A well-earned salute to Colonel Bourgeois

With everything he has experienced during his acclaimed career — not the least being his appointment as 25th Director of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band — it’s difficult to catch retired U.S. Marine Colonel John R. Bourgeois off guard.

Courtesy photo
John R. Bourgeois where he is most comfortable, conducting one of many orchestras over his distinguished career.

But that’s just what happened this past weekend in Lexington, Ky, where at the American Bandmasters Association’s [ABA] 83rd Annual Convention the unassuming resident of Rappahannock County joined renowned American composer John Philip Sousa in being named the association’s “Honorary Life President.”

“It was a totally unexpected surprise and I’m just overwhelmed,” Bourgeois said in an interview. “It’s an honor very few people achieve, and I hope that I can continue to serve in the same capacity.”

The ABA was formally organized in New York City in 1929, and the era’s most respected musicians in attendance named Sousa the organization’s first Honorary Life President.

“The object of this organization shall be mutual helpfulness and the promotion of better music through the instrumentality of the concert band,” the original constitution of the ABA stated. “To this end the association will strive to secure the adoption of a universal band instrumentation so that the band publications of all countries will be interchangeable, to induce prominent composers of all countries to write in the larger forms for bands, to establish the concert band a higher standard of artistic recognition with it rightfully merits.”

The ABA made a point of stating this past weekend that it has “kept pace with the changing times; however, its principles have never been compromised.”

Bourgeois in 2014 was elected one of the ABA’s Honorary Life Members, but this latest achievement is far more significant in the annals of distinguished composers and their concert bands.

His career at the White House spanned no less than nine presidential administrations, from Presidents Eisenhower to Clinton. A native of Louisiana, he graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans, joined the Marine Corps in 1956, and entered “The President’s Own” in 1958 as a French hornist and arranger. Named director in 1979, Bourgeois was promoted to his present rank of colonel in 1983.

As director of “The President’s Own”, Bourgeois was also Music Advisor to the White House. He regularly conducted the Marine Band and the Marine Chamber Orchestra at the Executive Mansion, appearing there more frequently than any other musician in the nation.

Retired U.S. Marine Col. John R. Bourgeois of Rappahannock County is presented with the American Bandmaster Association’s “Honorary Life President” honor last weekend at the organization’s convention in Lexington, Ky.

Under Colonel Bourgeois’ leadership “The President’s Own” presented its first overseas performances in history, traveling to the Netherlands in 1985 where it performed with the Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy. In February 1990 Bourgeois led the Marine Band on an historic 18-day concert tour of the Soviet Union as part of the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. Armed Forces Band Exchange. He also directed the Marine Band on 19 nationwide tours, bringing the music of “The President’s Own” to the American people. He retired from active duty in July 1996.

And speaking of Sousa, who the Rappahannock resident now joins on the highest rung of the ABA ladder, wouldn’t you know that Bourgeois is past president and CEO for 20 years of the John Philip Sousa Foundation. He is also past president of the American Bandmasters Association, past president of the National Band Association, and the American vice president of the International Military Music Society. The list goes on and on.

Bourgeois is very active in and around the town of Washington and Rappahannock County, where he has served as president of the Rappahannock Historical Society and president of the board of the Child Care and Learning Center. He has also served on the board of directors of Rappahannock’s cat rescue organization, RappCats.

In December 2011 he served as grand marshall of Washington’s Christmas Parade. And in July 2014 he was asked to conduct an “All American” band concert at the Castleton Festival under the aegis of the late maestro Lorin Maazel. Bourgeois says he was privileged to be a colleague of Maazel’s. Indeed, he conducted his setting of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the late maestro’s memorial service at Castleton in November 2014.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.