Bringing it all home: UMass graduate Col. Jason Fettig will lead the U.S. Marine Band in a performance at the university

  • UMass Amherst graduate Col. Jason Fettig conducts the U.S. Marine Band in a 2017 concert in Washington, D.C. The band will perform at UMass on Oct. 22. Photo by Master Sgt. Amanda Simmons

  • Col. Jason Fettig, director of the U.S. Marine Band, has been with the group since earning music degrees at UMass Amherst in 1997 and 1998. CONTRIBUTED/UMASS AMHERST

  • The U.S. Marine Band, the oldest continously active professional music organization in the country, first performed in 1800. Image courtesy UMass Amherst

Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2022

When Jason Fettig received his degree in music from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the spring of 1997, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. Graduate school was one possibility and teaching was another, but his future was not yet clear.

Almost as “a little bit of an accident,” Fettig says, he ended up auditioning for a spot in the U.S. Marine Band, nicknamed “The President’s Own” — and 25 years later, Fettig now directs the acclaimed ensemble and has the rank of colonel.

And on Oct. 22, Fettig returns to his alma mater to conduct the Marine Band, currently on tour in the Northeast, in a 7:30 p.m. performance at Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall, a concert that is free and open to the public. The band, the country’s oldest continuously active professional musical organization, last performed at UMass in 2017.

A New Hampshire native, Col. Fettig began playing the clarinet in grade school and continued his studies through high school in Manchester. In a recent call from Washington, D.C., he said he came to UMass in part because he was interested attending a school a modest distance from home, but primarily because he’d heard good reports from others about the university’s music programs.

“There was a bit of a tradition at my high school of music students going (to UMass),” he said. “And I knew after I met with (music professor) Michael Sussman and auditioned for him that this was the place I wanted to be.

“I really appreciate any chance to come back here,” he said, “because I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experience and opportunities I had at UMass.”

Two other members of the band hail from western Massachusetts: Easthampton native and Master Sgt. David Jenkins, and Master Sgt. David Jenkins, a Williamstown native and a 1996 UMass grad.

Fettig received a bachelor’s degree in music performance in 1997 and then did a semester of student teaching to complete a bachelor’s in music education at UMass in early 1998. He’s been with the Marine Band ever since, rising from lieutenant to colonel.

He also earned a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2005. He became the Marine Band director in 2014.

As director, he heads an ensemble that was created by an act of Congress in 1798 and played for the first time in August 1800, on a hill where the Lincoln Memorial now stands. In March 1801, the band performed at the inauguration of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson — and it’s played at every presidential inauguration since.

Members of the ensemble — Fettig says there are 135 musicians, plus about 20 support staff — do not undergo military training or serve in combat, but they do receive military ranks, and their official mission is to “provide music for the President of the United States and the Commandant of the Marine Corps,” according to the group’s website.

And provide music they do: Fettig says they have about 1,200 engagements a year, from solo performances of, say, a trumpeter performing “Taps” at a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, to concerts involving the full band. Smaller string and wind ensembles also give performances. Currently, 65 members of the band are on tour in the Northeast, including for the UMass concert.

“We always need enough musicians on hand in Washington for whatever we may be asked to do,” Fettig said.

The band makes plenty of other appearances. Fettig has led the group on NBC’s Today Show and the David Letterman Show, and he’s collaborated with various artists, from clarinetist Ricardo Morales to Irish tenor Ronan Tynan to pop figures such as Lady Gaga. Band members also lead music workshops in schools and colleges across the country.

One of the biggest appeals of his work, Fettig says, is leading what he calls “one of the best professional bands in the world” in a varied repertoire that includes marches, classical music, jazz, Broadway tunes, rock and more.

“When the president asks for a certain kind of music, I have to be able to say ‘Yes!’ ” he said with a laugh.

For the UMass concert, Fettig is planning a mix of music that will draw on work by John Philip Sousa, the Marine Band’s 17th director, who in 1891 began the ensemble’s tradition of an annual tour. The Oct. 22 show will also include contemporary compositions, vocal and instrumental solos, and a patriotic salute to the Armed Forces.

In addition, Matthew Westgate, the university’s wind studies director and the chair of the UMass Music & Dance Department, will guest conduct one of the works on the band’s program.

“We know we’ll have a diverse audience, from veterans to music students to people who enjoy marches, so we want to be able to offer some real variety, something that reflects the variety in our national music history,” Fettig said.

Looking back, he notes that he almost never made it into the Marine Band. Somewhat on a whim, he submitted his resume to the band in 1997 and was invited to come to Washington for an tryout. But he wasn’t convinced he was good enough to be in the group and feared that “I might make a fool of myself in the audition.”

At the last moment, he says, he bought an airline ticket to Washington; he had an audition and was invited to join the band.

“I’m so grateful for what I’ve been able to do in my career, and for how I got the training to do it when I was at UMass, especially when I think I might have missed out on this opportunity,” he said.

Advance tickets for the U.S. Marine Band concert can be reserved online through the UMass Fine Arts Center and Music Department or by calling (413) 545-2511 (limit four tickets per request).

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.