Wisconsin’s Corey Pompey is the rare Black band director at a Power 5 school
Pompey’s Southern roots have led him to the Big Ten power. Along the way, he’s had to navigate racial dynamics, how to lead and following a legend
Ahead of Corey Pompey’s first halftime show as director of the University of Wisconsin marching band in 2019, a local newspaper headline read: Some old, some new and some Beyoncé.
One could read that as a simple nod to the fact that the then-37-year-old was modernizing a band that had been conducted for the last 50 years by someone born before World War II. Or that the new Black director, the first in the program’s history, would be bringing in Black music.
The band, under Pompey’s direction, would still be playing legacy favorites such as “On, Wisconsin” (slaps) and “Varsity” (not as much). But they would now be playing Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Elton John and songs from The Wiz (slaps) and Hamilton (not as much).
For the band’s director, it was about introducing music that had never been heard before in Camp Randall Stadium, the football team’s home field. If the artists were more diverse than previous years, that was just a product of the diversification of music over the last few decades.
It has not been the perception of Pompey, now 40, that he’s viewed as the hip, or hip-hop, band director. But, as he continues to modernize a program that had been led by the same person for the last 50 years, he’s aware that he is — and looks — different from his predecessor.
“I’m not going to say that’s not the thoughts of some people,” he said.
Pompey was born to a single mother in Birmingham, Alabama, and he also spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother.
“I was the grandchild that was around,” he said. “I don’t know if I was her favorite, but I was around the most.”
His introduction to music was through the church. His wasn’t the type of family to be at a service every day of the week, but his grandmother was heavily involved in the church (she sang in the church gospel choir) and would take a young Pompey with her.
As far as his musical education, that came from riding in the car with his mother. As they drove, smooth jazz artists, such as saxophonists Kenny G and Boney James, played on the radio. But don’t get it twisted: It’s not what a young Pompey necessarily wanted to listen to.
“I can say that’s what my mother was listening to,” he said.
But soon after, Pompey just wanted to learn how to play music, and that opportunity came in the form of a fourth-grade music class.
He was first matched with the violin but didn’t want to play the string instrument because, from watching orchestras on television, he knew he’d have to stand the entire time with the violin.
“They said, ‘You have an opportunity to learn how to play a string instrument,’ ” he said of his first music teachers. “Well, what is a string instrument? It turned out to be violins and all of that other stuff.”
After playing a variety of instruments during a summer program, Pompey eventually switched to the cello. But the whole time he had his sights set on the saxophone, the instrument he heard on the car radio. The only problem: His mother wasn’t willing to invest in the more expensive instrument.
“You have to play whatever the school’s got,” Pompey remembers her telling him.
“Well, they had a trumpet.”
By sixth grade, after Pompey spent more than a year with the trumpet and going to weekly band practices, his mother finally relented, realizing her son was serious about this whole music thing.
“So at that point … my mother said, ‘OK, I suppose there’s some seriousness here. We’ll go ahead and get you an instrument,’ ” he said.
Once Pompey got to middle school, he started listening to big bands such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And by the time he got to college at the University of Alabama, where he marched in the Million Dollar Marching Band as a saxophonist and the drum major, he started to learn more about the history of classical music, from Jean-Marie Londeix to Eugene Rousseau.
There weren’t many Black people in the Alabama band, but “enough to where I didn’t feel alone.”
Pompey never felt ostracized or different in the band. He was able to “thrive and … survive” in that environment. Plus, the band felt like the Essence Fest compared with the paltry number of Black people in the school of music.
“That’s not a major that we were gravitating to,” he said.
After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at Alabama, Pompey worked as a public middle and high school music teacher in the suburbs of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa for seven years before completing his doctorate at the University of Texas.
After two years as an assistant director of athletic bands for Penn State University, working with the Marching Blue Band, Pompey believed it was finally time to lead his own band.
He took the band director job at the University of Nevada-Reno in 2018. He expected to stay at Nevada for a long time — at least six or seven years in order to gain tenure — until Wisconsin came calling in 2019 with the opportunity, or lack thereof, of a lifetime.
