One of the many reasons I can thank soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris for is raising the profile of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). From her exciting entry into the primaries accompanied by drumlines, to her visits to Black colleges to get out the vote, to the stroll to the polls efforts of her “family”—who she described as “my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” to her own personal story of being a student at Howard University, many Americans who never really thought about our schools are now doing so.
As I got ready to write today’s #BlackMusicSunday piece on jazz trombone, I got sidetracked looking at videos of HBCU marching bands, and trombone battles between band members. They brought back a lot of memories for me, which have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents moved us to our first HBCU campus, Maryland State, (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) when I was 4. Later, when I was 9, we relocated to Southern University in Baton Rouge, which had a very well-known marching band … and I got to be a baby majorette. So today, I’d like to share just a taste of what drew me off course and invite you to listen to “the battle of the ‘bones.”
While reading up on great jazz trombone players, I ran across this historical overview at JazzFuel.
When jazz first took off in the early 20th century—with Dixieland, New Orleans music leading the way—the trombone was a mainstay of most groups, albeit alongside the featured soloist. From Kid Ory in Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 to Al Gande in Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines, the trombone was there.
Similarly, as the swing and big band era was ushered in, the trombone section provided a vital role in the colours of the music—as it did in some of the most legendary cool jazz albums of all time. Once bebop arrived, it was widely thought that the trombone’s place in this new, fast-paced and technical setting was at risk—until J.J. Johnson showed otherwise.
As the years have passed, the jazz trombone has continued to play a range of roles in this style—from virtuosic improvisational soloist through to essential ensemble player—and shows no sign of stopping. If anything, its place in jazz has been more pronounced in recent years, with a number of high-profile proponents led by crossover success Trombone Shorty.
It struck me that a feeder system into the world of the trombone is already in place. Take a listen to this viral clip of William Bilal playing Al Jarreau’s “Black and Blues” with his classmates in 2016.
As noted in a 2019 XONecole roundup of #blackboyjoy, “William Bilal Plays The Trombone Like You’ve Literally NEVER Heard Before.”
In 2016, William Bilal was a student in high school standing in the bleachers and playing his trombone during rehearsal. What was recorded became history, and 1.6 million views later, he continues to blow what seems like the entire internet’s wig all the way back. The passion, the level of difficulty, and the effortless way he made his trombone sing—at THAT age—you just had to know that the ancestors were watching and losing their wigs too.
Bilal has since gone on to attend Benedict College in South Carolina, and has other (clearer) videos floating on worldwide web. But this is where it all started.
The stellar trombone players at Fairfield High School got more attention thanks to William’s viral video.
As a former student at New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, I’d like to hope that the music programs at Fairfield are getting special funding, but I doubt it. Winnsboro’s population is approximately 60% Black; the school, which has nearly 800 students, is 87% Black. Those of you who remember the Freedom Riders may recognize the town as a place where Riders were arrested.
The South Carolina portion of the trip saw the first instance of violent southern opposition. At the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, white youths assaulted three of the Freedom Riders as one African American rider approached the “white” waiting room. Police intervened before any serious injuries occurred and made no arrests. The Freedom Rides passengers next arrived in Winnsboro, where police arrested and subsequently released black riders after they requested service at a lunch counter reserved for whites.
Founded in 1870 by a woman, Bathsheba A. Benedict, Benedict College is a private co-educational liberal arts institution with 1,738 students enrolled in its 25 baccalaureate degree programs during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Benedict College, originally Benedict Institute, was founded 148 years agounder the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. As Benedict’s first philanthropist, Mrs. Benedict of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, provided$13,000 towards the purchase of an 80-acre plantation near Columbia, South Carolina as the site for a new school for the recently freed people of African descent. Benedict Institute, operating in a former slave master’s mansion, was established, in the words of its founder to prepare men and women to be a“power for good in society.”
During the first quarter century of its existence, Benedict Institute directed its educational programs to the severely limited economic and social conditions of the black population in the South. The Institute’s original objective was to educate and train teachers and preachers, therefore,Benedict’s first curriculum included reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic,and religion. Later, the curriculum was expanded to include traditional college disciplines, which also included an industrial department offering carpentry, shoemaking, printing, and painting.
Benedict currently is educating a 99% Black student population, with high gender diversity. The school’s marching band, the Marching Tiger “Band of Distinction,” was founded in 1998.
What fascinates me as a jazz fan is that so many Black college marching bands—like Benedict’s—use “Black and Blues,” originally recorded by Al Jarreau in 1983, on his album Jarreau, as their “trombone fanfare.”
What was even more interesting was that in reading the comments posted to several versions of Jarreau’s “Black and Blues” on YouTube, I found a large number of commenters had arrived to listen to Jarreau via having heard Bilal’s viral clip, where the tune he was playing was identified in comments with attribution to Jarreau—a name the commenters had never heard before.
The enthusiasm for trombone (and “Black and Blues”) seen here is infectious.
Trombone sections actually go to war and “battle” opposing schools. Here’s Benedict vs. Bowie State.
Since 2003, a major car company has supported a Battle of the Bands for HBCUs.
With initiatives like the Honda Campus All-Star Challenge and Honda Battle of the Bands, we have been able to touch the lives of more than 170,000 students and award more than $12 million in grants in support of HBCUs. For 17 years, the Honda Battle of the Bands has been committed to supporting the dreams of HBCUs by investing in their music education programs and showcasing their exceptional student musicians. As we continue to prepare these students to further their dreams, we look forward to another Invitational Showcase.
The 2021 battle was set to take place this month in Atlanta was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
I don’t know if you have ever seen HBCU marching bands, but they are a joy to behold.
HBCUs, of course, need more than just corporate events to sustain them. I’m looking forward to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to HBCUs being fulfilled, as well as a Senate no longer controlled by Republicans to make a difference.
During his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden pledged more than $70 billion to HBCUs and other minority-serving schools to lower costs for students, create research incubators and improve digital infrastructure. Harris has helped craft and promote the agenda, and HBCU advocates anticipate she will fight to bring the proposals to fruition.
HBCUs are important to the health of our communities, as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) reports.
Though HBCUs make up only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10% of all African American students and produce almost 20% of all African American graduates. HBCUs actively work to address the financial obstacles black students face. On average, the cost of attendance at an HBCU is 28% less than attending a comparable non-HBCU. Forty percent of HBCU students report feeling financially secure during college, as opposed to 29% of black students at other schools.
The band battles that take place between Black high schools, as well as student admiration and emulation of the HBCU bands, help motivate young Black students to aspire to college in a way education and sports do not.
I’ll close with a battle between two Georgia high schools: Redan High School in Stone Mountain, and Southwest DeKalb High School.
Who won? In my honest opinion, they both win because they’re making music.