UpClose: The Honda Battle of the Bands

Mike Lawson • • March 3, 2018

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Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium (dome) can probably now be certified to withstand a 9.9 on the Richter scale earthquake.

This is based on surviving the extreme energy and impact of eight high-stepping, solid sounding Historically Black College and University (HBCU) marching bands along with their auxiliary units. The event was the 2018 Honda Battle of the Bands “Final Eight.” The Honda Battle of the Bands “Final Eight” was created to celebrate, support, and recognize the excellence of black college marching bands and the unique experience of the various academic programs at these HBCU schools.

HBCU’s were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of primarily serving the African American community. There are currently 101 such institutions, both public and private. The majority of these are in the South and were established after the Civil War. Many states had previously established land grant colleges which were funded in part under a Federal Act in 1862. When many southern states excluded black people from their land grant colleges a new Federal Agricultural College Act of 1890 required those states to establish separate land grant colleges for blacks. Across today’s HBCU community of educational institutions, 38 offers only Associate Degrees, 83 offers Bachelor’s Degrees, 53 Masters programs, and 27 Doctoral studies.

This “Final Eight” was the sixteenth annual showcase of this exciting band culture. The competition for this full day of intense band performance began months ago with 39 bands participating. The Final Eight is not a competition; it is an invitational showcase of excellence, enthusiasm and high energy by the highest ranked bands from the earlier competitions.

Four are selected by an online poll of registered users. This year saw a record number of online votes – two that have not been invited to this Final Eight showcase more than twice before, and two by a Honda Battle of the Bands committee based on showmanship and the social media buzz about that band’s performance. This year’s Final Eight included two bands, Hampton University and Miles College, for their first ever invitation!

In addition, the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning male R&B group, 112, performed during a break in the marching band action.

The event, attended by 62,000 fans, began with a mass band formation of over 2000 bandsmen performing a musical salute to the U.S. Military Services. Drum Majors of all eight bands then presented an energized salute to the host city, Atlanta, followed by a dazzling performance by the Alabama State University plus-sized “Honey Beez” danceline. The ladies of the Honey Beez have been featured on “America’s Got Talent”, ESPN, and the “Steve Harvey Show.”

The eight bands this year were, in alphabetical order, Alabama A&M University “Maroon & White Marching Band” (Normal, Alabama-near Huntsville), Alabama State University “Mighty Marching Hornets” (Montgomery, Alabama), Bethune-Cookman University “Marching Wildcats” (Daytona Beach, Florida), Hampton University “The Marching Force” (Hampton, Virginia), Miles College “Purple Marching Machine” (Fairfield, Alabama-near Birmingham), North Carolina A&T State University “Blue & Gold Marching Machine” (Greensboro, North Carolina), Prairie View A&M University “Marching Storm” (Prairie View, Texas), and the Tennessee State University “Aristocrat of Bands” (Nashville, Tennessee).

Each of these bands received a fully paid-for trip to the Final Eight and a $20,000 grant for their music education program. They also receive a trophy honoring their participation.

First up was Hampton University’s Marching Force directed by Dr. Thomas Jones. This was the first appearance by this band in this Final Eight Invitational.

This band, like many of the other HBCU bands, has been featured at NFL games and also in the 2009 Inaugural Parade for Barack Obama. The band endeavors to “have a positive impact on its members and assist them to assume responsibility, establish a professional attitude and gain self-confidence, develop a humanistic attitude toward life, become proficient in their musical specialization, appreciate diverse cultures and contribute positively to the world.”

The band has hosted an International Band Camp in Honduras. Also, a first timer was the Miles College Purple Marching Machine which followed. This band program was started in 1949 with only 35 members. It included marching and concert bands as well as the “Collegians” a dance band of that era. When football was initiated at Miles in 1996, the development of a quality band became a focus. Drawing on 37 years of high school band directing Mr. Arthur Means met and exceeded expectations.

The band became involved in a Bill Clinton campaign rally in Birmingham and the Pioneer Bowl in Atlanta, also in 1996. This band today numbers over 200, and is known for high energy drills, and dynamic dance routines backed up with sizzling arrangements. Willie Snipes, Jr., the band’s current director is an alumnus of the band.

