On the anniversary of the funeral services for President John F. Kennedy, a look at the sounding of Taps that was heard worldwide.
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.”2
Keith Clark’s broken sixth note was considered the only conspicuous mistake in the otherwise ornate and grandiose ceremony. It was thought that it was a deliberate effect. It was not. Clark was present hours before the funeral procession arrived at Arlington and placed in very close proximity to the firing party to appease the television cameramen. Captain Thomas F. Reid, Commander of Co. D, First Battalion, Third Infantry, wrote in his after-action report: “The television network coordinator (Bill Jones from NBC), though generally cooperative, insisted on the placement of ceremonial troops in some areas which were convenient for television coverage, but extremely difficult for the troops concerned. An example of this in [sic] his insistence that the Buglar [sic] stand directly in front of the firing party. This resulted in the Buglar [sic] having to play Taps immediately after experiencing the muzzle blast of the firing party firing three (3) vollies [sic] into his ear, with unfortunate results.”21
It was cold that day, and because Clark did not have much of a chance to warm-up, it is not surprising that he missed a note. Also, the fact that he was playing for a worldwide audience may have had some effect on him. Tom Sherlock, Senior Historian at Arlington remarked in 2001 that Clark’s flawed sounding of Taps seemed entirely fitting. “It showed the tension that the nation felt. It’s part of the emotion. It’s when a speech is well delivered and a voice cracks because it’s an emotional time. It’s what should happen. And in that way, it almost personalized it. And it made it immortal.”22
Clark returned to the band hall at Fort Myer after the funeral to change clothes before teaching several trumpet lessons for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.23 It was a long day for him. Clark’s family watched the ceremony on television. His daughter Karen remembered, “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. 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.”24
The broken note took on a life of its own. Clark reported that for weeks afterward, the same note was missed by other buglers at Arlington. “We all thought it must be psychological,” he recalled.25 Newspapers picked up on the cracked note, calling it a “tear” and the suggestion was made that the note was missed on purpose as in a “French” version.26 The French word “sanglot” was also used to describe the note. Sanglot translates as “sob” and as described in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, indicates a downward resolving appoggiatura (like a grace note) sung to an appropriate sound such as “ah” or “helas” How this relates to a broken note of Taps is when a bugler misses a note, they will usually overshoot it and come down to it, making a “splee-ahh” sound. A broken note is also referred to in the common jargon of trumpeters as a split, a clam, or a crack as in, “He really clammed that note” or “He split that top note.” One article, “America’s Long Vigil,” which appeared in TV Guide on January 25th , 1964 described Clark as “The bugler who played the sour note during Taps.” American journalist Edward P. Morgan stated, “The bugler’s lip quivered for the Nation.”28
In the weeks that followed the funeral, many cards and letters were sent to Clark thanking him for the rendition and expressing their understanding for the missed note. Much of the mail was simply addressed to “The Bugler, Arlington National Cemetery”, yet made its way to Clark’s hands. One note in particular stated, “Hold your head high! In your one sad note, you told the world of our feelings.”29
After retiring from the Army in 1966, Clark went on to a successful career of teaching, performing, and writing. He served as a music instructor at Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y. He later was a conductor and performer with southwest Florida area musical groups such as the Venice Concert Band and the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. Clark’s great love for hymnody and psalmody resulted in a large collection containing more than 9,000 volumes. It also brought him much recognition resulting in a publication, “A Select Bibliography for the Study of Hymns” published by The Hymn Society of America. The Clark Hymnology Collection, which includes thousands of hymnbooks from various American denominations and churches, as well as several well-known books on hymnody from the 17th century to the present, was acquired by Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA in 1982.30
The instrument Clark used at the funeral was a Bach Stradivarius field trumpet (bugle) pitched in the key of B-flat. Modeled after the M1892 U.S. regulation field trumpet, the U.S. Army Band had acquired these specially made bugles through the efforts of Army Bandsmen George Myers and Gilbert Mitchell from Vincent Bach during the 1950s, for use at ceremonies at Arlington. Letters from Bach describe the type of professional model he wanted to create for the buglers in the band.31
The bugle, serial number 1962-1, was purchased in April 1962 from the Bach Corporation in Mount Vernon, New York. After being used at the Kennedy funeral, the bugle was used to sound Taps at the funerals of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The Army Band was later directed to turn the bugle over to the Smithsonian Institution because of its association with the Kennedy funeral. It was transferred on April 3rd , 1973 and placed on display in the National Museum of American History. In 1998 work began by the author to have the bugle moved to Arlington as part of a three-year display of bugles and bugle related materials. Through the efforts of Army Band Commander Colonel Bryan Shelburne, Band Historian Michael Yoder, Arlington Superintendent John Metzler Jr. (whose father was superintendent during the Kennedy funeral), Arlington Historian Thomas Sherlock, and the author; the bugle was moved to Arlington in the spring of 1999 where it is currently on display in the Welcome Center.
