Strike Up the Band

This Takoma Park musician talks about his experience as the 28th director of "The President's Own" United States Marching Band.

Strike Up the Band
Photo provided by U.S. Marine Band

It’s not surprising that Jason K. Fettig makes a living as a professional musician. Nor is it terribly surprising that he is the member of an internationally recognized band, one that has traveled the world and performed at some of the most iconic events and venues in the United States. After all, Fettig started playing clarinet at an early age and majored in performance and music education at the University of Massachusetts.

What might come as a surprise is that the Takoma Park resident’s band is the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. Even Fettig — that is, Col. Fettig — admits his college self wouldn’t be able to conceive of a life combining uniforms and sheet music.

“It was not a lifelong aspiration for me to join the Marine Band, and I certainly didn’t envision myself in the military when I was in school,” he says.

But 24 years after “a very fortunate opportunity at just the right time,” Fettig couldn’t be happier or more grateful. He spent three years as a clarinetist, then 13 years as assistant director before taking command in 2014 of the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization. He’s now in his seventh year as director.

Montgomery Magazine talked to Fettig about his musical journey, misconceptions about the Marine Band and the organization’s post-pandemic future.

Montgomery Magazine: Can you provide an overview of your musical journey and how it led to your current position?

Col. Jason K. Fettig: At the time that I auditioned for the USMC band, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t musically qualified to serve in such an advanced professional group. But winning that audition was one of the most incredible moments of my life and completely changed the course of my career.

Once I joined the band, I quickly realized that it was exactly the right place for me. Not only did it align with my ideals as a musician, but I loved the history, traditions and discipline of the Marine Corps, and I assumed that I would spend my time in the service playing clarinet.

A few years into my career, another opportunity arose to audition to be one of the assistant directors and conductors of the band, and I took another chance by applying. I was selected for that position, became an officer and turned my attention to conducting full time. That began a brand new and very illuminating path for me: learning how to lead and be a better musician for the exceptional professionals that make up this incredible band.

Col. Fettig conducts The Presidents Own U.S. Marine Band at Joe Biden's inauguration
Provided by U.S. Marine Band

MM: What have been some career highlights?

JF: I have been very fortunate to have a long list of incredibly memorable experiences, both as a musician and now as director, including lots of amazing moments at the White House for five presidents.

It’s hard to choose just one highlight, but one of the most emotional moments for me was providing the music for the state funeral of President George H.W. Bush. In my role, I conducted the Marine Chamber Orchestra and Armed Force Choir. We performed several moving selections on our own, and also accompanied some prominent guest artists. Being in the National Cathedral for that occasion and playing such beautiful music in honor of the life of a former commander-in-chief was an unforgettable and humbling experience.

Another favorite moment took place on our national concert tour in 2019, just before the pandemic began. While performing in Los Angeles, I invited the legendary film composer and conductor John Williams to guest conduct during the concert. We performed his music for the entire second half of the concert, and I was lucky to have the chance to conduct most of that music with Maestro Williams listening from backstage. Then we introduced him to conduct the end of the concert, and the audience went wild. That moment of walking across the stage to welcome him to the podium — and then taking bows together — was one of those moments I will never forget.

The 2021 Inauguration [of President Joseph R. Biden] stands out for several reasons, not the least of which was that we performed in the middle of a pandemic. It was the first time we played together as a full band in more than nine months, and we needed to take several unprecedented precautions to keep the musicians safe. It was also very memorable on a musical level. It was only my second Inauguration as the director, and it was wonderful to collaborate with artists like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks and to showcase new music written by several living American composers for this special occasion and sacred symbol of our democracy.

MM:  How did COVID-19 impact you and the band?

JF: Performing and serving during COVID has been one of the most challenging times of my entire career. Starting last March, we ceased live performances for audiences, but we still had to find ways to keep our Marines healthy and do our jobs for the Marine Corps and the president. We broke down into small ensembles and instituted safety measures, including performing in reduced numbers; limiting playing segments to 40 minutes at a time, with at least 20 minutes in between to clear the aerosols in the room; and using stand-alone high CFM HEPA filters in all rehearsal spaces.

One of the silver linings is that we have discovered many new ways to reach more people. We began to record everything, started releasing live-streamed concerts and produced special performances. We also created new educational seminars and programs, and we connected our musicians to students studying music from home all over the country. In all, we directly reached over 50,000 students during this past year, and millions of people have watched and listened to “The President’s Own” online. It has been so clear to me that music is one of the things that has gotten so many people through this challenge, and it certainly did feel very good to continue to find a way to make music together.

Now that the majority of the band has received our vaccinations, we are very eager to return to some live performances very soon and return to touring so that we can share this great band in person with people who don’t have opportunity to come to Washington, D.C.

Col. Fettig leads the U.S. Marine Band at the White House
Photo by Ralph Alswang, Alswang Photography

MM: What would the public be surprised to learn about the Marine Band?

JF: I think lots of people might understandably see military bands as marching bands that mostly play in parades and for formal military occasions, but the Marine Band is
so much more.

It is an organization made up of more than 150 of the finest musicians and professionals capable of performing any kind of music and at an artistic level that is aligned with some of our greatest orchestras in this country. In addition to the music we provide to the Marine Corps for ceremonies and funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, we play at the White House over 200 times a year, and most of that music is not ceremonial or military in nature. We perform classical, jazz, pop, Latin, ragtime, funk, Broadway, world music — you name it.

Since the time that John Philip Sousa was our director, we have become known as one of the finest concert bands in the world and play all manner of symphonic music in concert. We even have string players in the Marine Band, which allows us to form a small orchestra that often plays inside the White House as a featured ensemble.

MM: What does the band’s schedule look like going forward?

JF: If it is permitted, we would very much like to perform some version of the traditional outdoor concerts we have given at the U.S. Capitol each week during the summer for more than 150 years. We have already begun performing the traditional Friday evening parades at the historic Marine Barracks Washington with limited audiences, and we have a weekend of live concerts planned at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts in late June. In addition, we will continue to serve in our critical role at the White House as needed and to provide music for full-honors funerals for our departed Marine comrades every week.

There are still a lot of unknowns, but what I do know is the Marine Band will be sharing music with as many people as we can this summer, and if it can’t be in person, you will always be able to find us online, doing what we have proudly done for well over two centuries in this country.

This story first appeared in the June-July issue of Montgomery Magazine.


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