HOUSTON (AP) — It’s almost 10 p.m. and still a sweltering, sticky 95 degrees when Texas Southern’s Ocean of Soul band marches onto the top of a parking garage a stone’s throw from downtown Houston.
The glittering skyline is close enough to provide some illumination to the dimly lit structure. It reveals beads of sweat dripping off many faces as the students near the end of a 10-hour rehearsal day. One of the three drum majors, Dominique Conner, speeds through his bandmates, handing out kudos when earned and criticism when needed.
Band director Brian Simmons climbs to the top of a nearby ladder and lifts a bullhorn.
“Everything you do matters,” he barks.
The more than 100 student musicians are here in part because playing in bands like the Ocean of Soul isn’t about school participation and it’s not about knocking out an extracurricular activity. By joining, just like their brethren in HBCU bands at Southern and Howard and Florida A&M and all the others, they become part of a treasured hallmark of the Black community, which is eager to celebrate with them step by choreographed step.
“HBCU bands, it represents a lot of things,” said Simmons, who at 31 is the youngest band director ever at Texas Southern and is decades younger than most everyone else in his position at an HBCU. Simmons performed in Southern’s Human Jukebox band as a student and spent eight years as assistant director there before coming to Texas Southern in 2021.
“It’s competition. It’s discipline. It’s tradition. It’s all those things,” Simmons explained. “Marching band for HBCUs, it’s almost a cornerstone.”
Competition and showmanship are at the heart of all HBCU bands, which number approximiately 40 across the country. They have been ever since William Foster at Florida A&M formed the Marching 100 band in 1946, launching a high-stepping style and thrilling blend of music and dance that can border on gymnastics. It is unique and it has been emulated at thousands of high schools and colleges ever since.
For Christy A. Walker, HBCU bands are “literally in my blood” and she has spent her life around them. Her parents met while both were in the North Carolina A&T band and she followed in their footsteps playing clarinet in the Blue and Gold Marching Machine.
Walker has written three books about HBCU bands, helped found a website about them and hosts a podcast called “The HBCU Band Experience.” She called the bands a vital part of Black culture that deseve more reverence than they get.
“We do it different and honestly we are, I would say, tastemakers for the entire band culture, including non HBCUs,” she said. “Because we are the ones that will play Top 40 songs that are out now. If a song comes out on Monday, by the time Saturday rolls around a band will perform it.”
More than 2,200 band members and dozens of directors and staff from around the country have arrived for the chance to show their skills in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Derek Webber, a graduate of Hampton University, created the National Battle of the Bands to increase exposure of HBCUs and their bands and to help them educate aspiring musicians. He is proud that the event has raised more than $1 million in scholarships for participating schools, which are often underfunded and lack resources.
“For an HBCU, the bands are part of the culture, they’re part of the lifestyle,” Webber said. “And in some cases, they’re more important than the athletic team.”
Nerves were high as Saturday night arrived with the promise of 3 1/2 hours of music, with all eight bands performing and rap artists such as Doug E. Fresh, Outkast’s Big Boi and Slim Thug taking a stage in between.
Draped in a sparkling gold cape, with a feathered Corinthian helmet on his head, Yohance Goodrich II high-stepped onto the field as Mr. Spartan with Norfolk State’s Spartan Legion band trailing behind. Mr. Spartan is the band’s head drum major and, as Goodrich noted as he cited his responsibility for the success of the band, “enthusiasm is the key and discipline is the legacy.”
“It’s the highest position on the student level … it’s an honor to earn that position,” he beamed. “It’s a lot of work that goes into it and most importantly it’s one of the biggest positions on campus in terms of our culture and how important band is to our university.”
On a night that was also a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, the Ocean of Soul wove that connection into its show. The band brought down the house when Simmons handed a microphone and a bucket hat to a band member, and he rapped Run DMC’s hit “It’s Tricky” while the band performed the song.
“We brought them on that emotional ride with us,” Simmons said. “So, in the end when you turn around and you get to see that standing ovation, it means job well done.”
Anyone not in Houston missed quite a show. But college football has begun and basketball is not far away, which means every week there will be HBCU bands around the country entertaining crowds and showcasing Black excellence.