The uniform worn by Clark that day is in the Heritage Museum at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda, Florida. Keith Clark suffered an aortic aneurysm after playing the trumpet at an orchestra concert and died on January 10th , 2002. He is buried in Arlington in Section 34 near the grave of General John (Black-Jack) Pershing. Section 34 is also the final resting place for other Army Band musicians including buglers George Meyers and Patrick Maestrolo. Indeed, the broken note has become part of our American heritage as much as the crack in the Liberty Bell, which occurred, by legend, during the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835. Clark’s one note remains in our collective memory of a beloved president and a bugler’s rendition of a military honor for his commander-in-chief. Thanks to the family of Keith Clark for their help with this article. A commemoration of Keith Clark and the 50th anniversary of the sounding of Taps at the Kennedy Funeral will take place at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday November 16th , 2013 at 10am. For more information, please visit www.tapsbugler.com
Click here for recording of Taps by Keith Clark at the Kennedy Funeral If you have any questions please contact Jari Villanueva by CLICKING HERE
Jari Villanueva is considered the country’s foremost authority on U.S. military bugle calls, especially the call of Taps. He retired from the United States Air Force after serving 23 years as a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. He was responsible for moving the bugle used at President Kennedy’s funeral from the Smithsonian Institute to Arlington, was behind the 150th anniversary ceremonies of Taps in 2012, instrumental in having Taps designated as the National Song of Remembrance, and is currently involved with Taps For Veterans, an organization that helps provide live buglers for military funerals. Villanueva is the author of “Twenty-Four Notes That Tap Deep Emotions: The Story of America’s Most Famous Bugle Call” and is featured on the CD “Day is Done: Music Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of Taps.” He currently serves as the Director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard and is commander/conductor of the Maryland Defense Force Band. He resides with his wife Heather in Catonsville, MD. His website is www.tapsbugler.com
1. Karen Clark-Moore, Daughter of Keith Clark, interview by author, 1 February 2013
.2 Dan B Fleming, Ask What You Can Do For Your Country: The Memory and Legacy of John K. Kennedy (Clearwater, Florida: Vandamere Press, 2002), 72.
4. Keith Clark, personal letter to author, 8 July 1992.
5. Ernest Kay, editor, International Who’s Who in Music , (Cambridge, England: International Who’s Who in Music, 1988), 41.
6. Barbara Lee, “The Broken Note.” Washingtonian Magazine. (November 1993): 48-49.
7. William Manchester, The Death of a President. (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 490-497.
8. Robert M. Poole, On Hallowed Ground-The Story of Arlington National Cemetery. (New York: Walker & Company, 2009), 210.
9. Manchester, 559
10. Keith Clark, telephone interview with author, April, 1999
11. Lee, 48.
12. Ibid, 49.
13. Ibid, 49.
14. Irving Lowens, “Accurate Listing of Funeral Music,” The Washington Star. 1 December 1963
15. Manchester, 598.
16. Roy Hempley and Doug Lehrer, Bach’s Bugles , www.bachbrass.com/bachology. 2006
17. Manchester, 600.
19. Clark, letter
20. “Bugler’s Note Still Plays on Him” Associated Press. 22 November 1988.
21. Thomas Reid “After Action Report, President Kennedy Funeral (Interment Ceremony)-16 December 1963″ 3rd U.S. Infantry records, Old Guard Museum
22. Richard Goldstein, “Keith Clark, Bugler for Kennedy, dies at 74.” New York Times , 17 January 2002.
23. Douglas Bialecki, “Bugler Recalls JFK Funeral Taps” Vero Beach, Florida Press-Journal. 22 November 1988 13A.
25. “Bugler’s Note Still Plays on Him”
26. “Behind the Scenes”, Eureka Humboldt Standard , 6 December 1963, 4.
27. Stanley Sadie, editor, The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians. (London: MacMillian Publishers Limited, 1980) Vol. 16 472.
28. “America’s Long Vigil” TV Guide. (25 January 1964) 21.
29. Letters and postcards send to Keith Clark after the funeral in the possession of the Clark Family.
30. Keith C. Clark Hymnology Collection www.regent.edu/lib/special-collections/clark-hymnology.cfm 2013
31. Vincent Bach, Letters to Sergeant George Myers, 14 and 20 February 1950
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