Michael Leckrone came to the University of Wisconsin in 1969. Due to a struggling football program and anti-war sentiments over the Vietnam War on college campuses, the band was in turmoil; Leckrone was the third band director in three years.
But the Indiana native quickly turned the program around, creating band staples like the Fifth Quarter, the program’s postgame performance; the “stop at the top” marching style; and the band’s annual spring concert, which grew from a family-and-friends affair of fewer than 500 audience members in 1975 to regularly selling out the 17,000-capacity Kohl Center today. Leckrone, who retired in spring 2019, is so legendary and ubiquitous with the university that he even once appeared in a student-produced music video.
“Students both respected him for his deep knowledge of music but also his entity, and what he meant to the UW-Madison campus,” said Alexander Gonzalez, the band’s assistant director. “The big takeaway was he was a titan in multiple ways.”
Those were the footsteps Pompey was supposed to follow in. And he wanted zero parts of that.
“Well, you’re going to walk into a hornet’s nest,” he told himself. “Why would you put yourself through that?”
But after taking a month to decide and receiving assurances from the school of music’s leadership, Pompey applied for the position and was announced as the new Wisconsin band director in summer 2019.
“We didn’t hire a person of color because we were trying to diversify the faculty. We wanted the best person.”— Scott Teeple, Wisconsin’s director of bands
Scott Teeple, director of bands at Wisconsin, makes clear that the school was not looking for a replacement for Leckrone.
“We knew if someone came in and tried to be Mike or replace Mike, it would be a failure for the students, it would be a failure for the program, and it would be a failure for the individual,” Teeple said.
The school also wasn’t looking for a diversity hire. They wanted a “fine musician” who understood Big Ten traditions and would seek out the Wisconsin traditions while balancing new ideas.
So the program went outside of its own network to call across the country looking for suitable candidates. They took recommendations from people who were recommended to them. The list grew to about 100 names, which meant that people who were not white men had, at the least, an opportunity to get the job.
Wisconsin exhibited how affirmative action isn’t hiring someone because of the color of their skin, but rather giving those historically disadvantaged the opportunity to even be in the running.
“We didn’t hire a person of color because we were trying to diversify the faculty,” Teeple said. “We wanted the best person.”
Ask Pompey and Gregory Drane, the director of marching bands at Penn State University and Pompey’s former boss, if they can name every Black marching band director in the Power 5 conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12).
“I might be able to get close,” said Pompey.
Drane, on the other hand, knows every one of them. How?
“Because I mentor all of them,” he said.
Drane became the second Black marching band director in Big Ten history when he was hired in 2015. (O’Neill Sanford at Minnesota was the first.) He made it his responsibility to take every new Black band director under his wing, as only a few exist outside of historically Black colleges and universities.
During the 2020-21 academic year, Black athletes made up 47% of Division I football players, 44% of women’s basketball players and 55% of men’s basketball players, according to the NCAA Demographics Database.
Yet, among the 65 programs, including independent Notre Dame, that make up the Power 5 conferences there are currently only five Black marching band directors (Louisiana State University’s Kelvin Jones, University of Texas’ Cliff Croomes, West Virginia University’s Cheldon Williams, Drane and Pompey.)
Benjamin Lorenzo, chairman of the College Band Directors National Association’s diversity committee, chalks up the low number of Black and other band directors from minority groups in director positions to the barrier of entry for the role. (Among minority band directors, there are six white women, two Hispanic men and one Asian man in the Power 5.)
Most universities require a marching band director to possess a doctorate. Black students made up just 5.6% of doctorate recipients in 2020 compared with 50.3% for white students, according to data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. Black teachers account for just 5.4% of tenured staff, according to data from the American Association of University Professors.
“Historically you need a doctorate degree to get into higher ed,” said Lorenzo, who was appointed as the director of bands at Kent State University in April. “Some of it has to do with the fact that a lot of the universities weren’t addressing these diversity issues and trying to find a lot of African American doctoral candidates.”
