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Texas Southern’s band director may be young, but he’s ready to elevate its sound

Brian Simmons says his job is to ‘bridge the gap’ between the Ocean of Soul’s past culture and the next generation of student musicians and performers

At 31 years old, Texas Southern University marching band director Brian Simmons knows he’s one of the youngest band leaders at a historically Black college, but he also knows he’s equipped to do the job.

The Southern University alumnus was the assistant band director at his alma mater before Texas Southern hired him to take over the Ocean of Soul Marching Band in June 2021. Simmons vowed to respect the past while leading the band in his own way.

As he approaches his second anniversary in the role, his formula seems to be working.

Texas Southern University band director Brian Simmons was hired in June 2021. “I’m a natural competitor. My students and anybody inside that band hall know that,” he said.

TSU Media

“I give everybody respect, but I assumed I had to earn mine,” Simmons said. “My job is just to be the next person to bridge the gap for this next generation. Has it been difficult working with some people sometimes? Because they are of a different time and space. And sometimes, people want you to kiss the ring. I ain’t going to do all that.

“I’m going to do my job [and] show you the respect and courtesy that you deserve and earn it. But me being a youngster is still a thing. I’m always reminded of it, no matter what success I have.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t any bumps in the road to building Texas Southern into his program, Simmons said. Coming from Louisiana, he needed to learn the band culture at TSU. That led to a few disagreements that he eventually worked out.

For Simmons, it was all about getting the best out of each band member. 

“It was just breaking them out of those molds, looking at things a little bit different,” Simmons said. “It was a little difficult at times, because we were all speaking different languages, if that makes sense.”

Now he has laid the foundation to elevate the Ocean of Soul.

Texas Southern University band director Brian Simmons said he learned the band culture at TSU was completely different from how it was back home in Louisiana.

TSU Media

“One of my biggest pet peeves for the band this year was to move at a faster pace … to move naturally,” Simmons said. “So that has changed not only their attitude and confidence but their ability to compete. Now you’re up there in the upper echelon with some of the better bands.

“I’m a natural competitor. My students and anybody inside that band hall know that. If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it to win. We’re going to do it to be the very best.”

Musically, that means not only playing the latest and hottest songs but also having a diverse repertoire.

“When you come to a game with the Ocean of Soul, you’re going to hear a plethora of different genres. We are probably one of the most, if not the most, eclectic bands,” Simmons said. “At one Ocean of Soul game, you are going to hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ GloRilla, might hear some Nelly Furtado or a Snarky Puppy. You’re going to hear some Mozart.

“It goes all through the genres because we have to make sure everybody is engaged. We have to make sure everybody is enjoying something.”

KamRon Hadnot, who will be a sophomore drum major at Texas Southern this fall, said band director Brian Simmons strives for perfection: “No matter how many times we don’t want to run it, he just keeps going until it’s right.”

TSU Media

Simmons’ changes are being noticed by leaders of other HBCU bands, too.

When Adrian Thompson and Simmons met as bandmates at Southern, neither knew they would become the leaders of the new school of HBCU band directors: Thompson, who leads the Great Tornado Band at Talladega College, is 30 years old and technically the youngest HBCU band director, according to Simmons.

Thompson calls their professional relationship a friendly rivalry, and they are planning a few joint band events for the future. They also text back and forth often, with Thompson seeking advice on how to handle various situations.

“He’s done great. He’s done a lot of things that I aspire to do, which is gained the support of the alumni, trying to keep the integrity of the marching band with the older generation [and] trying to keep them in the loop,” Thompson said. “He’s done a lot, and honestly we learn from each other because we talk a lot.”

Fifth-year Texas Southern student Kaelyn Scurlock, who is captain of TSU’s Motion of the Ocean dance troupe, was a sophomore when Simmons came to the university. She said they initially butted heads a bit, mostly trying to learn each other’s styles. Now, their relationship has blossomed to the point that she can suggest music for the band to play and listen to his unprompted words of wisdom.

“Mr. Simmons has the mindset that he wants to be the best. Like, from the moment I met him, he just always was just really focused [in] whatever area,” Scurlock said. “He wants the dancing, the flags and the instrumentalists to be the best. Like, he wants everybody to be the best and, like, he wants to be the best, too. He’s just a really good man, and he’s funny.”

For KamRon Hadnot, who will be a sophomore drum major this fall, Simmons also has been someone Hadnot could lean on during tough times.

Texas Southern’s Ocean of Soul band waits to perform during a game against Southern University on Sept. 17, 2022, at Choctaw Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a freshman, Hadnot struggled to adjust to being in the band and school. He recalls Simmons being patient, whether he struggled to read music or was dealing with family issues and classes.

“[Simmons] was one of my biggest inspirations for this year because I had a lot of time to actually just sit there and talk to him,” he said. “He gave me really good life advice. That’s his job. So, to me, he’s a really good role model and to say that he’s not that old and he’s accomplished what he has, that’s what really motivates most of the band.”

Hadnot calls Simmons a man who doesn’t sugarcoat anything but relates to young people. As a band leader, though, he’s simply a perfectionist.

“He just acts like one of us, so it doesn’t cause us to resent him or anything because I know a lot of people that have that old-school mentality. The younger generation, we tend to resent them and not want to listen,” Hadnot said. “[But] he wants everything how it’s supposed to be done. He doesn’t take imperfection for an answer. No matter how many times we don’t want to run it, he just keeps going until it’s right.”

That mentality is what will keep Simmons pushing forward.

“Life is hard, especially with students now [dealing] with COVID, because for some of us, that’s a thing in the past, but that was actually a chapter in their lives,” Simmons said. “I had kids that didn’t get to have a freshman year, that didn’t have a prom.

“They have all different things going on with them. So it’s my job to stay in tune with them and craft it in a way that they understand. It’s culturally relevant teaching.”

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