America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #1 and #2

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

It’s Fun Friday! Have you been counting down (and singing along) with us to find out who the Top Ten Military Musicians have been? Well, today’s fun is finding out who is #1. Let’s get going…

(If you missed the previous installments, read about and listen to works by #10 and #9#8 and #7#6 and #5, and #4 and #3 before scrolling down.)


2. John Philip Sousa

John Phillip Sousa – best known for his immortal compositions that are still standards for military bands to this day – got his start from his father, a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Corps Band. Sousa’s father brought the 13-year-old Sousa into the Marine Band as a ploy to keep him from joining the circus. Sousa served an apprenticeship in the Marine Band, then learned to conduct as head of a pit orchestra, before returning to the Marine Band as its leader in 1880. He served in that position until 1892, mostly at the rank of sergeant major.

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.” — The visionary John Philip Sousa on the infant recording industry.

His list of notable compositions includes:

  • Semper Fidelis, the official march of the USMC
  • The Liberty Bell
  • Stars and Stripes Forever, the national march of the United States
  • U.S. Field Artillery, the official song of the United States Army (more commonly known as The Army Goes Rolling Along)

In addition, Sousa wrote a number of operettas – popular in the late 1800s – including Desiree, The Smugglers, El Capitan, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp, and The American Maid, or the Glass Blowers.

During World War One, Sousa was commissioned a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and put in charge of the Navy Band at Great Lakes Naval Station. While assigned there, Sousa donated is entire salary except for one dollar to the Sailors and Marines Relief Fund.

He died of heart failure in 1932, at the age of 77, one of the best-loved American composers in history.


1. Glenn Miller

Our selection for the greatest military musician in American history is Glenn Miller. There was never much doubt about where he would fall, under any criteria. Alone among the incredible musicians on this list, Major Glenn Miller was the only musician to have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country – missing and presumed KIA when his small aircraft disappeared over the English Channel.

Miller was born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1904, and learned trombone, cornet and mandolin as a child. He started his first dance and swing ensemble while still in high school, and was already a professional musician when he graduated.

During the 20s and 30s, he made a living as a freelance trombonist, back in the days when trombonists could still make a living as freelance trombonists.

“America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music.”  –Glenn Miller, 1944

Miller wrote his first tune, Room 1411, with another legend of big band, Benny Goodman, and also wrote his signature tune, Moonlight Serenade, while still in his early 20s. He played in two orchestra pits for the Broadway productions of Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy, with two other musicians who would soon become legends in their own right, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman.

Miller also played as a sideman along with Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and swing violinist Joe Venuti in the All-Star Orchestra under the direction of Nat Shilkret. Later, Miller became a trombonist, arranger and composer with The Dorsey Brothers.

As a bandleader, Miller was a relentless perfectionist, and rehearsed his band thoroughly.

When the war broke out, Miller was already established. He was 38, too old for the draft, and he didn’t have to serve. Nonetheless, he volunteered to serve in the Navy, but was rejected. He then wrote to the Army, and asked to “be placed in charge of a modernized Army band.” He went in at the rank of captain and was soon promoted to major.

He then started a large marching band, which would become a sort of feeder system into the Army and Army Air Force stage bands. Miller eventually put together a 50-piece band for the Army Air Force and flew them to England, where they gave over 800 performances for American and British troops. General Jimmy Doolittle, the Medal of Honor recipient and leader of the famous Doolittle raid, said of Miller’s band, “Next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”

Miller’s compositions and arrangements became mainstays in the jazz/swing repertoire, and attained iconic status. Among his works: 

  • In the Mood
  • Moonlight Serenade
  • Chattanooga Choo-Choo
  • Fools Rush In
  • Pennsylvania 6-500
  • Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)

Glenn Miller’s musical journey ended on December 15th, 1944, when his single-engine aircraft disappeared over the English Channel while Miller was on his way to a performance in France. No trace of Miller’s body nor the aircraft was ever found.


So what do you think of our list? Hopefully your toes are tapping and you’re humming a few tunes. Enjoy your weekend. We’ll see you here next week!


One response to “America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #1 and #2”

  1. Clarence Buck says:

    This was when the Great Music was written and preformed. These songs you could tell what they were about. Understand the words and ect.

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