Up Next

HBCU Bands

Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands waits to learn how album will fare at Grammys

Gospel project ‘The Urban Hymnal’ is nominated for two awards

When Larry Jenkins, Tennessee State University’s assistant director of bands and organizer of the TSU Aristocrat of Bands’ album The Urban Hymnal, stands and takes pictures on the red carpet at the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, it will be a surreal moment.

Jenkins always dreamed of this — like most musicians — and now it has materialized. In November, the Aristocrat of Bands became the first band from a historically Black college to be nominated for a Grammy.

“In LA [Los Angeles] I will be a bundle of nerves, probably a wreck. I’m going to try to keep it cool. You know, you look at people on TV and you hear them on streaming or whatever the case may be, these artists and producers, musicians you’ve seen for years, and at this point you’re in the ranks,” Jenkins said. “I was telling the students that this is an actual history book moment. You know what I mean? This is bigger than now.”

Jenkins will not be alone. There will be more than 280 band members at a scheduled watch party on Tennessee State’s campus nervously waiting to hear their names called as winners.

The cover of “Fly (Y.M.M.F.),” the first single from the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands’ album, The Urban Hymnal.

Tennessee State University

The Urban Hymnal is one of five albums nominated in the best roots gospel category. The band is up for a second Grammy as a featured artist on a song with J. Ivy on his “The Poet Who Sat by the Door” album, which is nominated in the best spoken word poetry album category.

The Urban Hymnal, co-produced by the legendary songwriter Dallas Austin, is a 30-minute, 10-song album that features nearly every genre of gospel music, includes the school’s fight song and ends with Reginald McDonald, director of bands, congratulating the group on a great performance.

On the album, the Aristocrat of Bands sweetly plays “Jesus Loves Me,” and Jenkins shows off his trumpet skills with gospel great John P. Kee, artist Me’Kayla Smith, poet J. Ivy, pastor Jamal Bryant and songwriter-artist Sir the Baptist on “Alright.” Kierra Sheard includes the Edwin Hawkins’ classic “Goin’ Up Yonder” into the song “Going Going.” Other gospel heavyweights on The Urban Hymnal include Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence, Jekalyn Carr and Mali Music.

“If we’re fortunate enough to take it home, then I know [there will be] tears, pride, big HBCU pride, big TSU pride and just stamping history,” Jenkins said. “We’re just very grateful to be able to be recognized in this type of way and have the work of not only yourself, the work of the students and all the other artists who poured in to be recognized.”

The spiritual saying goes: “God moves in mysterious ways.” Jenkins and Sir the Baptist conceived the project at a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo.

Jenkins, who had been charged with developing an artist-in-residency program with Sir the Baptist, was writing the plan on a napkin. That’s when Jenkins looked him in the eye and said, “Let’s do an album.” Sir the Baptist replied he had been waiting for Jenkins to say that.

The album process began there. Afterward, there were nonstop rehearsals, with the full band and various breakout sections and individual studio sessions.

Tennessee State University assistant director of bands Larry Jenkins instructs the band during rehearsals for The Urban Hymnal album.

Tennessee State University

It was a lot of hard work, they all say. But it was equally as hard for students who were juggling band practice with their academic studies. Yet, band members said they were built for the challenge.

Sydney Verge, who played the piccolo on the album, recalls how nerve-racking it was the first time professional artists put the flute section in front of the microphone.

“They were like, ‘Hey, we just need you guys to record this section.’ And we’re like, ‘Don’t mess up,’” Verge said with a laugh. “They’re right in front of the microphone watching us, listening to make sure we’re in tune. I don’t think we’ve ever held our breaths that long in our musical career. But, eventually you just, you know, get in the groove of it and just perform.”

For Curtis Olawumi, who was a second drum major last year, that meant putting in extra hours after others had left, often staying up until 4 a.m. working on overdubs and perfecting his part while others left around 10 p.m.; the band started working around 4 p.m.

“Once we started recording stuff, man, it went from the whole ensemble hours and hours a day to small groups, hours and hours a day,” Olawumi said. “My experience was a little bit different with me being on the album [as a soloist]. I was willing to make that commitment. This is what we do.”

Olawumi and his bandmates were used to working hard for homecoming and other major events such as the Battle of the Bands, but this project was on the next level. The opportunity to work with artists whose songs he had been singing at church – and the outcome – was well worth it.

“This is a monumental moment for me, the band, the university and for the musicians on it as well. It’s never been done before, a first time in history sort of thing,” said Olawumi, now the lead drum major who also plays the trumpet. He’s featured playing his trumpet on the songs “Dance Revival” and “Fly (Y.M.M.F.).”

“For the band itself, and for the next group of leaders and musicians and our doctors, lawyers, attorneys and these next group of leaders [at Tennessee State], it’s going to be something to talk about because now this group that [made] this album, that’s history,” he said.

It is unclear whether Olawumi will attend the Grammys despite having two nominations. The band will be returning from the HBCU All-Star Battle of the Bands, scheduled for Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

From left to right: Tennessee State University assistant director of bands Larry Jenkins with co-producer Dallas Austin and band director Reginald McDonald.

Provided / Tennessee State University

The Grammy nominations are among the Aristocrat of Bands’ many accomplishments. The band also is nominated for an NAACP Image Award this year. Other major successes include being the first HBCU band to appear on national television, during a Los Angeles Rams-Chicago Bears NFL game halftime show in 1955, and being the first HBCU band to perform at a presidential inauguration, for John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Understanding that storied past is what made producer Dubba-AA, an Aristocrat of Bands alumnus, want to work on the project – to create more history.

“Being at Tennessee State or any HBCU, it teaches you how to be a leader, right? So being in that program, it prepared me for the real world as an adult,” said Dubba-AA, who played the snare drum and was on the drum line from 2012 to 2016.

“When I got to Tennessee State, it taught me all the values and the musicianship that I didn’t know that I needed. Dr. McDonald was my leader, the person who guided me through things, and now here I am coming back and giving back to his program. He taught me a lot more than he realizes.”

That’s what would make winning a Grammy for his school special. As an artist, Dubba-AA said he has received more than 100 plaques and recorded on multiplatinum songs, but nothing compares to home.

“I will honestly say that it’s humbling and an honor to be nominated,” said Dubba-AA, who has a new tailored tuxedo and a The Urban Hymnal jacket ready for an after-party performance.

Though Verge will be on a separate coast from her band leader, Jenkins, she will be just as excited on Sunday. Regardless of the outcome, she knows this will be a lifetime memory and bond with her bandmates.

“This is amazing. Even though we have a lot of hope and optimism, we never would’ve thought that we were going to be nominated for a Grammy,” Verge said. “It’s just been a great experience, just uncommon to be a part of. I don’t wanna say I’m nervous just because it’s exciting, but I’m just very confident that the work that’s been put into this project will shine through.

“Everything we’ve already done has just been great up until this point, so I’m sure it’ll be fun to watch.”

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