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For Norfolk State, Rose Parade marks ‘biggest performance in band history’

Spartan Legion shows off East Coast style amid raised awareness of HBCUs

When head drum major Jaylin Jackson led his hometown Norfolk State University Spartan Legion marching band toward the grandstand of the legendary Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, last week, all of his emotions finally hit him: Jackson was performing in the biggest event in school history.

In front of him was a sight he had never seen before, which made all of the running, extra dance practices and time spent perfecting the “California Mix” music selections and the band’s pristine lines worth it.

“We’re marching down the street, playing our few songs, and then as soon as we get to the corner [of Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards], you just see cameras and people everywhere,” Jackson said. “The band has been working on this corner for a month or two now. But as soon as we turn that corner and we see all these cameras, everybody in the stands all the way at the top, it just puts me in a new world because I haven’t seen that many people all on one corner or in one area at a time, especially not for a parade. It was just awe-inspiring.”

While marching bands from historically Black colleges and universities have participated in the Rose Parade before, this year’s performance came amid a heightened awareness of HBCUs.

For the high-stepping Spartan Legion band from Norfolk, Virginia, the Jan. 2 performance helped bring attention to the East Coast sound and to the university in an area that it has not traditionally recruited.

For assistant drum major Quiara Jackson, the Rose Parade capped a historic year as the first woman in school history to serve in the leadership role.

“It meant a lot to me to be in my position and to be in this performance, especially knowing that my family was there to see me and support me,” Jackson said. “It meant a lot because this is going on my last year being in Norfolk State University. To close out my college years with a performance like this, it’s heartwarming.

“I’ve kind of set an example or I’ve been putting on the persona of being a role model to somebody in the future. Hopefully that inspires more girls to take on this same position.”

The Rose Parade brought unparalleled pride to the small school. Parade attendees wanted to touch the band’s helmets and uniforms just to get a sliver of the culture, band leaders said.

The band played R&B classics such as “Before I Let Go,” “September,” “Rock With You” and “Do You Love What You Feel.” The “California Mix” for the grandstand included “California Love,” “Let’s Get It Started” and a bit of East Coast flavor with go-go selections.

“It just means so much because now more than just the 757 knows about Norfolk State – they see what we’re doing (and) the hard work that we’ve been putting in for years now. It just all came to fruition,” Jaylin Jackson said. “Really just showing the world an HBCU band, it just felt good. The people don’t really go for the football games, they go for the band.”

Head drum major Jaylin Jackson leads Norfolk State’s Spartan Legion during the Tournament of Roses Bandfest on Dec. 30, 2022, at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California.

Provided by Jaylin Jackson

The 134th Rose Parade’s theme was “Turning the Corner,” which highlighted a full return to the event. The event was canceled in 2021 for the first time since World War II as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic but returned in 2022 with smaller crowds.

“It was people of all ages and ethnicities just getting up and enjoying our performance [with] the Spartan Guards on the side,” said DraQuari McGhee, a member of the Color Guard since 2020. 

The performance was special to McGhee, a Fresno County, California, native.

“We just had the crowd just, like, really hyped and turned up with us,” McGhee said. “I felt really proud of us then because it was just like we finally made it to the end after all of the practice and all the hard work.”

Making the Rose Parade is no small feat. Bands from across the country apply to become one of the few bands selected to perform in the parade. This year, Norfolk State was among 21 high school and college bands chosen to participate.

Many apply multiple times to receive an invitation to the prestigious parade, but Norfolk State got the bid on its first try.

Norfolk State University President Javaune Adams-Gaston prepares to board a plane to Pasadena, California, with the Spartan Legion.

Norfolk State University

“This is a proud and historic moment for Norfolk State University and the Spartan Legion Marching Band, one of the best college ensembles in the country,” Norfolk State President Javaune Adams-Gaston said in a released statement. “The Tournament of Roses Parade is an American tradition — this event is watched by millions of people as they bring in the new year.”

That’s why band director William Beathea couldn’t hold in his glee over his band’s showing in the parade.

Beathea, who has been at Norfolk State for 22 years, commended the group for living up to past bands’ accomplishments, which included being featured in a music video for EDM group Justice, whose album won a Grammy for the best dance/electronic album in 2019.

“I told you that you can’t live off of what the past bands have done,” Beathea told the 250-member band at the closing dinner in Pasadena. “That’s why I said 2022 was a huge one to beat. Let me say what you ended up doing: You ended up nailing the biggest performance in this band’s history. Nobody can take that from you. Thirty million people saw you, your lines were straight, you saw it through (and) you represented.”

Stephanie Sanders, associate director of bands, said she received the biggest compliment from a woman who had been attending the parade for more than three decades. 

“She said, ‘Not only did you all look good, but you were the only band’ — not the HBCU band but the only band since she’s been coming to the Rose Bowl for 36 years — ‘that gave the best presentation on how you looked, you acted, and your [musical] selection was wonderful because it reached out to not only different cultures but different generations. You don’t know what kind of impact you had,’” Sanders said.

William Swaringer sought to put together a group for a pep band in the early 1970s to play at Norfolk State games, but no one responded so he performed alone.

Provided by Melanie A. Winns

For William Swaringer, a forefather of the Spartan Legion, the Rose Parade was a milestone moment. After being asked by the basketball coach, Swaringer sought to put together a group for a pep band in the early 1970s to play at games, but no one responded so he went alone. His first song was “When the Saints Come Marching In,” which the crowd liked. Next, the crowd went wild when he played, “I’m So Glad I Went to NSU.” His performances were so good Budweiser asked him to play atop a Clydesdale. (He declined.) That’s where the roots of the Spartan Legion were born.

Swaringer was torn about this year’s Rose Parade appearance: He was proud of his school yet upset he didn’t see it in person.

“I saw it on the TV, and I messed up on that. I should have been there,” Swaringer said. “I was very disappointed that I didn’t go, but when I saw them, I was so proud. What I saw was just as good as any band (such as) Grambling or anybody else. It was a great experience for me to see them. I was proud that Norfolk State finally got that opportunity.”

Other band alumni were just as ecstatic, even using the performance to motivate their students. Caleb Latham, the band director at Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Tennessee, has been beaming with pride.

“It was wonderful to see not just an HBCU but [one] that I attended, have cherished memories with and helped mold me into the man I am today,” said Latham, a former drum major. “I’m a band director now, so I showed my kids. I’ve just been raving about them since it happened. I’ve been telling my kids, showing them the YouTube videos and whatnot. I can honestly say that I’m just a proud alumnus.”

John Hill, a first-year band director at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, said it’s great for his students to see the Spartan Legion on a bigger stage. His local students are used to only seeing the band play at homecoming or local parades.

“I definitely exposed them to it. They had nothing but positive feedback to me,” Hill said. “For them to go all the way on the West Coast and do something big it really made them proud.”

That’s what Quiara Jackson hopes will happen with the Rose Parade performance for other high school or HBCU band programs.

“This opportunity has opened up a lot of doors for our band program as well as other HBCU programs across the country,” she said. “A lot of people are now seeing, for the first time, what our school and our style is. So this means a lot more opportunities for their schools, for their students, to showcase what we do in the future.”

Beathea said the performance shows great music is played in every genre.

“Folks need to know our style of music, our style of band, is just as legit and can get on an international stage and be very effective,” said Beathea. “It’s not just Beethoven or Bach. It’s not just classical [or] just corp style [bands]. There are different styles of bands out there that can perform at a high level.”

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.