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Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., to John António de Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus. His parents were of Portuguese and Bavarian (German) descent. John first learned the violin beginning at age 6. He was found to have absolute pitch. When the young Sousa reached the age of 13, his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, enlisted his son in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice. The boy soon attempted to run away and join a circus. John served his apprenticeship for seven years, until 1875, and apparently learned to play all the wind instruments while honing his mettle with the violin.
Several years later, John left his apprenticeship to join a theatrical (pit) orchestra where he learned to conduct. He returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its head in 1880, and remained as its conductor until 1892. Sousa also led the marching band of Gonzaga College High School.
Sousa organized his own band in 1892. It toured widely, and in 1900, represented the United States at the Paris Exposition before touring Europe. Sousa repeatedly refused to conduct on the radio, fearing a lack of personal contact with the audience. He was finally persuaded to do so in 1929 and became a smash hit.
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