February 6: Celebrating the ‘Aristocrat of Bands’

For many, band culture is synonymous with HBCU culture. And though some PWIs have tried to make names with their band formations and performances, anyone who has ever been to an HBCU football game knows nothing can ever compare to the atmosphere of an HBCU game (especially Homecoming.) when the horns are blaring, the percussion gets going, the dance team starts strolling to the beat.

Tennessee State University’s “Aristocrat of Bands” was the first to garner national attention outside of the HBCU world when it became the first HBCU band to perform on national television — their moment came at halftime of a televised game between the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams in 1955. The program had started nine years earlier with 100 members and quickly worked its way into the spotlight. Between 1956 and 1978, the TSU band starred in halftime shows for nine professional football games, among them the 1963 National Championship game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

“In those days we always played pop music at half time football games, but I always included a classical number,” said band director Frank T. Greer.

According to TSU alumni lore, a sportscaster dubbed them “The Aristocrat of Bands” during one of these performances, and the name stuck.

In 1961, the team became the first band from a historically Black college or university to perform in a presidential inauguration, when the 132-piece marching band performed in the inaugural festivities for President John F. Kennedy on behalf of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which had no delegation of its own. Cited for its “versatility,” the band was encouraged to deviate from the traditional Sousa marches and instead showcase its flavor.

The band would return to the inaugural stage with the election of President Bill Clinton — they were asked to perform for both of his inaugurations, in 1993 and 1997.

TSU’s band marches past President Bill Clinton in the 1993 inaugural parade. Photo credit: Panoramic Visions

According to a university profile page, Greer spent his last seven years at TSU in recruiting, “taking TSU’s story to the student.” In his tenure, he produced more future band directors than any other band directors of black institutions in the nation.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com