Taps Bugler: Jari Villanueva

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Celebrate 150 Years of Taps

A BUGLE CALL REMEMBERED-Taps at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy

On the anniversary of the funeral services for President John F. Kennedy, a look at the sounding of Taps that was heard worldwide.

The JFK Gravesite-Arlington National Cemetery

The JFK Gravesite-Arlington National Cemetery


A Bugle Call Remembered: Taps  at the Funeral of President John F. Kennedy

By Jari Villanueva
© 2013 All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission from the author

Every American born before 1955 can tell you where they were and how they felt when they heard the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Friday November 22nd , 1963. Three days later millions around the world listened as Army bugler Keith Clark sounded the solemn twenty-four notes of Taps, concluding the state funeral held at Arlington National Cemetery.

On the afternoon of Kennedy’s assassination Clark, Principal Bugler of the United States Army Band, was going through his collection of rare books on church music with a friend when his 11-year old daughter, Sandy, called up the stairs with the news.1  After the initial shock subsided, Clark immediately went to the nearest barber for a haircut, thinking he might be asked to sound Taps  should Kennedy be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Clark thought it likely that a Navy bugler would be chosen since Kennedy had served as a naval officer during World War II but, “Just in case, I wanted to look my best, and I went out to get my haircut.”

Sergeant (Specialist 6 in the military ranks of the time) Clark was a trumpet player with the Army Band (known as “Pershing’s Own”) stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. Among his musical duties was sounding Taps at military funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery adjacent to the post. Keith Collar Clark was born on November 21, 1927 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father, Harry Holt Clark, was a professional musician who played flute and violin in several orchestras. When Clark was three, his father placed a toy trumpet on the fireplace mantel hoping to spark his son’s interest in music. Clark asked everyday if he could play with the trumpet. The answer was always the same: no, not until he would make a promise to take it seriously. It did not take long for Clark to make the promise to practice an hour everyday and his father replaced the toy with a real instrument.3

Keith Clark at age 19

Keith Clark at age 19

At age nine he debuted as a trumpet soloist in a radio contest, and while still a high school student he soloed with the University of Michigan Band, under Dr. William Revelli. Clark took lessons from trumpeter Harry Glantz in New York City, later stating his concepts of tone, style, and musicianship were influenced by Glantz’s playing.4  He also studied with Clifford Lillya, and Lloyd Geisler. After graduation from Interlochen Music School in 1944, he performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony. In 1946, he enlisted in the military to play trumpet in the Army Band. In 1951 he married Marjorie Ruth Park and together they raised four daughters in the Arlington, Virginia area, not far from Fort Myer.5

Keith Clark in the 1950s at Fort Myer

Keith Clark in the 1950s at Fort Myer

Clark performed at hundreds of funerals in Arlington and had played for President Kennedy many times, including sounding Taps  at The Tomb of the Unknowns less than two weeks prior to his death during Veterans Day ceremonies. He also performed for President Eisenhower and recalled that Vice President Nixon once winked at him during a ceremony.6

President Kennedy attends Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery November 11, 1963. Clark is the bugler. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston

President Kennedy attends Veterans Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery November 11, 1963. Clark is the bugler. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston

The decision to place the president’s remains in Arlington National Cemetery was made on Saturday, November 23rd . After reviewing possible locations with Arlington Superintendent John Metzler, the Kennedy family chose a site on a slope just below the Arlington House (the Custis-Lee Mansion).7  The selection was appropriate as the president had visited Arlington House earlier that year and remarked “I could stay here forever.” According to William Manchester in his book, “Death of a President”, it was not until early Monday November 25th , 1963 around 2:30am during a final briefing for military officers, that it was realized a bugler had not been requested for the funeral. In the overwhelming details that the Military District of Washington had to contend with over that long, sorrowful weekend, it had forgotten one of the fundamental elements of a military funeral: a bugler.9

The basic honors would be the ones that followed military tradition: the firing of three rifle volleys, followed by the sounding of Taps , the folding of the flag and its presentation to the next of kin. It was decided that the Army would provide a bugler. Clark was contacted immediately by his commander, Colonel Hugh Curry, with information regarding the ceremony. As with many things that day, the information Clark received was confusing. Clark, in a telephone interview, indicated that Curry, “like any good Irishman, was mourning the loss of his Commander-In-Chief with spirits.”

