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In 1946, what was then Arkansas AM&N hired its first band director. The historically black institution, which had been underfunded from the start, had to deal with a lack of instruments, inadequate facilities and fluctuating student enrollment.

In 1952, Harold Strong was hired as band director and built a program that became the public face of what's now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Strong retired in 1981. From 1981-89, Odie Burrus was the first alumnus of the school to serve as band director. Burrus gave the band its name as the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South and tagged the dance line as the Golden Girls. Under subsequent directors the band flourished, even when the football program received the so-called death penalty and didn't field teams for a couple of seasons.

John Graham became director in 1994 and built the band into a unit with almost 300 members. The UAPB band has performed at NFL games for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1979, the New Orleans Saints in 1990 and the St. Louis Rams in 2000. It has been in Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and marched in stadiums from the Cotton Bowl in Dallas to Soldier Field in Chicago to the Astrodome in Houston.

The band was invited by President Obama to march in one of his inaugural parades, and has even taken the court at halftime of NBA games.

In Sunday's column, I described attending a Saturday afternoon football game between UAPB and Grambling. In the Southwestern Athletic Conference (commonly known as the SWAC), Saturdays are as much about the bands as football. There are the Ocean of Soul at Texas Southern (the dancers are the Motion of the Ocean), the Human Jukebox at Southern University, the Sonic Boom of the South at Jackson State, the Mighty Marching Hornets at Alabama State, and the Sounds of Dyn-O-Mites at Alcorn State.

Prairie View A&M has the Marching Storm, Alabama A&M has the Marching Maroon & White, and Mississippi Valley State has the Mean Green Marching Machine. The dance teams are the Prairie View Black Foxes, the Alabama A&M Dancin' Divas, and the Mississippi Valley State Satin Dolls. The most famous SWAC band simply goes by the name of the Tiger Marching Band at Grambling.

The SWAC traces its roots back to 1920 when officials from five historically black colleges and universities in Texas--Bishop, Paul Quinn, Prairie View A&M, Texas College and Wiley--met in Houston to form a league. Paul Quinn was the first of the original members to withdraw in 1929. Langston in Oklahoma became the first non-Texas school to be admitted two years later. Langston was followed by Southern University in 1934, Arkansas AM&N in 1936, and Texas Southern in 1954. What's now UAPB left the conference in 1970 but rejoined in 1997.

The SWAC now consists of an East Division and a West Division. The East Division has two schools from Alabama (Alabama A&M and Alabama State) and three schools from Mississippi (Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State). UAPB is joined in the West Division by two schools from Louisiana (Grambling and Southern University) and two schools from Texas (Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M).

The Grambling band I saw perform in Pine Bluff last month has Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones to thank. In 1926, Jones entered into an instrument deal with Sears Roebuck & Co. Jones was a faculty member who later would serve as Grambling's president for more than 50 years. He was asked by the school president, Charles Adams, to form a group of marching musicians. After obtaining 17 instruments from Sears, Jones went to work.

According to the Grambling band's website: "The action switched from chairs to grassy fields as the tiny group began marching at football games. Since several band members were usually on the grid squad, interesting situations frequently developed. It was a common sight to see Ralph Jones substituting for a band member who had suffered a football injury. Tiger tunes became more sophisticated during the 1930s, and Grambling musicians began to perform at concerts and dances in neighboring towns. By 1936, Jones, affectionately known as 'Prez,' became the president. But he still directed the band and coached baseball."

A full-time band director, A.D. "Sarge" King, was later hired. He stayed in the job until 1949 when Langston's J.S. "Pop" Lee came to Grambling. It was the arrival of Conrad "Hutch" Hutchinson Jr. in 1952 that took the Grambling band to the next level. He was a professional musician who performed in jazz bands across the country in addition to directing high school bands in Alabama, Kentucky and Ohio. Grambling's big break came when it performed at halftime of the AFL championship game in January 1964 at San Diego. Invitations began pouring in from across the country.

A reporter in San Diego wrote: "The Chargers knew they had to be great if they were to prevent the Grambling band from stealing the show."

By the late 1960s, band members were touring foreign countries as part of USO shows. The first Super Bowl featured the Grambling band.

Though it's an honor to play in the band at a SWAC institution, it's also hard work. The Grambling website notes that "the seeds [are] planted in early August. After a month of intense nurturing, the crop is dispersed throughout the world. ... It all begins Aug. 1 with something that's officially called 'pre-school band training period.' Freshmen show up along with a cadre of drill sergeants and section leaders. Ten days later, the veterans return."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 11/06/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Hard to beat the band


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