Joe Lovinsky plays his last unofficial performance with the Army Brass Band Quintet at the National Jazz Festival at Armstrong Concert Hall Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. on July 10. He retired the day before and will teach at Shenandoah. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When the U.S. Army Brass Quintet learned that its longtime French horn player, Master Sgt. Joseph Lovinsky, was retiring this month, the band members were floored.

Spots in the country’s elite military bands are so coveted that musicians join the service just for the chance to play in them. No one still in his or her musical prime leaves an ensemble that plays for presidents, generals and Supreme Court justices.

The two trumpeters, trombonist and tuba player bombarded Lovinsky, 49, with pleas to stay.

“They were just like, ‘Please don’t go. What can we do to keep you?’ ” the Juilliard-trained Lovinsky recalled. “There had been only one other French horn player in the group before me, and he started the group in 1972. Openings in our group are rare.”

The quintet started out as an informal group within the 200-plus-member U.S. Army Band, which is based at Fort Myer in Arlington County. But in 1976, the quintet became a kind of Delta Force squad, dispatched to some of Washington’s most solemn events and made up of the very best musicians from “Pershing’s Own,” as the Army Band is known.

The Army Brass Band Quintet, from left, Terry Bingham, Joe Lovinsky, Jon Voth, Matt Niess and Christian Hinkle perform for the last time together. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Lovinsky replaced one of the quintet’s founders in 1999 and is the first of the group’s second- generation musicians to leave. He was wooed away by Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., for a conservatory teaching position and a less hectic performance schedule.

His replacement is Sgt. 1st Class Rick Lee, 39, from Alexandria, who this spring beat out three fellow French horn players from “Pershing’s Own.”

“When Joe decided to retire, I was a little surprised,” said Lee, who has worked as the quintet’s first substitute for several years. “Until it happened, I thought it could be at least another 10 years for an opening, or the end of my career.”

To get into the quintet, musicians must first get into “Pershing’s Own,” the renowned band formed in 1922 by Army Chief of Staff Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. If a musician gets and accepts the opening, he or she must enlist in the Army. That means boot camp, periodic physical endurance exams and the possibility of being deployed to a war zone (although probably not on the front lines).

Lovinsky, son of Haitian immigrants, began his journey into the world of military music performance in one of Miami’s poorer neighborhoods more than three decades ago.

In 1981, he was the subject of a Miami Herald front-page profile — under the headline “Ghetto Youth’s Fortune is His Music” — after he won a four-year scholarship to a music conservatory in Baltimore.

After transferring to and graduating from the Juilliard School in New York, Lovinsky performed as the principal hornist with the Miami City Ballet, the Israel Pops and the Dominican Republic National Symphony orchestras.

By 1992, Lovinsky wanted a stable gig. When he saw an opening for the U.S. Army Field Band, he tried out, earned a spot, enlisted in the Army and settled in Fort Meade. The military life appealed to him; he felt that he owed the country something in return for his unlikely success.

In 1995, he won a spot in “Pershing’s Own,” a bigger band that plays at more prestigious events in Washington. Four years later, one of the quintet’s founders retired, creating the coveted opening that Lovinsky took.

Since then, he has performed at ceremonies at the CIA and the Supreme Court and while President Ronald Reagan lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda. But Lovinsky most remembers the quintet gig at a Crystal City hotel days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the group played for families of victims in a ballroom from which the media were barred.

“We played the national anthem, and people were singing, shouting the words,” he recalled. “I’ve never been in any ceremony where that happened. People came up to me and thanked me. They were crying.”

The one time that Lovinsky cried during a quintet performance was at his own wedding last summer at the Old Post Chapel at Fort Myer. He asked his band mates to play all the wedding music. Since he couldn’t play, Lee subbed for him.

“For him to be on the other side of it, well, Joe was totally tearing up,” Lee recalled.

A few months ago, Lee was one of four hornists to try out for Lovinsky’s job. He acknowledges he was nervous.

“It’s a fickle thing to play the French horn,” he said. “Sometimes, the thing turns against you at a moment’s notice.”

Staff Sgt. Evan Geiger competed against Lee but knew he was an underdog.

“It was Rick’s to lose,” said Geiger, who wound up getting Lee’s substitute spot. “Assuming Rick’s going to be around, the next time I’d have even a chance to audition would be in . . . 20 years?”

Lee said he doesn’t plan to relinquish his French horn spot until he retires.

Earlier this month, Lovinsky drove to Shenandoah University to play his final quintet gig at the National Jazz Workshop for college and high school students. As part of the performance, he was to play a solo that he always dreads: Sonata No. 2 by Luigi Cherubini.

“Technically, this is very challenging,” he said before the lights dimmed. “It’s unreal. I can’t believe this is happening. I am going to miss these guys.”

At the end of the show, as everyone applauded, the retiree walked off stage and shook hands with the quintet’s leader, Master Sgt. Terry Bingham, a trumpeter. The two men embraced as Bingham told his friend words that made them both smile.

“It’s been an honor,” he said.