A Look Inside New Orleans' Rich Marching Band Tradition
Marching bands have long held an esteemed seat at the table of New Orleans culture and heritage. Having acquired unique styles bursting with the influence of the jazz culture New Orleans birthed here decades ago, they have earned love from their audiences on the field, and from their resounding role in each beautiful parade during the cherished celebration of Mardi Gras. The combination makes for a rich marching band tradition whose audiences adore the show, whose musicians love the art, and whose directors step into a job that becomes their own dream come true. Now, two of the city's most historic marching bands, New Orleans' own Tulane University Marching Band (TUMB) and St. Augustine High School's "Marching 100," give their own insider's perspective on the history of marching bands in the Crescent City and how their organizations make that dream come alive all year long.
Marching bands originated in America mainly due to their military function in the 1800s, but eventually sprouted as community bands due to the extra instruments left behind after the Civil War. Over the years, composers such as John Philip Sousa formalized this type of military marching style of music, which was then taken even further when the influence of Scott Joplin's syncopated ragtime piano pieces grew to inspire jazz as a whole. As Barry Spanier, Director of Bands at Tulane University, puts it, "The brass band became the petri dish, the laboratory for jazz to take its first steps." He goes on to explain that as the field songs, hymns, blues, and gospel pieces of culturally different community groups started to blend, jazz then began to take its place within those communities. The great southern city of New Orleans housed some of these communities and displayed this art, such that "New Orleans more than anyplace else is where it came from," admits Spanier.
Ever since, the tradition has thrived, with the Tulane University Marching Band, the city's only college marching band, starting as early as 1920. Though the band took a hiatus from 1975-2005, Spanier is now reflecting the age-old traditions of TUMB as new traditions are adopted. Having drawn inspiration from the innovative composer John Morrissey, who was Tulane's band director from 1939- 1969, while blending the funk, modal jazz, and brass band influences from the 1970s, Spanier has expanded the musical repertoire of the band greatly. His goal was to develop the local traditions to create an identity for Tulane that is "authentically part of the local scene," as well as "authentically and uniquely something Tulane and New Orleans," says Spanier. However, to do this, one cannot simply expand musically, as marching bands rely so heavily on marching style and formation in their overall persona as well.
In this sense, Tulane separates itself from many of the other marching bands in the city, which Spanier says reflects a style common in much of the southern United States. "They have a certain style. High knee lift, show bands, a lot of dance. And the music is a lot of contemporary pop music, funk, rock, and those kinds of things. That really started in the 1970s—that kind of style, paralleling with New Orleans brass bands," Spanier explains. Tulane uses a glide step to march in order to keep their breath flowing, and a technically symphonic approach to their playing, in contrast to what he describes of many of the high schools in the city.
Among many high school bands, the St. Augustine High School "Marching 100" stand out greatly not only through their uncountable flawless performances throughout the entire year, but also in their own rich tradition as a proud upholder of marching band music in New Orleans. Starting in 1952 under the direction of Mr. Edwin H. Hampton, the Marching 100 has honed a brand that is uniquely their own both musically and in marching style. Today, Director of Bands Jeffrey C. Herbert leads his history-making band through the same rich foundation Mr. Hampton established those many years ago. "Discipline is the key," explains Herbert. "The foundation is so powerful…I came in and felt like it was best to keep that foundation." He further comments, "You're one: one band, one sound, and you all have to look like one."
Setting up a military style of marching with a parallel knee bend, Mr. Hampton continued his direction for over fi ve decades, ingraining a standard of perfection into the band which its currents members still uphold. "I'm a perfectionist, and we practice for perfection. The band members understand when they perform a halftime show for St. Augustine, you only gonna see it once," Herbert says of the band's standards. "We plan to please everyone. Our fans, as well as the opponents that we're playing, to keep that tradition so rich and so strong," the Director of Bands explains.
However, such great success does not come easily, and the tradition set up by Mr. Hampton that continues today through Mr. Herbert is a story of much hard work, passion, and at times even pain.
In 1967, Mr. Hampton's Marching 100 marched bravely through the French Quarter as the fi rst African-American marching band to lead Rex, breaking the color barrier and making history. "The parade used to go through the Quarter at that time," says Jeffrey C. Herbert. "But you know those guys in '67 paved the way for black bands to be able to march today. They did not get out of line and start fi ghting. They marched straight ahead and continued the parade every year, regardless what they were called or what was thrown at them," he tells of the band's history.
"It really takes a special person to be a part of the Marching 100," further comments Herbert, not only referring those past dedicated band members, but to those who keep the Marching 100 going today. These students must keep a 2.5 GPA all while attending weekly practices from 3pm-6pm Monday-Friday every school year, with included practices on Saturday mornings and football games at night during the fall. Still, this doesn't include the rigorous summer band camp that each student must participate in on top of all the extra marching St. Augustine does throughout the entire year, including their epic run during Carnival season. "We're in a parade on every given day," says the band's director, who hones his students' parade-marching skills by marching around the block to and from the school's practice fi eld across the street in block formation. The band is always ready to march in a parade.
Still, preparing for Mardi Gras is rigorous for every band. The Marching 100, for example, has a repertoire of 50 songs, none of which will be heard twice—again holding true to their expectations of perfection. Barry Spanier explains that Tulane, along with many high school bands in the city, must prepare differently for parade marching, due to the different physical requirements. "With a parade, you're pretty much just marching straight, although we do a lot of dancing also," he recalls. He clarifi ed that marching in a football game requires precise patterns to be formed in a few minutes, while marching in a parade requires marching for hours, but with less precision needed.
Still, more is to be done by the great marching bands of New Orleans, even outside of football and Mardi Gras season. Both Tulane and St. Augustine High School actively spread awareness of their programs through their annual spring concert: a concert Mr. Herbert says is "out of sight" for St. Augustine due to the highlighting of student players. Tulane also does community work, including service work with the Roots of Music nonprofi t program, which develops marching band skills for youths in the city, and through their annual band day, which invites bands from across the city to join Tulane for a game.
New Orleans will remain alive with the energy and sounds from its glorious marching bands, which have accumulated such a vast history within the city. Their work ethic extends all year long, but the love from their audience lasts a lifetime.
Photos by James Macaluso and Mendel Lee