Clark reported to Arlington at 6am on Monday November 25th  “all spit and polished,” only to find that he and the groundskeepers were the only ones there. The crew was laying down fake grass in the 30 degree weather, he recalled. After waiting for a period of time he moved to the Army Band building at Fort Myer to try to get some sleep. At around 9am, a call came wondering where the bugler was, and Clark was informed that he had missed the rehearsal for the graveside ceremonies. A colonel asked him if he had ever played Taps , to which Clark replied, “I cannot remember a time when I did not know Taps.” He was told to report back around noon. After going home briefly to watch part of the funeral on television, he returned to Arlington around 11:30am.11 Clark described the scene that met him at the cemetery. There were marks for him to stand upon that placed him ten paces from the rifles of the firing party, and a microphone for which he was to play into. “I’m not playing for the mike. I’m playing for Mrs. Kennedy,” he told the television soundman, who assured him that the volume would be adjusted: It never was.12

Clark waited in the cold for three hours for the funeral mass to finish at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington. He remained calm despite the cold air and mounting tension: both enemies of any brass player. An apple brought from home provided some lunch during the wait and he occasionally warmed the bugle “to take the edge off.” At 1:30pm, the funeral procession left St. Matthew’s and began the solemn trip to Arlington. The march took over an hour. As the funeral procession approached, Clark turned to his religion. He remembered his beloved hymns, of a choir singing Amazing Grace, and of favorite bible passages.13  The magnificent, solemn pageantry of the state funeral of John F. Kennedy was unfolding before his eyes, and from his position on the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion, he had the perfect view to watch the military procession as it crossed the Memorial Bridge and wound its way into the cemetery.

Clark's view-The funeral procession view from Arlington

Clark’s view-The funeral procession view from Arlington

Shortly before 3pm, the Kennedy family, accompanied by heads of state, prime ministers, and United States officials; gathered by the gravesite as the U.S. Marine Band struck up Ruffles and Flourishes and the national anthem. The casket was borne to the grave accompanied by the strains of “Mist-Covered Mountains”  played by the U.S. Air Force Pipe Band.14

Overhead, fifty fighter jets flew in formation followed by Air Force One. A corps of Irish Cadets, brought in at the request of the family, executed a silent drill as Cardinal Richard Cushing began the traditional Catholic commitment rites with “O God, through whose mercy the souls of the faithful find rest, be pleased to bless this grave.”15 Clark, with his perfect view of the proceedings, looked over the assembled mourners and saw a bevy of prominent world leaders. Presidents, kings, prime ministers, and elected officials stood elbow to elbow without consideration to rank. The service continued. “I am the resurrection and the light…”

The sky above was bright and clear on the crisp autumn day and the solemn pageant was quickly moving towards its conclusion. Cushing finished the burial rites and led the Lord’s Prayer, then stepped back as the military honors began. First came the twenty-one gun salute fired by cannons from Fort Myer. The sound thundered through the silent hills of Arlington. Cushing then finished with a final blessing. “Present arms!” came the next command. This was followed by the order, “Firing Party, Fire Three Volleys.” The command was executed by the seven members of the Old Guard (Third U.S. Infantry) firing party. Three separate volleys of rifle fire is customary for militaries around the world, deriving from the ancient practice of calling the name of the deceased three times, followed by the word “vale”(farewell).

Taps at the ceremony

Taps at the ceremony

Clark raised his bugle to sound Taps. The moment had come. The final movement of the musical honors accorded all military members at a funeral. Taps had been used since the Civil War, when General Daniel Butterfield penned the music while in camp at Harrison’s Landing during the Peninsular Campaign in July, 1862. It had begun life as a signal to extinguish lights but had transformed into the call heard at U.S. military funerals.

