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BATTLE OF THE BANDS! May 18, 2005 4:16 PM

By most accounts, the first-ever black college football game, in December 1892, was played in a festive, picnic-like atmosphere - not much different from the mood of the games today, though upon further review, something back then was missing.

Where was the party?

Let's see, there were fans and two teams. The teams played two 45-minute halves. Must have been a break in there for halftime. But, hey, wait a minute. No bands! A black college game with no bands! How could that be? Every black college football fan knows you can't have a game without the bands. That's what the fans really come to see (sorry coaches!).


Back then, when you went to a football game, well, you went to a football game. Now, and really for the last 50 years or so, going to a black college football game means you get a nice dose of blocking and tackling displays, but it's that party and concert for "five quarters" that really keeps you near your seat - near it, but not always in it.


The formal term for what most contemporary marching bands do at halftime is "pageantry." More accurately, it is "showmanship," and no one can put on a show like a black college band, musical athletes marching to the beat of, Lord yes(!), a different, funkier drummer.

The bands' collective style evolved by happenstance at a Florida A&M University (FAMU) practice in 1946. "Our first dance routine, I don't know how or why it came about," says Dr. William Foster, FAMU's band director emeritus, widely acknowledged as the precipitator of black college band showmanship and author of "Band Pageantry, A Guide for the Marching Band."

Foster's break with tradition was a fanfare that trumpeted the changing of the guard in marching band style and forever changed the look, feel and emotion associated with halftime performances. The block, militaristic, corps style - borrrrrrring! - immediately became second fiddle to Foster's upbeat, high-energy shows and, by the '60s, bands such as Grambling, Southern and Tennessee State in addition to Florida A&M began to garner national attention.

Grambling, guided by legendary director Conrad Hutchinson, got a big break in 1964 when it performed at halftime of the American Football League's championship game in San Diego. Then, in 1967, the band performed at halftime of the first Super Bowl.

Bestowed with numerous honors, both Foster and the Rattlers' Marching 100 have been decorated more than the White House. In 1985, the band received the Sudler Intercollegiate Marching Band Award (the Heisman Trophy for bands), the first time the award had gone to a Historically Black College or University. The unit has been called "The Lena Horne of Bands."

Foster's innovations made for a quantum leap for a U.S. band scene that had already witnessed lagging interest in live band concerts (Saturdays or Sundays in the park) as the numbers of radio and vinyl-record fans began to soar. While educators saw bands as a way to teach music to large numbers of students, few college bands existed around the turn of the century. Those that did were usually either small and informal club-like organizations modeled on the community bands, or ROTC bands modeled on the music of the military.

Before the century turned, some black college bands had formed, including Alabama A&M (1890) and Florida A&M (1892). The Alabama A&M group was formed with the help of W.C. Handy, "Father of the Blues."

In 1905, Austin Harding molded the University of Illinois' informal band to a standard of musical and marching excellence that was emulated by school bands across the nation. The early shows of most college bands were extensions of block formations, though research by the Smithsonian Institution credits the Purdue band as the first to deviate from block formations when, in 1907, it formed the letter "P" on the field.

Black historian Sterling Stuckey and music historians connect black college band showmanship to influences from 13th-century West Africa and the Egun masqueraders of the Yoruba tribe, who would play musical instruments and dance in funeral processions. Other historians point to black drill sergeants during World War I who introduced both melody and foot-stomping syncopation into their cadence counting, permanently altering the standard, Western marching call. But let's go back to the spring of 1941 and the University of Kansas.

 "I don't know what possessed me to go to the dean's office, but I was there and he asked me what I wanted to do," recalled FAMU's Foster, who graduated from Kansas that year with a music degree. "I told him I wanted to be a conductor, but he said, 'You should rethink that. There are no jobs for colored conductors.' And he was right! So I wanted to develop a band that would be better than any white band in the country."

 That's a done deal today, though that notion is void where other black college bands are concerned, unless you're looking for an argument.

The process took Foster through Lincoln High School in Springfield, Mo., Fort Valley State and Tuskegee before he landed at FAMU in 1946 to being what would be a 52-year career. At FAMU, he began redefining band pageantry with a showy style - rapid tempos, high-stepping, dancing, etc., that was eschewed by some band directors who continued to cling to more staid military tradition and its emphasis on correct carriage and marching precision.

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 May 18, 2005 4:28 PM

"Dr. Foster is a creator, an innovator and probably the most widely known and respected band director in the world," said Dr. John M. Long, chairman of the prestigious National Band Association Hall of Fame, upon Foster's induction in 1998. "Bill Foster was the first director I saw do the fast step," says Dr. Isaac Greggs, director of Southern's "Human Jukebox." "I was in school the first time I saw it (in 1948) and I thought it was outstanding. It created great excitement. I had never seen anything like that. Some bands were playing symphonic numbers. Frank Greer at Tennessee State, that's what they'd do because it was a big thing to sound like a symphony, then go into a figuration. Most of the (band) books were coming out with the same things, but that fast-stepping, that was Bill Foster at Florida A&M.

