The Bonds of HBCU Marching Bands
Words by Jonathan Shipley
Boom! Just like that, Jackson, Mississippi is alive with jubilant music. It caroms off the football stadium walls, blasts up Woodland Hills, makes its way over to Eastover, Flowood, and Garden Park: a riotous bouquet of pageantry and precision, drum and dance, brassy sounds and bombastic scores, regardless if the local team has scored at all. Sonic Boom of the South, the marching band of Jackson State University has entered the building.
Elsewhere, at Abbott Stadium, the Golden Tiger football team is in the locker room at halftime. Most of the town of Tuskegee, Alabama are in the stands or are listening to the game on their radios: whether it be on the shores of City Lake, at Moton Field Municipal Airport, or waiting in the drive-thru at the Popeye’s off of I-85. As in Jackson, a tidal wave of sound suddenly pours onto the field. Drum majors strut out, high kicking (their hats plumed and gleaming in the sun). Dancers shake out (their choreography is one of pride). Marching band members flow and form, blow and blast, playing tunes as the crowd goes wild. Another great performance by the Tuskegee University Marching Crimson Pipers Band.
Great performances and HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) marching bands are synonymous. They’ve gone hand-in-hand (usually in white gloves with brass gleaming and drums tight) for decades, some of their origins predating the American Revolution. It is not simply entertainment at a local civic parade, or something to while away the minutes at the game before the team returns to the field. To those involved in HBCU bands, it is a way of life. It is a way to live.
“Music is the universal language that connects all human beings,” says Dr. Roderick Little, Director of Bands and Assistant Professor of Music at Jackson State University. “Add to that the lifelong bonds developed while in band. Students will be bridesmaids and groomsmen at weddings, will be godparents, will see their peers’ first child being born. There’s nothing like it.” All of that can come from a kid being drawn to the trombone or the bass drum, the flute or the color guard flag, the trumpet or the white polished spats of a drum major.
“Band gives students a level of confidence and professionalism that will carry over into the real world,” says John Lennard, Director of Bands at Tuskegee University. Lennard is an accomplished saxophone player who has performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Ruben Studdard, Brian McKnight, and the Count Basie Orchestra. “I want my students to develop discipline, character, and high expectations.”
That they do, at collegiate games, parades, and at battles against other HBCU bands. One of the most popular is the Honda Battle of the Bands, occurring every spring in Atlanta. Bands that fought in 2020 (2021’s battle was canceled due to COVID) included bands such as Alabama A&M, Bethune-Cookman, Delaware State, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Winston-Salem State, Florida A&M, and others.
Lennard notes, “Many of my favorite marching band memories were being in the band at Florida A&M University. Being in the Marching 100 gave me lifelong friendships from the many performances we had.” For Dr. Little, he has had similar experiences when he was playing snare drum for Jackson State as a student. He also marched as part of the Jackson Five Drum Major Squad. “Lifelong bonds,” he says, “and relationships are vital to our organization. I actually met my wife in the band, and now I have a beautiful family.”
Family—that is a word that reverberates in the ranks of HBCU bands.
Long after the game is over and the tubas are packed away in the band room, family endures. The families on the football fields in Jackson and Tuskegee have a long history, one rooted in America before it even became the United States.
The HBCU musical tradition can be traced back to at least 1738. It was then that a statute was put forth by the Virginia House of Burgesses requiring military service for free mulattos, Blacks, and Native Americans. Since those individuals weren’t trusted to carry weapons into battle, they were given trumpets, fifes, drums, and other musical instruments. By the American Revolution, 5,000 African Americans were playing music in the military.
The tradition continued through the War of 1812 and beyond. Following military service, many Blacks continued to play the music they played in the service. They congregated particularly in the deep South, such as New Orleans. Their play adopted more playfulness and the theatrical effects of minstrel shows.
Tuskegee University had the first HBCU band. It was established by students in 1890. Other colleges soon formed bands of their own. Legendary musician W.C. Handy, for instance, directed a band at Alabama A&M.
Things progressed. The modern form of HBCU bands started in the 1940s with Florida A&M. By the 1950s, Grambling State continued the tradition and continued to expand it, using guts and gusto. By the 1960s, HBCU bands were playing the likes of the Super Bowl and in front of the U.S. president.
The legacy of those early bands continues to this day. “The marching band,” Lennard says,” brings a bond and a brotherhood, and sisterhood, few can understand. We dedicate uncommon time and energy for what we love.”
A crowd’s anticipation rises. Heart rates elevate. They see a band entering the stadium, flooding the field with glittering magnificence. The drum major blows the whistle. Boom. Sonic love.