Alabama State drum major JaVonta Price was on his way home after a morning grocery trip during his summer break.
His mom texted him, sharing a tweet with the news he figured was coming but wasn’t ready to face. The SWAC fall athletic season would be canceled.
What it meant? So much more than football on Saturdays. It meant no hyped-up crowds, hollering at the drum majors’ signature move, the Hornet lean back. No leading the loud and proud Mighty Marching Hornets onto the field for their weekly spectacle.
Many show bands — a voice of the Black college experience — would be instructed to pause.
His stomach turned over, and everything he had just bought, he wanted to take back.
“If the band ain’t going on the field, I’m not saying fans aren’t going to show up, but it’s not going to give anybody anything to look forward to,” Price said.
The SWAC fall sports season cancellation was a precursor to recent conference play postponements, which includes the Big Ten and PAC-12, and fell rank-in-file with other HBCU-heavy conferences, which suspended play before them, due to the widespread impact of COVID-19.
Though treasured rivalries and the intoxicating sights, sounds and smells of tailgates have been taken from universities and their fans across the country, an American art — integral to the HBCU college experience and respected nationwide — will be silent this fall for the first time since its inception.
“Black bands are definitely embedded into our country,” said Jackson State band director Roderick Little. “Even when we go and play at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), we are welcomed with open arms, because they are just in awe of what our band programs have to bring from musicality to showmanship and the overall energy we bring within our shows. So, it’s an aesthetic part of the American culture as well. And what we have to do as band directors is let people know our value and our worth from a holistic standpoint, not just in the Black culture.”
More than a game, more than a Saturday
When HBCU show bands strike up, their flair and flamboyance force spectators to stay put in their seats, resisting a halftime concession stand run. The band performances are a core experience. They speak for the people, SWAC band directors say.
A community that has been traditionally disenfranchised feels heard in a communal moment.
“We don’t have to apologize for being what we are (here),” said John Graham, band director at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. “Everything on this campus is representative of who you are. You don’t have to try to adjust to society. It’s like you’re at home. … We say band is a part of our culture, but it’s basically who we are.”
The significance of the Black college band is anchored in showmanship, spectacle and entertainment. It’s drumsticks striking canvas. It’s the power and grace of dancers. It’s beyond halftime performances. Fans follow the bands’ march into stadiums. They dance to their performances even when football is being played on the field. And don’t forget the postgame “fifth quarter” shows.
Grambling State University band director Nikole Roebuck likes to quote the legendary Eddie Robinson, who coached the Tigers for 50-plus seasons, saying that “the football team and the band is a marriage. You can’t have one without the other.”
Alabama State band director James Oliver takes Roebuck’s sentiment one step further: “If you take away the band,” he said, “you’re going to take away probably two-thirds of the audience, because everybody loves the band. It’s a part of the game, so it’s important that we are acknowledged as much as football or any other athletics in this situation.”
Cancellation of fall football in the SWAC, MEAC and other traditionally Black conferences is more than the postponement of play. It further disrupts everyday life for a community that has already been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
African Americans are 13.4% of the American population, but account for 20% of the total cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The APM Research Lab has also reported that 80.4 Black individuals die per 100,000, which leads all race groups.
Graham says he knows people in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that have intentionally moved closer to where the band practices so they can feel connected. This extends through generations, he said, as people grew up and raised families in these homes and passed the property down to their children.
“There’s people in our community that live by the sounds of our drums,” Graham said. The music signals the change of seasons for them. It gives them hope, a grip on time.
However, this fall brings a sense of loss and a “withdrawal sensation” hangs around Pine Bluff, Graham said. But in Nashville, home of the Tennessee State University band, drums and horns can still be heard.
TSU is a part of Ohio Valley Conference, where the “Aristocrat of Bands” is the only HBCU member. Furthermore, the OVC has decided to still play football this fall, thus TSU will perform.
Band Director Roderick McDonald said performances will be limited to the stands, as the OVC commissioner decided that bands will not perform pregame or halftime shows.
“It’s a little bit challenging, but we decided it’s worth it to keep the Black college band experience going in our community,” McDonald said. “We have this motto ‘Don’t nothing happen good in the state of Tennessee without the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands.'”
Elsewhere, band directors are in process of figuring out how to keep the music alive.
Moving forward, the music must play on
Oliver can’t escape thoughts of conducting band practice under lights in ASU Stadium in fall’s past. These days, it’s all he thinks about — in conjunction with how he will keep his students active when they begin class on Monday, Aug. 17.
They will practice, but not inside. Everything will be done on the field, except there will be no marching.
Students will be positioned 10 feet apart. Woodwind players wear face shields, while the brasswinds will place protective screens over the bells of their horns. These measures, along with others, are what the SWAC band directors have decided will be common practice throughout the conference.
From school to school, directors say they will use this time to sharpen techniques and to readdress fundamentals. They are trying to figure out how to provide students an incentive in wake of what they’ve lost.
Graham, the chairman of SWAC bands, said the conference is planning a virtual Battle of the Bands. Carlton Wright, band director at Alabama A&M University, said his band will perform live on multiple social media platforms throughout the fall.
When football returns in the spring, Oliver said his band will not take the field for any halftime performance unless there is a vaccine.
Meanwhile, music must go on in other manners and forms, because Little says, “music is connected to life. Music is life.”
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Andre Toran at AToran@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndreToran.