Historical Grambling band

can toot its own horns

for Inauguration 2009

For more than 30 years, fans around the country have watched the Grambling State University marching band perform annually at the Superdome during the NBC-TV broadcast of the Bayou Classic, a football matchup in New Orleans between rivals Grambling and Southern University of Baton Rouge.

In the middle of the game’s four quarters, the real rivalry comes in the Battle of the Bands. No matter what the text-message voting says, there is no contest, in my very biased opinion. Grambling (my alma mater) wins.

See for yourself. The Historical Black College’s renowned high steppers will take to the streets of D.C. at the inaugural parade to show what they do better than any of the rest: high step, dance, body bump and toe tap, while not missing a note. GSU is the only Louisiana school invited.

(A congratulatory letter from Sen. Mary Landrieu: http://landrieu.senate.gov/releases/08/2008C06657.html)

A college band that moves and plays simultaneously? Don’t they all? To be fair, many HBC marching bands do. But, Grambling has put the unique style on the map culturally speaking. Credit the band’s high exposure to Grambling’s football program’s success. Or, the 1966 documentary, 100 Yards to Glory, which showed off how the school groomed athletes for professional football. Credit its innovative longtime band director the late Dr. Conrad Hutchinson Jr. Whatever you do, credit them.

How clueless was I until I traveled to New York with the school’s athletes and musicians to write a lead feature story on the fall 1973 Whitney M. Young Classic at Yankee Stadium. Grambling played Baltimore’s Morgan State University, and at the time, the event was the pride of black New York. As editor-in-chief of The Gramblinite, the college’s weekly, I took the assignment on face value – an all-expense-paid trip to The Big Apple.

I had attended many Grambling football games, which meant that my main attention this trip would be elsewhere. As a novice to the city, all of 20 years old, I was hysterically caught up in the thrill, seizing a stroll down Fifth Avenue, gawking at the Empire State Building, ooh-ing over Lady Liberty and the Hudson Bay and riding a subway for the first time. And, with tremendous shortsightedness, I couldn’t wait for the Main Event. Not the football game, but its halftime performances of headliners Aretha Franklin and Patti Austin. Who wouldn’t have been taken in by it all?

Not surprisingly, Patti and the Queen of Soul played famously to the crowd. The real shock came when the G-bandsmen took to Yankee Stadium’s field. The striking black uniforms with the growling tiger face covering most of the jacket’s front, the clean white shoes and gloves, the military style hat with the vibrant gold plume. It was like I was seeing and hearing them for the first time, and I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. The stepping in time, the great music, the roar from the crowd.

The throng in the stadium took to their feet, everybody swaying and clapping to the rhythms of sweet soul music and Old School dance moves on the field. I distinctly recall voices around me expressing amazement over the athleticism and musical talent, as the band played a couple of R&B hits of the day. One person specifically wondered: How do they do that? They dance and play instruments at the same time? Even the percussionists! Even the tubas!

It took a new larger than life venue to appreciate that what Grambling had was and is special. I naively thought that some kind of magic occurred on the football field each time the band hit the lines. That it wasn’t the training, talent and unique skills of the musicians and the long practices that began in the heat of summer long before the rest of us showed up for fall semester. Or the strategic search for the best and brightest from all over the country.

Or that Dr. Hutchinson (Prof, as he was fondly called), the first band director, had not put the G-men on the map when he created the marching style of eight steps to five yards at 180 beats per minute. Hutchinson also introduced the lunge that was later made popular by Southern University. And was the first to bring an organ and timpani drums on the field.

Years after I graduated, some of the novelty was vanishing, however, the G-bandsmen were still kicking high and traveling the globe. They appeared in a popular TV commercial in 1981, a Coca-Cola spot and starred in numerous national sports events, including Super Bowl performances. Two decades prior, in the early '60s, there were USO shows in Cuba, Korea and the Bahamas. Later, on the invitation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, the band traveled to Monrovia, Liberia, to represent the United States at the inauguration of President William R. Tolbert Jr.

The historical college band was invited to appear in the 2000 inaugural parade, just as they will do the honor during the inauguration parade of the country’s first black president. Through what is an undeniable legacy, they will continue to step high, drum to the beat and blow to the rhythm in future inaugural parades.

Cecil Neal Jr., a 1970s member of the band and currently an assistant high school principal in Dallas, best summed up the Grambling band experience when I interviewed him in October 2004: “My grandmother was so proud of me for not just going to school, but for going to Grambling. Back in the day, it was beyond the prestige of going to Harvard.’’

Grambling prepares for Jan. 20, 2009: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2009/01/61512062/1

Visit Grambling State University at http://www.gram.edu/

2008 Bayou Classic performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0sNqEjP6bs

Photo Credits: Tiger Yearbook,
The Gramblinite, The Dallas Morning News