Livingstone College band ready for football season

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 31, 2012

SALISBURY – When the Livingstone College Marching Blue Bears take the field tonight at Alumni Memorial Stadium, their size alone will impress you.When they start playing “In the Stone,” one of Earth, Wind & Fire’s biggest hits, you’re probably going to be blown away. In fact, you might think members from the Grammy-winning group’s horn section have donned Livingstone uniforms and are out there on the field, too.
Marching bands have long been the essence and ethos of the black college experience. More than a century ago, Alabama A&M’s chancellor recruited W.C. Handy to join the faculty and direct the band, orchestra and vocal music programs. Over time, the tunes played by HBCU marching bands have evolved from classical music to more popular music – notably soul and R&B.
It’s not uncommon for halftime shows to include songs by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Average White Band, Frankie Beverly & Maze, The Gap Band and other popular artists. Sometimes, even musical show tunes wind their way into the performances.
More than marching
But the bands don’t just stand around and play. In fact, one of the biggest attractions to HBCU marching band halftime shows is the choreography, which always includes foot stomping, rhythmic beat and dance moves by members. Livingstone’s marching band, led by Director of Bands Sidney C. Sessoms Jr., does all of that and then some.
The band’s halftime routine includes “In the Stone” and “Share Your Love” by Earth, Wind & Fire. It also includes a tribute to famous African-American artists who have died within the past six months.
“I Have Nothing” by R&B diva Whitney Houston, “She Works Hard for the Money,” by Donna Summer and “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown are also part of Livingstone’s show.
To say Livingstone College’s marching band has undergone a transformation is an understatement. The football season is just beginning, and already people are taking notice.
Grad’s opinion
“They sound really good,” said Sir Davis, Salisbury High School’s band director, while watching a recent Livingstone band practice. “Mr. Sessoms is doing a great job. I’m glad I was under his leadership while I was a student here at Livingstone. He definitely pushes his students.”
Davis graduated from Livingstone in 2011. He’s also Salisbury High School’s choir director.
Ebony Jones, a sophomore biology major from Burlington, was asleep in her Harris Hall dorm room Thursday night – until the band awakened her. The music drew her to the football stadium to watch the band practice.
“They were so loud and they sounded good, so I decided to just come out,” Jones said. “They’re bigger than last year, and the dance girls look like they’re doing more moves than last year. They sound really good this year, and I think the crowd is going to really get into them.”
For the past few years, the band has had fewer than 100 students. This year, that number has swelled to 130, in large part because of aggressive recruitment efforts by Sessoms.
But he’s quick to say the major reason the band is so much better this year – the reason Livingstone College’s marching band will rival other HBCU bands – is a change in attitude.
“We’re finally in a position where there’s starting to be some longevity, history and tradition in the band program, and I think it’s making a difference,” Sessoms said.
“It’s starting to put us on the level with other HBCU band programs that have already established those same things and have a lot of notoriety. I guess I attribute that, in part, to the kind of values I try to instill in the students – that and my experiences both as a band director and as a director who’s been part of larger programs.”
President’s role
Sessoms also credits Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr. with the transformation.
“The second major reason for the difference in the band this year is the support from Dr. Jenkins and his administration,” Sessoms said. “It costs a considerable amount of money to establish a quality band program. Dr. Jenkins has made a financial commitment by investing in Livingstone’s band program to ensure it is comprehensive.”
Many of Livingstone’s new band members hail from Detroit.
“I know several band directors in Detroit, but most of the increase has come from connections with former and current students who are from the Detroit area,” Sessoms said. “Students like Dalanda Adams.”
Adams, a junior math education major from Detroit, used to play trombone in the band. This year, instead of playing an instrument, she is participating on the dance team.
“I really like how the band sounds this year,” Adams said. “And they have the potential to sound even better as the year progresses. They will definitely rival other CIAA bands.”
Another reason for the increase is the fact that Livingstone has a zero tolerance policy for hazing among its Greek organizations, athletic teams, clubs and the band.
Florida A&M’s famed “Marching 100” has been under intense scrutiny for months since drum major Robert Champion died following a hazing incident last November. So far, nearly three dozen people have been charged in Champion’s death. The hazing death has rocked FAMU’s band, the most popular HBCU marching band in the country and one for which people often drive miles just to see.
“Some of the students that we recruited had FAMU on their wish list, but after the death of their drum major parents are not so gung-ho about sending their kids there,” Sessoms said. “They know they don’t have to worry about their children being hazed here because there’s a zero tolerance policy for that, and it just doesn’t happen here.”