-Thumping Salute Honors Sousa

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page C01

One day 45 years ago in Japan, 6-year-old Seiichiro Takahashi was marching from a school assembly to the tune of a marvelous piece of American music he had never heard before.

It began with brass, drums and crashing cymbals, and it skipped into an irresistible beat that was borne along by a thumping tuba. It was John Philip Sousa's famous "Washington Post" march, and the sound reached into Takahashi's soul and changed him forever.

Hamilton Thomas Abert, 4, stands on his great-great-grandfather's grave while he waits for the U.S. Marine Band to arrive. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Now 51 and a businessman from Tokyo, he was happily telling this story yesterday as he stood a few steps from Sousa's grave in Washington's Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington, having traveled with other members of the Japan Sousa Society to salute the "March King" on his 150th birthday.

Takahashi was wearing a red tie that bore the society's crest -- a picture of Sousa -- and a white shirt that read "President, Research Institute for Sousa."

He was also humming the march as he related his tale, which, in the company of the old maestro's ghost and 30 members of the red-clad United States Marine Band yesterday, was awfully hard to avoid.

Almost from the moment Drum Major Thomas D. Kohl strode down a cemetery walk at 9:55 a.m. with his black bearskin hat, white leather gauntlets and gold-headed mace, there was Sousa music that sparked some form of humming, foot-tapping or hand-clapping.

As Takahashi said, gripping his chest with his hand, it got inside you.

The Marine Band, which Sousa made famous during his 12 years as director in the 1880s and '90s, saluted him with superb march renditions in sunny but chilly weather.

With the clear fall sky reflected in the band's silver sousaphones, the musicians were joined by other Sousa music lovers and many Sousa descendants who assembled around the graves of Sousa, his wife and their three children.

Great-grandson Thomas D. Abert, 42, of Stoddard, N.H., had come to remind people that Sousa was more than just a bearded little man from the Gilded Age in pince-nez. "I just want people to see him as the living spirit that you hear in the music, not as a picture on the wall or just a statue," he said.

John Philip Sousa Pugh, a retired banker from St. Mary's County who is a great-grandnephew, said he visits the grave every year. Often, it is cold and rainy, he said. "Heaven is with us, because of the sunshine and the blue sky," he said.

After the cemetery salute yesterday, many participants reassembled for the Marine Corps' dedication of the state-of-the-art John Philip Sousa Band Hall, part of a new $28 million Marine Barracks Annex at Seventh and K streets SE, not far from where Sousa was raised.

One of 10 children of a Portuguese father and a German mother, Sousa grew up in a house near Sixth and G streets SE, a few blocks from the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets. His father, Antonio, was a trombonist in the Marine Band.

Born in 1854, Sousa was a boy when the streets of Civil War-era Washington were filled with soldiers and martial music, according to Master Gunnery Sgt. Michael Ressler, the Marine Band's chief librarian.

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