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Drum major’s death puts black college marching bands ‘under the microscope’

Published by EOTM News Editor on November 26th, 2011 - in Breaking News, In America, Trending

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Parents and officlas are scrutinizing black college marching bands after the death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion.

Knees fly high. Hips swivel. Trombones sway. Bass drums thump. Tubas bellow. Cymbals crash.

The scene – with its electrifying soundtrack – is a major draw at many historically black colleges and universities, where throngs of students turn out for marching band performances.

“The bands are so entertaining that people attend these games for the halftime show. … People sit in their seats at halftime. They leave in the third quarter. It’s just big,” said Christy Walker, 36, who runs a website dedicated to black college marching band culture.

For the past week, the message boards on Walker’s website have been buzzing with passionate posts about the situation at Florida A&M University (FAMU). The school fired the band director and stopped all performances of its famous “Marching 100″ after authorities said they suspect hazing caused the death of a 26-year-old drum major.

No matter what investigators uncover, the tragic incident has an impact far beyond the Florida university’s campus, said Walker, who played clarinet in the band at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

“There are a lot of great bands, over 50 or so, but FAMU is definitely the most well-known out there,” she said. “Since FAMU is so high-profile in our world, I think we as black college band programs are going to be under the microscope.”

‘It was magic’

Bill Maxwell watched FAMU’s Marching 100 perform for the first time when he was in middle school. Decades later, the memory remains as crisp as their bright orange and green uniforms.

“It was the most thrilling thing I’d ever seen,” said Maxwell, now 66. “I didn’t know anyone could really move their legs that fast. When they were marching, you could barely see their legs move. It was magic.”

Opinion: What I learned from the FAMU marching band

Back home, Maxwell marched with his friends in a recently plowed field. They carried sticks that they pretended were instruments. He carried a beat-up bugle that he had found in a nearby landfill.

“I don’t know of a single black kid growing up who had any interest in music who didn’t want to be in FAMU’s Marching 100,” said Maxwell, who wrote in a 2010 column for the St. Petersburg Times that the success of the band and its leader inspired him during the Jim Crow-era Florida of the 1950s.

The band’s innovative reputation for incorporating popular music and elaborate dance formations into its routines earned it a following and near-celebrity status on campus. And as students who graduated from the university went on to lead other bands, their reputation gained a wider reach.

“It’s not just something people from FAMU are proud of. It’s something that black people in general are really proud of,” said Lawrence Patrick III, 36, the CEO of a technology start-up in San Francisco who played bass drum in the Marching 100 for two years. “We were able to build this network of other important institutions based on this one successful institution. Black people are really proud of our bands. We’re proud of the difference of style and the flavor and the flair and the flamboyance.”

Worries about a wider impact

After a game in Orlando on November 19, members of the Marching 100 returned to their hotel, where drum major Robert Champion “reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe,” the sheriff’s office said. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said this week that hazing was involved, but added that authorities were trying to determine an official cause of death.

Word spread rapidly through student and alumni networks at historically black college and universities, where marching bands are among the most prestigious institutions.

“It’s one of those things, when the bad news hits one, all of the schools feel it. Of course, it magnifies everything about the black schools,” said Maxwell, who attended Wiley College and Bethune-Cookman University. “We all cringe when it happens to one.”

Patrick, the Marching 100 alum, said he was devastated by the news.

“It’s incredibly tragic. It’s a huge loss, and it’s felt by all alumni of FAMU, not just people who were in the band,” he said. “The band is the most beloved institution associated with the school, period.”

Walker, who runs the website dedicated to black college marching bands, said she was worried programs at other schools could be affected by the hazing allegations.

“It just puts a big black eye over all black college bands. I think maybe presidents will be holding band staff more accountable for what goes on. I think that this will impact recruiting. … It also might impact the amount of money and budget that are set aside for these programs,” she said. “It’s at the highest profile school, so I think it will make everybody look and see what their programs are doing.”

Misael Garzon, 23, said he was shocked when he heard the news about a program many view as “immortal.”

“I was just obviously praying for the family, praying for the (Marching) 100, even though we’re rivals,” said Garzon, who played saxophone in South Carolina State University’s band. “Hazing is an issue that has to be stopped in many areas of college. But still, I had friends who marched for the (Marching) 100. It’s just that family bond. It saddens me to see a great program have to go through this.”

‘It becomes a passion inside you’

Walker described the hazing allegations at FAMU as an “anomaly” among bands at black colleges.

“There are thousands of students that go through these programs that have a very pleasurable experience,” said Walker, whose parents met while playing in the band at North Carolina A&T. “I remember seeing bands (when I was) 5 years old, growing up and saying, ‘I can’t wait until I get to march in a band like that.’ … You see it, and then it makes you want to be a musician, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, part of something good.”

Garzon said the power and intensity of the bands from FAMU and Bethune-Cookman mesmerized him when he watched them square off at the Florida Classic in Orlando.

“You fall in love with it and you grow with it,” he said. “It becomes a passion inside you.”

Benny Hernandez, 27, said he was “head over heels” when he first heard Bethune-Cookman’s band play in 2001. He played oboe and piccolo at the university – an experience he said gave him a work ethic and discipline that helped him do well in school and establish a successful career.

“I consider it the best decision I’ve made in my life,” he said.

But parents of students considering joining bands at historically black colleges and universities may be hesitant in light of the allegations at FAMU, he said.

Parents should take the time to talk with band directors about their concerns, Hernandez said, rather than steering their children away from organizations that could help them achieve success.

But Maxwell said universities must do more to respond to hazing problems.

“If I were a parent right now of a kid who wanted to go to school for the purpose of being in one of those bands, I would think twice,” Maxwell said.

Anyone connected with hazing at FAMU must be held accountable and face punishment, he said.

“Some good may come out of it,” he said. “It may teach other schools to stop it.”

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