The HONDA Battle of the Bands: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia January 25, 2020

Mike Lawson • Features • March 3, 2020

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It starts quite simply with the auxiliary units strutting down the north sidelines and taking their positions facing that half of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s 68,000 attendees.

Elements of all eight participating bands then fill the entire field with alternating ranks forming a colorful peacock-like array of a mass band. The production begins with nearly 2,000 musicians forming a single musical performing unit. Words, and even photographs, cannot begin to capture the energy that existed at the January 25th Honda Battle of the Bands (HBOB)! In spite of the event name, this is an invitational showcase, not a competition.

The mass band concert performance was followed by the awarding of the trophies and the grant monies to each of the eight colleges. The colleges were represented by their band directors along with either their institution president or band alumni representative.

This was SBO’s second on-site coverage of this event. Now in its 17th year, there was no HBOB in 2019 due to a Mercedes-Benz Stadium event conflict. This Final Eight group is the culmination of a series of regional band events and a follow-on voting system. Of the eight, the Hampton University “Marching Force”, NC A&T, Prairie View and Tennessee State bands were returning after their previous 2018 appearances. There were no first timers, and the other four bands have each made seven to nine prior HBOB performances.

The histories of these bands are as show-stopping, inspiring and exhausting as their performances and certainly worth sharing. The Prairie View Band website says it best for all of the HBCU bands. “The very soul and spirit of every historically black university is conveyed through its marching band. From the deep rich sounds of the tubas (sousaphones), the elegance of the majorettes, down to the exuberant dance routines of the drum majors, college life would not be the same without its bands!”

Consistent among this group of marching bands is a record of premier performances across this country and around the world. Macy’s Thanksgiving Parades, Super Bowl halftimes and NFL team official bands are the norm among this musical community. (SBO will explore the effort and significance of being selected for the Macy’s parade in a future article.)

The Benedict College Marching Tiger “Band of Distinction” is just the headliner of a comprehensive instrumental music program which also includes brass, woodwind, percussion and jazz ensembles and a pep band. All are designed to provide a high level of musical and socially enriching experiences for its members as well as providing musical entertainment for the college throughout the academic year.

Membership is by audition with full time enrollment and grade point maintenance requirements. Known simply as the BOD, the Band of Distinction, it was founded in 1998 with only 61 members. Today the band numbers nearly 200 with auxiliary groups. The BOD is directed by H. Wade Johnson.

Benedict College, located in Columbia, South Carolina, was selected for the 2017 HBOB, Wade Johnson’s first year as Director of Bands. The impact was immediate, with waves of auditions and a band that more than doubled in size. Of even more significance is the current plan to build a new Arts building to accommodate the music programs!

Fresh off their first ever appearance in the Rome, Italy New Year’s Day parade and just before beginning their preparations for the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Hampton University “Marching Force” strutted their stuff at this year’s Honda Battle of the Bands. With the same bravado of their performances the band describes itself online as, “the supreme manifestation of all that is precision, the epitome of excellence, the elite, the untouchable, the award-winning Hampton University Marching Force!”

The band and its auxiliaries are made up of talented musicians, dancers, color guards, and baton majorettes along with student managers. All have gone through an audition process and a mandatory pre-season band camp experience. With their S.I.L.K.Y. flag unit, Ebony Fire Dance Team, and S.T.I.C.K.Y. Situation drumline, the entire organization is focused on the band’s musical performance.

For example, the flag unit interprets the music through the visual effect of color and their movement. They are demonstrating PRIDE; Precision, Respect, Integrity, Dedication and Enthusiasm, in all that they do. This was a return engagement after their first HBOB in 2018.

Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band, “The Best Band in the Land” was started in 1926. The college President asked a new faculty member, with no musical experience, to start a band. After securing seventeen instruments from Sears and Roebuck, just as many students struck up the tunes. None could read music, they just played!! Ten years later Grambling hired an experienced band director. It wouldn’t be until 1964 and a few more band directors that Grambling stunned almost everyone at the American Football League Championship game in San Diego with their halftime performance. Invitations to perform poured in. The Tiger Band made history by performing the halftime at the very first Super Bowl and later at the ninth! Today Grambling has again made history with the recent appointment of Dr. Nikole Roebuck as Chairwoman of the Music Department and Director of Bands, the first woman band director at Grambling and only the third in the entire HBCU history! Roebuck is a graduate of Grambling.

Another band that is built on history is the Tennessee State University “Aristocrat of Bands.” This band was the first HBCU marching band invited to a Presidential Inaugural Parade in 1961 for John F Kennedy. This would later be followed by a Bill Clinton inaugural parade invitation. Today’s band director, Edward L. Graves, was a member of the band that performed at the Kennedy inaugural and later was the director for Clinton’s.

The Florida A & M University (FAMU) “Marching 100” quite simply is the model of the HBCU band world. The father of the active marching band performances was William P. Foster, the Band Director at FAMU for over 50 years! He was recognized not only by his selection to the American Bandmaster’s Association, but also serving as its President in the 1990s. Quite simply, Foster and the Marching 100 can be considered the founders of the HBCU genre of marching bands that make up the HBOB.

Like many HBCU music departments, their marching band is the best-known unit. But Jackson State may also have one of the most robust HBCU music departments with over 20 music ensembles. In addition to the “Sonic Boom” marching band are ensembles performing such diverse genres as Western, classical, jazz, gospel, and even an African music program. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, located in Greensboro, North Carolina routinely fields their “Blue & Gold Marching Machine” among the top HBCU bands. The approximately 200 members are the official band of the NFL Carolina Panthers football franchise, led off the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and were designated a “Top Ten Band” by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Sometime in the late 1950’s this writer joined the FAMU Marching 100 in their stands at the Prairie View football game in Tallahassee, Florida. Part of the Prairie View band portion of the halftime show was a formation of the Texas state outline. After the band left the field that outline was still obvious, ground deeply into the turf by the high-stepping and hard stomping, marching-in-place band! The Prairie View Marching Storm brought that same energy to Atlanta for HBOB 2020! The HBOB began in 2003 as an invitational showcase of the top eight HBCU marching bands. It is not a competition, but the culmination of an informal regional Celebration Tour. The intent is to compete for the favor of the audience, each other, and for the performing growth of the active participants. The HBOB is measurably the most popular collegiate marching band event drawing well over 60,000 paid spectators each year. This year’s event saw 68,000 in attendance.

What do all these outstanding marching bands have in common? Clearly stated goals for their music programs and auditioned membership with academic requirements are a norm. These bands have strong and involved alumni groups and offer high school band camps, produce high visibility performances and travel extensively. All of this requires strong support.

Steve Morikawa, Honda North America’s Vice President of Corporate Relations and Social Responsibility in announcing the selection of these eight bands commented, “Marching bands are the cornerstone of HBCU culture, and through Honda Battle of the Bands, we are able to bring together students, alumni, fans and supporters in celebration of their incredible talents!” Morikawa presented the trophies and $20,000 award checks to each band’s director at the event. In addition, Honda had funded all trip expenses for the eight participating bands.

These actions reflect Honda’s commitment to “conducting its business in a sustainable manner and foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. Honda strives to strengthen communities by giving back to society. Honda believes in helping people reach their potential by inspiring underrepresented students.” In addition to the Battle of the Bands, Honda also produces the Campus All-Star Challenge, a team “quiz bowl” for HBCU institutions.

The importance of major business corporation support and involvement in music education programs is the strong message behind the energy and excitement of this event. A few years ago, the American business community found itself learning new management techniques from the Japanese business community and implementing significant changes in management style. That was a revolutionary change that ignored latent national pride to accept much needed improvement.

Perhaps it’s time to explore establishing strong partnerships between music education and major businesses to achieve the often-elusive goals of our music education system and programs. Then we all might feel the earth move under our feet!

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