For the last 200 years, the United States Marine Band has served as the official band of the President of the United States.
For the last 100 years, the band has been led by a director wearing a navy blue coat.
For the last month, the man in the navy blue coat has been Lt. Col. Jason Fettig.
“I’m still getting used to the it. Every once in a while it hits me. I have an opportunity to stand in the place where John Phillip Sousa once stood,” he said. “We’re not just a musical ensemble, we’re an American institution.”
Fettig became the 28th director of the U.S. Marine Band in July, after serving as assistant director of “The President’s Own” for 13 years.
He is now embarking on his first tour as director. Fettig and the Marine Band will perform at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3.
The group has toured the country since 1891 when Sousa — composer of American classics like “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Semper Fidelis” and “Hands Across the Sea” — decided the Marine Band should not be relegated to Washington, D.C.
Fettig joined the Marine Band in 1997 as a clarinet player.
He had just graduated from Amherst University and finished a tour with the American Wind Symphony, and was taking a few days off at a friend’s house.
One morning at breakfast, he spilled milk on a piece of paper.
“I turned it over and it was a Marine Band newsletter,” he said.
The newsletter mentioned an upcoming audition. On a whim, Fettig decided to try out.
“I didn’t believe I was qualified to play in it,” he said. “I feverishly prepared the music they sent me. I spent like six or eight hours a day leading up to the audition.”
After five years in the woodwind section, Fettig auditioned to become one of the Marine Band’s assistant directors.
He had been interested in conducting since he was in high school.
While musicians work together, they are mainly focused on their own parts. Fettig said conductors get to take a larger view.
“In conducting, there is a sense as a whole. You have an opportunity to collaborate with all the musicians simultaneously,” he said.
At the same time, Fettig tries to stay out of his musicians’ way.
“They don’t need to be led all the time. You get the energy moving and the ensemble just kind of takes it,” he said.
Most of a director’s work is done behind the scenes.
Fettig is the one who leads the band’s rehearsals, making all the little decisions that can’t be written on a piece of sheet music. How long should the band hold that note? How fast should that crescendo occur?
“Somebody has to make the global decision on how an ensemble is going to play a piece of music,” he said.
Fettig also is the keeper of the Marine Band’s long, storied history.
“We are kind of two different types of organizations in one. We are a historic organization, but we’re also a living cultural organization. We always try to find that balance.”
The band is always expanding its repertoire, mixing in works by modern composers as well as popular music from the radio.
“All of it has a place in our musical culture,” he said.
During Wednesday’s concert, the United States Marine Band will perform pieces by Aaron Copland, big band master Jimmy Dorsey, Great American Songbook composer Harold Arlen and Oscar-winning composer John Williams.
The band also strives to preserve older American music, including the 132 marches Sousa wrote during his lifetime.
Fettig said many of his later marches are not well-known, and he hopes to introduce those to modern audiences.
Fettig’s favorite Sousa march, however, is the most well-known. He’s aware it might sound a little cliche, but Fettig loves “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“The reason it’s special to me is the audience reaction to it,” he said. “As soon as we announce we’re going to play it, people go crazy.
“It never ceases to amaze me.”
The concert is sponsored by the Kanawha County Band Director’s Association, the Charleston Civic Center and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Admission is free.
To reserve tickets, visit www.marchingdragons.com or call 304-722-0212, ext. 128.