Despite the low numbers, Pompey doesn’t feel lonely as one of the few Black band directors in the Power 5. “Obviously when I walk in a room I know I might be one of two Black people,” he said. “That’s apparent.”
But in any majority-white setting, Black people normally have to be aware of their surroundings and assimilate in order to relate to people who don’t look like them.
While Pompey believes he has not had to code-switch as the leader of mostly white students, he said that, when he’s talking to a group of people, he tries to pronounce words correctly, heavily focusing on how he pronounces words like “four.” He tries his hardest to rein in his thick Southern accent.
But he fails.
“I’m sure I’m not successful with it,” Pompey said. “Because as soon as I open my mouth they know I’m from the South.”
He’s careful not to yell and scream (“I’m not saying it never happens”), and feels bad when he has to raise his voice. While he has rules for the band and expects the students to abide by them, he doesn’t want to be perceived as being mean or scary.
A band member told the Wisconsin State Journal after Pompey was hired that, whereas Leckrone could be more “militaristic” — marching bands origins go back to the military — in his approach, Pompey was “laid back but passionate.”
“I think that just goes onto the list, if you will, that folks of color experience in those professional environments: ‘I can’t get upset because I’m afraid I’ll be viewed as the angry Black man,’ ” Drane said.
“If you don’t do the right thing, there are consequences. I might not stand up there and yell and berate you about it either. But there’ll be consequences. You just have to choose to do things, what I would consider to be, the right way.”— Corey Pompey
Pompey thinks his attitude comes from years of teaching and recognizing what feels natural to him and what feels unnatural. In his first year of teaching, he worked with someone who was hard-nosed with the students. Pompey tried to replicate that.
“I tried to be harder than I am,” he said. “… it did not work for me.”
With his stature — Pompey is maybe 5-feet-6 on a good day and openly acknowledges his expanding waistline — and Alabama accent, it’s easy to see why he’s not the yelling type. While he conducts with a stolid look, he’s warm and affable. He constantly jokes with his students and staff, punctuating nearly every sentence with some form of levity.
Drane said Pompey represents a new breed of band directors who don’t have to be hard to get the best out of their students.
So Pompey chooses to be himself. And hopes that his humility and lack of onerousness positively influences everyone else.
“I try to give you good information, try to get us to be the best we can be, and you choose to do the right thing,” Pompey said. “And if you don’t do the right thing, there are consequences. I might not stand up there and yell and berate you about it either. But there’ll be consequences. You just have to choose to do things, what I would consider to be, the right way.”
What seems to impress Pompey’s colleagues the most is his desire to work with students. While Pompey is passionate about putting on a great performance (“I think most of us have some element of anal retentiveness in us,” Pompey said of band directors), he’s also about making sure the students have a great experience.
He values what the students think and say, and shows he cares about them as individuals rather than just members of the band.
“He understands the nuances of an organization such as the athletic band program,” said Teeple. “Meaning he understands the component that is first and foremost: The students who are in the band right now, and they are the priority.”
That includes the new music Pompey wanted to introduce to them. Classical music from the early 20th century is still cool, but some Motown doesn’t hurt either.
At a June clinic in Madison, Pompey asked the group made almost exclusively of white 20-somethings if they’d ever heard of soul singer James Brown. Some sheepishly raised their hands.
“In the wake of everything that happened during the pandemic, I think a lot of individuals were discovering for anew that the kinds of music that we hear on radio were developed very seriously by Black artists,” said Gonzalez.
Pompey can’t completely escape the 50-year shadow of Leckrone. “I’m not trying to be anti-Michael, and do things different from Michael,” Pompey said. “We’re just different people.” But there’s no reason to think he can’t do this job as long as his predecessor.
So, will he, like Leckrone before him, stay half a century at his new home? Pompey hopes to be a band director for that long, just not necessarily in one place.
“I don’t envision myself doing this for 50 years,” he said in reference to staying at Wisconsin. “I don’t know how Mike did it for 50 years.”
Then how long?
“I don’t know. At least long enough to retire.”