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HBCU Bands

Alabama State and Alabama A&M band directors say Magic City Classic is electric all weekend long

Bands are ready to bring the magic to Alabama

A wave of emotions floods HBCU football fans across Alabama around this time each year.

They are anxious yet excited, impatient and amped up, as if Christmas has come in October and Alabama State University (ASU) and Alabama A&M University (AAMU) are the bearers of gifts.

The McDonald’s Magic City Classic is the reason for all the hype.

The Classic, an epic football battle in Birmingham between the two historically black universities that has been played annually since 1940, continually trends as one of the most well-attended classics each year. Last year, the event hosted a record-high attendance of 70,813.

As with all sporting events at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the Classic is a football game wrapped in a cultural experience that does not end with the final score. The pride that students, alumni and fans feel for both teams transcends the football field and is embraced throughout the year. That, coupled with playful banter as the schools battle for bragging rights, justifies the excitement surrounding the October showdown. Right now, AAMU leads the Classic series with 39 wins, six more than ASU. Only three of the 75 games have ended in a tie.

N.C. A&T claims the top spot in the latest ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings

Included in the cultural experience of HBCU classics are the bands, who have just as much on the line as the football teams. For ASU’s and AAMU’s band directors — James Oliver and Carlton Wright, respectively — the pressure mounts long before the bands set foot onto Legion Field.

“People say everybody looks forward to the game, but that’s not always true,” Oliver said. “Everybody looks for the bands to come. If we do not show up, there’s a problem. It is the entertainment, it’s the music that we play, it’s the energy that we put out there on the field, it’s the formations. We make that entire game, the two bands that entertain the audience throughout the whole game.”

Oliver’s thoughts can be confirmed by looking at the stands. During the game, seats are often left unattended because of restroom breaks and food and beverage stops. Some fans are still in the parking lot tailgating, while others may not show up at the stadium until the second quarter. Shortly before halftime, when the bands are making their way to the field from the stands, it’s almost guaranteed that the stadium is standing-room only.

For the bands to remain the main attraction, both Oliver and Wright begin preparing long before the Classic begins. In Wright’s case, ideas begin forming as early as three months before the event, when band members report to band camp.

“It’s an ever-changing process,” Wright said. “We’ll come up with something old school, then some new stuff might come out. The dance team committee will come and ask if they can do this and that, so we just wiggle our way through the process until we come up with a show we think is going to be a winner.”

Both bands spend hours at a time studying and learning music and moves and practicing. At AAMU, practice takes about four hours per day. The band members spend two hours inside working on and practicing music before an hourlong dinner break. After dinner, the band spends two more hours on the field perfecting its moves.

“We try to make sure that we have enough time for the students to learn what we had planned for them to learn, and also get out of practice early enough so that they can go back and do some studying and keep their grades intact,” Wright said.

ASU follows a similar pattern, but practice ramps up about two weeks before the Classic. The daily length of practices is the same every day but may be extended for an hour or two to accommodate special practice for the Classic.

Besides preparing for the physical battle, both directors take time to mentally ready themselves for the event. Wright uses pep talks to help calm the nerves of his 240 band members, especially freshmen, who will be performing in their first Classic.

“We get the upperclassmen to talk to them in section rehearsals and let them know that this is big time, this is major league, and they have to give 110 percent every practice,” Wright said. “We make sure they’re pepped up and fired up about it.”

Oliver begins his mental preparation with meditation in his office. Before the game, the band, with 210 members this season, prays together.

“I prepare myself for the good and prepare myself for the bad, if that happens,” Oliver said. “I go through every moment in my mind about how we’re going to do this, how we’re going to execute this, how the music is going to be played. You just have to stay focused.”

Both directors have several tricks up their sleeves this year, and they are closely guarding them until Saturday’s halftime show. Both bands were ranked in the first ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings, the Alabama A&M ranked No. 7, and Alabama State No. 9.

Rivalry and friendship

The Classic holds very special meaning for both Wright and Oliver, who are not only band directors but also alumni of their respective universities.

Wright, a native of Montgomery, comes from a family of musicians. Two of his sisters are musicians, and Wright describes his parents as “great singers.”

“Music was always in our house,” Wright said. “The three of us grew up receiving piano lessons from one of the neighborhood moms that taught piano.”

In middle school, Wright became obsessed with watching a local high school band practice and perform. In eighth grade it influenced his decision to join the band, where he played the trumpet. His love for music continued to grow, and after graduating from Alabama A&M, Wright became a band director at high schools in Montgomery and Birmingham before returning to his alma mater in 2013. For four years, Wright has focused on building up the university’s music department and making adjustments to the marching band. So far, the band has improved significantly.

“I think the overall musicality of group has improved,” Wright said. “We had to change some things right away, but it’s the students and the other staff members that have bought into my vision of what I want the band to become and what we’re trying to get accomplished. My vision is to do whatever it takes to make our band better. I’m not one of those guys that says, ‘If I didn’t come up with this, we’re not going to do it.’ I’m very open to suggestions from the staff and from the students.”

Oliver’s career as a band director spans nearly four decades. After graduating from Alabama State, Oliver, also a native of Montgomery, taught high school band for the first eight years. While doing so, Oliver made other plans for his future.

“[Being a college band director] was never on my radar,” Oliver said. “I had decided that I was going to teach high school bands and then I’d get my master’s in administration and go on to be principal or assistant principal. That was the plan, but God made a different decision for me.”

Oliver’s work spoke for him, and the high school band teacher began gaining recognition. In 1989, Oliver landed his first job on the collegiate level as a band director for Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 2000, Oliver returned to his roots and began his band career with Alabama State.

Oliver said he brought back some traditions with a bit of fine-tuning, which took the band to a different level of sound, performance and understanding of who they are.

“This is a whole different generation, and you have to approach these guys a little differently than I was approached back in the ’70s and ’80s,” Oliver said. “I have to understand this new flavor of students and how they think and where their minds are. I have to go through all that in order for them to buy into the program that I knew when I was here. … I was brought in to bring back the old Bama State style, and that’s what I did.”

Besides bringing back band traditions, Oliver also elevated the business side by concentrating on the school’s brand and marketing the band to larger platforms, including a reality television show, an exclusive plus-size dance group and attracting national attention.

Although the schools are rivals, and the band directors must put on their game faces during the Classic, the two are very good friends.

“Carlton has done a great job [at AAMU],” Oliver said. I’m real proud of him. He’s doing a good job. As far as the Classic, the camaraderie is just never-ending. I love the Classic. I am happy that it’s still here and that it’s still going strong. And even when I retire, it will still go on strong and I can just come and sit in the audience and enjoy all the festivities.”

So what should fans expect during this year’s Magic City Classic halftime show? A solid message from the Marching Maroon and White? (Last year, two band members dressed as presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to encourage the audience to vote in November’s election.) Or the Mighty Marching Hornets’ fearless leader jetting onto the turf via hoverboard? (Yes, that really did happen.) Both Oliver and Wright were rightfully tight-lipped as to what this year’s performances entail, but they promised it’ll be a show no one should miss.

“We both take personal pride to make sure our presentation is going to be first class and very entertaining,” Wright said. “I think the rivalry between the two schools and both band directors graduating from the rivalry schools, that heightens competition right there because everybody wants to see which band director is going to be better prepared or which band is going to be better prepared. Also, many of the students in the bands know each other, so they egg it on through social media. The trash talk here and there just adds to the excitement of the battle of the bands.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.