John Held was born in 1862 in Geneva, Switzerland. At an early age he demonstrated that he had inherited the family's talent for work of exacting detail, winning a prize at calligraphy while only eight years old.
It was his skill with a pen that attracted the attention of Utah educator John R. Park, who was in Europe in 1870. Park had an eye for youthful talent, and offered the opportunity for several gifted children like Held to emigrate to Salt Lake City where he would see to their care and education. The benefit, as Park no doubt saw it, was mutual: Utah and the Mormon Church would gain intellectual and artistic resources while the children would gain opportunities in America's democratic society and expanding economy that may have escaped them in Europe.
Held arrived in Salt Lake City on 4 July 1870. After boarding for a time with Benjamin Heywood, he moved into the home of Dr. Park, where he remained until 1880. Two important events occurred that year: the rest of Held's family arrived from Switzerland, and he graduated from the University of Utah a few months before his eighteenth birthday. While at the university, Held had studied art and draftsmanship. Perhaps against Dr. Park's fondest wishes, he decided at that time not to follow his benefactor into teaching, and instead went to work for the Salt Lake County Surveyor as a map draftsman. As a sideline he learned to do various kinds of engraving, and he eventually opened Held's Pen Shop in Salt Lake City, a business which he was still running at the time of his death.
John Held married Annie Evans, whom he met at a church social, and the couple had six children, the most famous of whom was the eldest, John Held, Jr., whose engravings, sculptures, and illustrations of Manhattan and the "flapper" society of the 1920s were prominently featured in Life, The New Yorker, and other national magazines.
However, John Held, Sr., was known in Salt Lake City primarily as a musician. In 1881 he purchased a used cornet for nineteen dollars and taught himself to play it. Held was largely a self-taught musician, but he had learned enough by 1885 to form his own band, and he kept it running successfully through several musical fashions for the next fifty years.
The band's first engagement was the Pioneer Day celebration of 24 July 1886. Every Saturday night thereafter the band gave a similar concert. In 1889 it began giving summer concerts in Liberty Park, and it played the first Utah State Fair in 1896; both of these became regular engagements over the years. Salt Lake City at that time was an important center of bicycle racing, particularly at the old Salt Palace at Ninth South and State streets. Held's band was the "musical attraction" of those Tuesday and Friday evening races; like a football half-time show, the band played "selections popular with concert bands" between heats.
Held, whose musical career was almost exactly contemporary with that of John Philip Sousa, was active during the golden years of the concert and marching band era, and, though there were other bands in Salt Lake City and Utah, John Held was clearly the predominant figure.
Held exerted himself to keep up with changing musical fashions, but he was deeply committed to the concert band and its music. His band was a popular attraction at Saltair in the days when the waltz and the two-step were in vogue; both types of music were easily played by a concert band. When ragtime and jazz began to take over, Held purchased a stock of music for the modern dance band, with string section and saxophones; but it is apparent that his interest in that type of music was not as great. Held even regretted developments in concert band music toward the end of his life. In an interview in 1934 he expressed his regret that the growth of strong high school band programs, for all of their laudable educational value, was forcing professional concert bands out of existence. Held also expressed disapproval at the economic measures adopted by proprietors of theaters and dance halls in replacing live music with jukeboxes or other recorded music.
John Held was still musically active, however, at the time of his death. His band played their fiftieth-anniversary Pioneer Day concert on 24 July 1936; Held died on 15 August. The rise of radio, recorded music, and amateur bands, together with rapidly changing musical fashion, had conspired to corrode the importance that John Held's band had once had in Salt Lake City cultural life, but Held and his band were still something more than mere nostalgia, and the tone of the obituaries indicates that the passing of the man and his music was sincerely mourned by many. His collection of band music is included in the Utah State Historical Society's collection.