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HBCU Bands

Homecoming intensifies focus on bands at historically Black colleges

Dowell Taylor, former band director at Jackson State, says it is the hardest week of the season for band members

Howard University snare drummer Joshua Wallington cannot wait to put on a good homecoming show this weekend in front of alumni who may be coming to Washington from as far as Australia.

“It’s really cool to have that community come back for this specific week and see the legacy that Howard builds,” said Wallington, a junior computer science major. “It’s really cool to see people from all different eras of Howard come and fly in for homecoming.”

It’s homecoming season at historically Black colleges and universities, with at least 40 celebrations scheduled in October alone. Until someone experiences an HBCU homecoming, it’s hard to explain. It’s like a family reunion, where former athletes debate who was the best and other alumni reminisce about old times. It’s also where major artists come to perform, streets close for parades and myriad parties attract students, alumni and even locals.

But for HBCU bands, homecoming means everything gets more intense. Bands work on their musical performances for weeks — even months — to throw in some new tricks and tighten up old mainstays.

“A lot of time goes into the whole homecoming show. Even though we have games on a weekend … we’re also working on the homecoming show, so everything is ready by the time homecoming comes around,” Wallington said. “We run it [at rehearsal] every day like it is homecoming. We run that … until we’re sick and tired of it every day.”

Dowell Taylor, former band director at Jackson State University, called it “probably the hardest week that the band members will experience during the season.”

“This is the time when they strive to put on their best performances, they strive to be precise because they have an extra layer of evaluation,” Taylor said. “Those older band members who come home, they will be expecting the highest level of performance that the band has done across the season and they will be the harshest critic. Most of it is out of love.”

Taylor said homecoming week entails an extreme commitment to precision and a commitment to learning a lot of music. Bands must prepare to perform during the zero quarter before the game and the 5th Quarter after the game, as well as for the visiting team.

Adding alumni makes practice more intense, particularly the rehearsal before the homecoming game when upward of 250 alumni are watching closely, Taylor said.

“When they come to homecoming, they’re expecting the band to be up to par. Our goal is something new and challenging, so we are putting in those pieces maybe one at a time during the season,” he said. “You may not have heard one at the games before homecoming, but we have practiced on it. We have prepared it, and we are getting it ready for the big reveal.”

He said homecoming was always a great time, not only for his bands but for him to reconnect with former students.

“Homecoming was probably the highlight of the season,” Taylor said. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was more fun than hard work. … On Friday night when we finish [rehearsing], we can all take a deep breath because we have done what we planned to do, and the next day it’s just going to be a celebration.”

For former Florida A&M University band member Kevin Crum, homecoming is the time to reminisce.

“It just rejuvenates you, and you put eyes on folks you haven’t seen. It brings everything back when you come to homecoming,” said Crum, a 1992 graduate. “The older you get, the more you realize it’s just a blessing to be able to get another spin around this earth. We don’t take that for granted. Homecoming is a reminder of that for me.”

It also gives him a chance to see what his former bandmate Shelby Chipman, now director of bands at Florida A&M, is doing with The Marching 100.

“All the way back then Shelby was a leader amongst leaders. Just to come back and to see Dr. [William] Foster’s legacy alive and putting a spectacular product on the field” is great, said Crum, who played the baritone horn. “I’m always excited to see The Marching 100 and my bandmates back when I marched and to relive those memories that we all shared.”

Homecoming at Morris Brown College in Atlanta is a bit different from others: Since the college doesn’t field a football team, it puts more of a spotlight on the band during the parade and other performances. This year, there was even more reason to celebrate: Students and alumni also commemorated Morris Brown regaining full accreditation in April 2022 after its accreditation was stripped in 2002.

“I call it coming back home and celebrating the rebirth of the college,” said alumnus Lindsey Mason, a former music major who attended Morris Brown’s homecoming last weekend. “Right now, we’re in a full year of [being] reaccredited as a college.”

On Wednesday morning Tanesha Washington Thompson, president of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff National Alumni Association, began making the 6½-hour trip from Kansas City, Missouri, to the university’s homecoming. Thompson needed to arrive early to get last-minute details ready for the weekend’s alumni festivities.

“It’s not only a tradition for historically Black colleges and universities, but it’s a time for us to come together to support our university, to see old friends and then also to give back in a way that we can continue that legacy for other students,” said Thompson, who graduated in 1997. 

“You get to connect with people that you haven’t seen in a couple of years, just being able to relive some of those memories that we had in school and then giving them an opportunity to catch up and see where everyone is at this point of their lives.”

For Thompson, homecoming is a yearly reminder of how much she wanted to be in the band, even though she couldn’t play an instrument or dance.

“I really think I should have been in the band. Every year that’s probably one of my biggest regrets,” Thompson said. “That’s probably my favorite part of our games. But not only that … the band comes and plays and really sets the tone for homecoming. It gets everybody hyped. 

“What I like is no matter when you went to school there, 60 years ago [or] just graduated last year, there are certain songs or chants that they’ll play that every alumni knows and can relate to and it gets us moving.” 

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