Notable is that this University and its band work closely with the Fairfield High Preparatory School in Fairfield.

This feeder relationship is also seen with other HBCU music programs. Third up was the Prairie View A&M University Marching Storm directed by Dr. Timmey (Tim) Zachery. They were accompanied by their auxiliary units the “Black Foxes” and the “Twirling Thunder.” Performances over the band’s eighty years have included the Tournament of Roses and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, NFL halftime shows including the Super Bowl 45, and several Presidential and Gubernatorial inaugurations. Like many HBCU music programs Prairie View has a community focus encompassed in their “Ten Pillars”. These include Preparation, Commitment, Consistency, Discipline, Character, Pride, Scholarship, Family, Responsibility and the Marching Storm.

Next up was the Alabama A&M University Marching Maroon & White Band. It is directed by Mr. Carleton J. Wright who graduated from this band in 1986. The band program began in 1890, and among its eight directors was Mr. William Grant Still, Sr., the father of W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues” and Mr. Wade Hammonds, the first black appointed as the Chief Musician (Band Master) of the U. S. Army Bands.

Other musical organizations in Alabama A&M’s music program include a symphonic band, pep and jazz bands. Ensembles include a wind ensemble and woodwind, brass and percussion sectional units. Realizing that the band program takes considerable time and energy, Alabama A&M has instituted special programs to assist students to accomplish the academic excellence that they came to acquire. These include mandatory study halls after band practice two nights a week. These are conducted by other band members who excel in particular courses or majors.

In addition, first year students are brought into formal learning communities with band alumni to guide them through this vulnerable time. North Carolina A&T State University Blue & Gold Marching Machine would follow. This band is an auditioned group directed by Dr. Kenneth Ruff. It performs all manner of music and all styles of marching and drills.

Numbering over two hundred it is the official band of the NFL Carolina Panthers, was the 2012 lead band in the Macy’s parade and designated a “Top 10 Band” by Sports Illustrated magazine. Noted for its high stepping performances, precise drills and both powerful and melodic music, the goals for the members are to be precise and highly confident performers exercising discipline resulting in an outstanding band and band experience.

Alabama State University Mighty Marching Hornets (directed by Dr. James B. Oliver), like many HBCU bands, have gained national recognition beyond the Battle of the Bands. The Hornets have appeared on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” in a Sony full-length feature, and on reality  shows on the Lifetime and Aspire networks. They are accompanied by the “Ladies of Distinction” flags, the “Stingettes” danceline, and the previously mentioned “Honey Beez.” The band operates with a motto, “The Price of Glory is High!”

Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands came into existence in 1946 along with early television. Within five years the band and television would come together at an NFL half-time. This was the first appearance of an HBCU band on national television. They later performed in both Kennedy inaugural parades, as well as Bill Clinton’s. Bowl game appearances from Miami to Tokyo appear in the band’s portfolio as well as appearances on the White House lawn, country music CMT awards and in various major parades. They are directed by Dr. Reginald McDonald.

The granddaddy of the Final Eight is Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats. This was their thirteenth invitational appearance. A large band at 300, they have numerous NFL links with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins. There also have been numerous appearances with Disney theme parks and cruise ships as well. Like other HBCU band directors, Mr. Donovan V. Wells is an alumnus of the band that he now directs. The Wildcat auxiliary units include the “SophistiCAT Flag Corps” and the “14KT Gold Dancers.”

For full information on this 2018 and other prior Honda Battle of the Bands events as well as video, and more, visit 2018hondabattleofthebands.com. Honda also works with the HBCU with their Honda Campus All-Star Challenge, an academic tournament with scholarship awards. Information about this program is available at hcasc.com. Over the years this All-Star Challenge has touched 120,000 students and seen $12 million in education grants provided. Honda also assists in HBCU enrollments and admissions with an HBCU College Fair. Staffed with band members and recruiters from 53 HBCU institutes, this year saw 7000 attendees with 300 scholarships being given out.

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