June 24, 2024

What is HBCU marching band style? A culture of precision, showmanship – Tennessean

High-stepping and backin’ that thang up. Bigggg, cohesive sound.
A groovy mix of musicianship, precision and style; brotherhood, ultra competitiveness and of course, been-ready-for-prime-time showmanship.
All while blowing a trumpet or flute or clarinet on the move. Smashing cymbals. Sounding off with a snare drum, setting the pace for 100-plus band members. 
Dropping a tuba to twerk, split and run back in formation.  
“To me,” said Natoj Johnson, the 2022-23 drum major at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, “we have style, and that style cannot be copied. It can’t be replicated. You got to have that within you.”
If you didn’t attend one of America’s historically Black colleges and universities, welcome to the show. Where halftime is the best time. And it gets better after the football game. Trust. 
“We dance the story of the institution every time we perform,” said J. William Nicholas, the director of bands at Tuskegee University. He’s also a Florida A&M alum.
Sure, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Drake, SZA and Future collectively stream tens of millions of songs annually. But can they wiggle their way from a back bend to the ground? Or 360 spin into a split? With HBCU bands, that’s just the start of the show. 
This mobile music is so popular, their bands are routinely referred to by nicknames that are equally braggadocious and becoming. 
Southern’s Human Jukebox and Grambling State’s World Famed Tiger Marching Band. Texas Southern’s Ocean of Soul. The Blue and Gold Marching Machine of North Carolina A&T. Virginia State’s Trojan Explosion.
Don’t get it twisted as the nation celebrates Black History Month 2024. This is more than just jiggles and gyrations. With every note, every formation, HBCU bands support their institutions as their most viable recruiting tools, sparking student enrollment and retention, as well as fundraising efforts.  
And in 2023, Tennessee State’s The Aristocrat of Bands became the first-ever marching band to win a Grammy, thanks to its gospel album, “The Urban Hymnal.”
“When kids come here, they expect to be educated, but also they expect to have an opportunity to do some unique things,” said Reginald McDonald, the director of Tennessee State’s marching band. He’s also an Alabama State alumni.
“They expect to perform with the best of the best.”
The Sonic Boom of the South — Jackson State University’s marching band — is the latest HBCU band to enthrall the nation. On Sunday, the band joined Usher and friends at Super Bowl LVIII, helping to transform the sporting spectacle at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas into an even grander halftime show.  
HBCU bands have accomplished this for generations now, from college football games against decades-old rivals and classics held on neutral sites to guest starring at professional sporting events, Mardi Gras and Rose Bowl parades and presidential inaugurations.
Oh, and don’t forget mega star Beyoncé (her father graduated from Fisk University in Nashville) elevating Black culture by performing an HBCU-style set while simultaneously becoming the first woman to headline the Coachella Music Festival.
HBCU bands date back to 1890 with the Tuskegee Normal School Brass Band at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University in Alabama. Major Nathaniel Clark Smith was the first official HBCU band director. By the 1940s, Florida A&M created the modern day style of pairing up-tempo dancing and popular music.
Maestro Benjamin J. Butler II may be the oldest band leader remaining from this period. Butler, a 1959 graduate of Tennessee A&I University (Now Tennessee State), marched in the band before serving as assistant director of bands at his alma mater. In 1969, he became the director of bands at Texas Southern, holding the position until 2014. He presently serves as the artistic director and conductor of the Gulf Coast Concert Band. 
Fast forward to today.  
The culture made space for non-Black members that embrace a popular phrase from the 2002 movie “Drumline.”One band. One sound.  
Women are also thriving in this once male-only space, from band members and drum majors to band directors. In 2005, Rhonda L. Harper became the first female band director of an HBCU band, leading Lincoln University in Missouri’s Marching Musical Storm. Others have followed, including Nikole Roebuck, Grambling State’s first head female band director.
“This is more than music for me,” Roebuck said. “And it’s about what I can teach them as individuals. How can they become productive members of society?” 
“Drumline” featuring Nick Cannon also gave America a taste of HBCU band culture. While the school in the movie — Atlanta A&T — was fictional, all other bands in the movie, including Morris Brown College in Atlanta, were real and continue to leverage the exposure to assist with recruitment and retention. 
Don P. Roberts, a former Marching 100 drum major at Florida A&M, consulted on the movie. Meanwhile, other former HBCU band members read like a who’s who of Black culture, from the original members of the Commodores (Tuskegee University) to Cortez Bryant, a former Young Money executive and manager of Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj (Jackson State), and Randy Jackson, the music executive and musician best known for his role as a former judge on “American Idol” (Southern). Thousands of others continue as professional musicians, thought leaders in their respective industries or this generation’s teachers of band culture. 
“Drumline” hooked Zyrin Gougis on HBCU bands. He’s lost count of how many times he watched the movie. When he was younger, he constantly asked his dad to play it.
By age 9, he joined a marching band in New Orleans. “My love grew every day for band,” Gougis said. 
Now a senior at Edna Karr High School, it continues to blossom, placing him in position to lead the next generation of HBCU band heads. “Music is emotion,” he added. “You put soul and your emotions into music. It takes everything that’s going on in your personal life and it makes it better. 
He’s not alone. 
More than a century since the first known documented HBCU marching band performed, Reggie Allen II is a proud member of Morgan State’s The Magnificent Marching Machine. 
He’s also a second generation HBCU band head. His father high-stepped at the university in the 1980s. 
Decades later, the younger Allen has watched Black America’s Groovy Secret transform into an international craze, thanks to YouTube videos showcasing head-to-head band competitions. 
“Knowing from my OGs and people that came before me,” Allen said, “it’s come a long way and it’s still going to keep going with how technology progresses.”
Gary Estwick is the business, race and culture editor at The Tennessean. He can be reached at gestwick@gannett.com. Follow him on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter at @garyestwick.


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