The melody is simple, yet not easy to play with the appropriate combination of beauty, emotion, and serenity demanded by solemn occasions. As author and collector Roy Hempley stated in his online articles on Bach bugles, “Each bugler develops his or her style within limits defined by military custom and good taste. A not-so-obvious fact, however, is that buglers sometimes must render this solemn symbol of mourning under the most difficult circumstances, which might include hot or cold weather, rain, etc. There is no room for error regardless of the demands.” 16

Now the whole world listened. As the three volleys finished, Clark raised his bugle and began Taps . “Day is done…” as he had done daily in Arlington, he started the call, this time pointing the bell at Mrs. Kennedy believing that a bugler should only sound Taps  for the widow. He had thoughts of the bible passage from I Corinthians 15:51-52: “…We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” The notes resounded over the heads of all assembled. “Gone the sun….” On the sixth word, he cracked the note. “It was like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob,”17

Clark stiffened his embouchure and without pause finished the rest of the call flawlessly. “From the lake, from the hill, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” He brought the bugle down and saluted his Commander-in-Chief. The casket bearers folded the flag and it was presented to Mrs. Kennedy, as the Marine Band played the Navy Hymn “Eternal Father, Strong To Save.”18 Clark stated, “I feel the thought behind the playing and feeling used in the performance are the most important parts of each sounding of Taps.”19 “I missed a note under pressure. It’s something you don’t like, but it’s something that can happen to a trumpet player. You never really get over it.” Clark reminisced about the performance in an Associated Press report in 1988 on the 25th  anniversary of Kennedy’s death. “It’s like the speaker of the House saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.’ That is not at all hard to say,” Clark remembered. “But to do it then, and do it there–that’s when the pressure comes: that’s when it becomes difficult all of a sudden. A lot of people can sing in the shower, you know.”20

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39 Responses to “A BUGLE CALL REMEMBERED-Taps at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy”

  1. Joe Fincham says:

    Enjoyed the article. It brought back memory after memory of those hot,cold,snowy,sleeting,windy days standing sometimes for hours waiting for the funeral procession to show up while you try and keep your lips,and your horn ready for TAPS. Under the best of conditions there’s still extreme pressure to do your best for the fallen one,and their family. I’d like to say that out of the over 200 military funerals I had the honor of playing,I didn’t ‘muff’ a note or two. But I seriously doubt that any bugler can say that!

    Joe M.Fincham
    (former 113th Army Band,Ft.Knox,Ky) ’69

  2. John Cafferty says:

    I got the news of JFK’s assassination in an off-campus coffee house at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and immediately helped spread the news throughout the classrooms nearby. A couple of hours later UK’s Marching 100 band I was in were rehearsing for the upcoming football game. We played the National Anthem as we always had, but probably the was the worst rendition I’ve ever heard hearing half the guys breaking down in their horns. but, as I looked around, there were small clumps of students standing all around campus, hands over hearts at attention! A memorable show of loss. Later, as we watched the funeral at the Student Union, I remember the catch note in Taps and cringed for the bugler until a student said, “Even the BUGLE is crying.” I agreed.

  3. I am a concert trumpeter, master bugler, and have sounded taps at hundreds of military funerals. Mr. Clarke is not alone with cracking notes. So what? As a bugler we are required to stand idle in the heat and cold until our moment comes. The waiting is the hardest part.
    Sounding Taps is not the ‘layup’ people may think it is. Taps rises and falls through 4 octaves, and the elements impact the quality of play. I can recall a humbling experience myself on a very HOT July evening sounding Taps for a ‘Coastie’ veteran. I stood around so long I nearly melted, and yes, I cracked a note, and started playing in the wrong key. However, the family could not stop expressing their gratitude. They understood that it is the thought that counts. Thank you Mr. Clarke for your contribution!

  4. Richard Stoud says:

    I went to visit President Kennedy’s grave in 1964 with my parents and brother. I was 4. It left an indelible mark on my soul. in 1984, I marched in the funeral procession for the unknown serviceman from Vietnam as a member of USCG Officer Candidate School. in 2012 I was granted the privilege of playing TAPS at Arlington as part of Bugles Across America celebration of the 150th anniversary of the writing of Taps. I have played Taps many times at veterans funerals. It’s only 24 notes. But at a funeral, it’s a challenge to get perfect. It’s always appreciated by the family and friends of the deceased. It’s the most important music I perform.
    Richard Stoud LCDR USCG (ret)

  5. Patrick Gleason says:

    I’ve been there – after somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 renditions of “Taps” over the years I would love to say that I have never cracked a note, but that would be a lie, and in fact of the times I have cracked a note, the one he missed – the ‘E’ is probably the most common due to the fact that on many trumpets it is naturally flat and therefore doesn’t center in tune as it should.

