The 1970s Fisk University marching band is somewhat of a little-known secret. It was short-lived and didn’t make the same impact as bands at other historically Black colleges. Some of the most legendary groups are Florida A&M University’s Marching 100, Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul and the Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands.
Now, in the middle of the pandemic, Fisk is reviving the Fisk University Marching Bulldog Band that went silent in the early ’80s.
During the last rehearsal of the year, about a dozen Marching Bulldogs gathered inside a ballroom of the university’s landmark Jubilee Hall. While some wielded trumpets, others carried drums and saxophones.
The group’s assistant band director began the rehearsal with a slow countdown. Then, the musicians quickly shifted to a socially distanced formation with their face masks around their necks.
“We are going to run through it one time, 100%,” yelled MarVelous Brown, who was also a member of the TSU Aristocrat of Bands. “Then we’re going live.”
Brown, along with fellow Tennessee State alumnus and Fisk band director Thomas L. Spann Jr., has been at the forefront of revamping the Marching Bulldogs after a decades-long hiatus.
“Everything has to start somewhere. Although this school has been around, the band hasn’t always been here,” said Brown. “Starting back over is going to be some work. But I’m here for the ride.”
Fisk is a very small school with a relatively big name. The campus has less than 1,000 students but could probably fit double. The university, generally, also has a reputation that hasn’t put the school in the best light.
The campus, though, has been on a roll in recent years. Enrollment is the highest it’s been in two decades. Its list of academic programs is growing. University leaders have also set fundraising records.
Its finances, however, aren’t where the band directors would like them to be.
Finding joy in the rebuild
The Marching Bulldogs have been looking for donations. They’re starting from the ground up and have to do the small things, like taking extra care of their blue uniforms, to stay a float. That’s because buying new ones won’t be a walk in the park if the outfits are damaged.
Brown made it a point to remind the band of this during the year’s final rehearsal.
But, the feeling of having to grind it out, going through a hard-knock rebuild and knowing that success won’t come overnight is actually a motivator for some band members.
“It’s just something special about starting something and being able to claim it for yourself,” said Ché Patterson. “I just really wanted to be a part of that process of it growing from the day one.”
Patterson is from Covington, Ga. He’s a French horn trumpet player. He spent the past few months of practice learning a mix of dance routines and decades-old music hits.
His favorites are songs like “I’ve Been Searching” by Glenn Jones and “Da Butt” by Washington D.C.-based go-go band Experience Unlimited.
“Da Butt” is a song that puts a big smile on Patterson’s face. The beat energizes the band and takes them to an arm-swinging, leg-jerking dance break.
‘Put Fisk on the map’
Marching bands are somewhat of an identity for Black colleges — even when schools don’t have a football team or popular sports programs.
Building a stronger identity, however, isn’t the only reason Fisk is reviving the nearly forgotten marching band. It’s also about building on the legacy of the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers.
“Fisk, you know, can kind of be on the down-low a little bit,” said Erin Allen, who plays the alto saxophone. “I think that this would really put Fisk on the map.”
Allen’s been playing in bands since she was a fifth grader. Mastering the alto saxophone and being a musician is sort of a family tradition.
“My dad played alto sax. My cousin … played alto sax in Grambling’s band,” said Allen. “My mom was in a band. My granny was in a band. My nana was in a band. Music is just in my blood.”
Allen told WPLN News that the Marching Bulldogs reminded her of the music program at her Oklahoma City high school — where she was the first freshmen female drum major.
The opportunity to be a part of history again is what attracted her to Fisk, instead of an HBCU with a more established marching band.
Starting from the bottom as COVID-19 spreads through the country, though, hasn’t been easy.
There’s a huge stress, Allen said, in juggling classes, coming to practice and fighting through mandatory quarantines.
“It really was a struggle. People are scared, you know,” said Allen. “[They] didn’t want to come on campus and catch corona. So it was a lot and the people that you do see performing, we persevered.”
The band is now taking a much needed break after a hectic semester. When the pandemic settles, hopefully in 2021, they’ll be performing at basketball games, parades and events throughout the community.
“You’re going to see an identify for Fisk University,” said Spann. “We are walking and marching in the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”