Now that kind of technology is de rigueur, but so are some of the showmanship techniques both Foster and Greggs developed. Foster has been credited with at least 30 new techniques, including the double-time marching step of 240 steps per minute or four steps per second, and the triple-time marching step of 360 steps per minute, the death-slow cadence of 20 steps per minute or one step every three seconds, and memorization of all music played in stands, parades, pre-game and halftime shows. Greggs points to his band's "total package" that includes the instrument swing and, oh(!), the sound of those horns, which is hardly surprising, given his love for the music of Earth, Wind & Fire.

"Southern changed things in terms of instrumentation and sound," says Arthur Wesley, director of Alabama A&M's "Marching Maroon and White." "They use more brassy instruments than woodwinds. It's a loud, grand, bright sound. Florida A&M is more symphonic. Most black bands are trying to imitate the Southern sound. We use a combination of both FAMU and Southern. We have the best of both worlds. To me, they are the epitome of marching bands." Wesley has taken that a fast step further and raised the profile of his band, which has gotten more exposure since A&M joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference three years ago. Two years before that, he introduced the concept of "theater on the field," (with a rhythm and blues beat) where he uses not only the band, but also auxiliary groups such as dancers (two sets, the "Maroonettes," who march with the band, and the "Lady Dancers") and flag teams.

"That's how we enhance our sound," Wesley says. "It's like a Broadway show. I got the idea from watching musicals and ice skating shows, but some people say there are too many people out there (about 230) and they don't know what to look at." But there's always something to see and it's probably going to be spectacular, like the Southern drum major who opens the show by high-kicking his way to midfield, then doing his trademark back bend until his head touches the ground. A Jags drum major has been doing that for 30 years. "I was just having him lean back," Greggs says. "One day he (Roy Barnes) came to me and said, 'I can lean back and touch my head (to the ground).' I said, 'Hell no, you can't do that!' He said, 'I'll show you.' And he did. Nobody else was doing that. Now, all the high school bands in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama are doing it. Here, if you're not at least 6 feet and you can't do it, don't ask me."

Now, the FAMU band numbers 360 members (close to 300 march). There is television exposure, national commercials (Grambling has done several, including Burger King, Coca-Cola and Tampax), trash talking, band camps, black college band Web sites, and if you're going to be in one of those bands, it might be a good idea to have a personal trainer. This marching and dancing stuff ain't for wimps. "It looks easy, but it takes a lot out of you," says Christy Walker, a former member of the North Carolina A&T band and co-owner of "The 5th Quarter" (, a Web site devoted to black college bands. "In my freshman year, I knew about the physical demands and I had been running, but I sprained my knee and went to the hospital. But about 20 others also went to the hospital just from being out of shape."

Starting the new century, black college bands find themselves generally in pretty good shape. The new has blended nicely with the old, and while some budgets may still be meager, few directors are complaining about the additional exposure as a result of more TV packages for football teams. However, they say it would be nice if more of that money and more gate receipts found their way to the band department.

It's been a gloriously entertaining past, but what of the future?

Some bands prepare different shows for each halftime, though some look at halftime performances now and see nothing terribly new, just an adjustment here and there to old routines. However, the changes some directors would like to see are not necessarily about performing on the field. The directors would like to see, well, hope to see more of an emphasis on musicianship. After all, that was the original mission of college bands, to pull young people into music, help them become proficient in playing their chosen instruments and enable them to go on to careers in music. Showmanship is fun, but symphonic band is the cornerstone of music education. The two styles don't always mesh.

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 May 18, 2005 4:28 PM

"We need to deal more with symphonic music, build better-rounded programs," Wesley says. "A lot of kids do it (marching band) for the football season, then you don't see them. Here, you must participate in both bands. That's a requirement to keep your scholarship."

George Edwards, band director at Prairie View (PV), would second that, but he also sees a need for more decorum.


"It (the future) rests with band directors and where they want to go," says Edwards, who took over a struggling PV program in 1984 with 25 returning members. He rebuilt the band to, at one peak, 220 members with a reputation in some circles of being one of "the best-kept secrets" among black college bands.


"A lot of us are caught up in smack talking and that leads to negative things. The dance routines are too risqué. I've tried to be innovative by not having clowning situations, but instead try to polish every step precision routine. And you can do a routine without calling out another school and degrading them.

"We can improve song selections. I've tried to introduce jazz - Coltrane, Miles - gospel and integrate some classical things but still do a good job of playing pop. Just promote good musicianship and integrate that with showmanship."


So, the next step for black college bands is not to totally downplay or do away with showmanship, like that could happen anyway. But imagine a black college game without a halftime show, or a halftime show with only block formations, no dancing tuba players or female dance groups. How would that go over?

"Let's go out for popcorn!" Edwards says. "For African-American schools, people are walking around during the game, but they come inside at halftime. The band is a big draw. If you change that (showmanship), you lose the crowd. But you can do shows with class and poise."


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