    I like that this story doesn’t try to color it as something it isn’t, and that it was just a missed note due to cold. I could hear the cold in Clark’s playing and recognized it immediately for what it was. All things considered though, that little scuff doesn’t diminish that rendition of “Taps” one whit. In my opinion, it enhances it. It made it memorable – otherwise it would have been forgotten over the years as just one more forgettable part to that funeral ceremony, and it’s a moment in time that needs to be remembered.

  6. I choose to believe that the cracked note is done for an extra expression of grief for a departed soldier. I wish it could have been played at my father’s service.
    Thanks for the history of the note. I t has been on my mind for years and years.
    Rich P.

  7. I’d like to add a little trivia about my Dad, Keith Clark, and Kennedy’s gravesite. Long before Kennedy’s death, my Dad asked me if I’d like to go skiing with him someplace special. I didn’t think twice about not having any skis myself as he loaded up an ancient pair of wooden ones from his youth and drove us to Mt. Vernon, where Kennedy’s grave is now located.

    He said that the snow was just right and he’d been admiring that nice hill in front of the mansion and was anxious to try it out. I was excited too, until he told me I would have to stand on those skinny skis behind his feet! I was nervous, but he said I’d be fine if I held on tight.

    I stepped on and off we went down that slope. Next thing I knew, we were flying apart and he landed sprawled with his legs facing opposite directions. I laughed my head off and then realized my coat and shirt had flown up when I landed face down, so my belly was exposed and snow had gotten packed up my shirt. When I showed him, we both laughed until the tears were flowing.

    It’s ironic to me that the very site that holds such precious, happy childhood memories became the permanent resting place for our dearly loved President, with a plot not far away that became my father’s grave 40+ years later.

  8. As Keith Clark’s daughter, I’d like to add a little detail to my Dad’s performance of taps. Our family nervously waited in front of the TV during the live broadcast. When we heard Dad play taps and break a note, we all groaned in dismay.

    I was only in third grade and felt total humiliation that of all the perfect playing I’d ever heard from my Dad (I don’t ever remember him making a mistake, even when just practicing!), it had to be in front of the whole world.

    Hours later, when he came home, Sandy and I practically jumped him and asked why he had to have made a mistake on TV. His face paled, eyes got huge, and he said, “WHAT mistake!?” He didn’t even know about it until he watched it on TV himself.

    This is a little known fact. He explained to us not only the details of having frozen outside in one position, not allowed to move for many hours, but also the fact that the press insisted he stand right in front of the rifle squad. He had to play immediately following the gun volleys (21-gun salute?) and was stone deaf when he played. Dad had perfect pitch, but that was probably the only time it failed him since he couldn’t hear a thing!

    Thank you, everyone for all the wonderful comments. I loved my Dad very much and look forward to seeing him again in heaven.

  9. Paul C. Loeber, MSgt, USAF, Ret. says:

    The first time I was granted the Honor of playing Taps was when I was a Freshman in high school in 1978. Over the next twenty plus years through my high school, junior college, and first half of my US Air Force career, I was privileged to signal the “end of their day” and their final rest had come. The hardest Taps for me was when I was a Junior in high school when a very close friend who was like a beloved uncle to me had passed and he has specifically asked that I sound Taps at his funeral and graveside services. After reading Sergeant Clark’s story I can relate to the emotions he most likely felt as I too was overcome with emotion. I too cracked a note, toward the end, the high note — “All is wll,” not because I could not play Taps, or due to weather , but pure emotion of burying my friend. Even to this day, six years after I retired, I still become choked up, and still render a salute when I hear those sole mournful notes.

  10. Bill Hocking says:

    I have played taps many, many times over the years and I fully understand “the moment in time” in that I’ve learned that “you just don’t take the execution of it all” for granted. When you do that’s when the mistake “will” happen, and your concentration will be slightly off “just enough” to sound a mistake. On two separate taps occasions I cracked the same note as Keith Clark did and I wasn’t even in freezing weather like he was! He barely got through it and pulled the rest of the solo off. I would guess that his face was numb from the cold just enough to not get a true buzz with his lips. This is vital. He overshot his note because of it. And then you add “the biggest taps he ever played” into the mix. Then it gets too hairy to even concentrate. My hat goes off to Keith for not panicking from his “little” miss. It was just a slight one though. He still hit the note though after a slight minute crack just like I did. Biggest advice is “it’s not a given” that the solo “will” be perfect; just don’t lose your focus for “all” of your 24 notes.

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