Make it Swang: Lessons from My High School Band Director via Olivia Newton John

The Glenn Hills High School “Fantastic Marching Blue” on the field in Augusta, Georgia, 1986.

Public school music teachers were the first creatives I encountered in life. In elementary school they were floaters, going from class to class with a rolling cart that had a little boxy record player sitting on it. We listened to records for which there was accompanying instruction– we learned Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si, Do, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and played along with nursery rhyme tunes on recorders. (I still know the fingering to “Polly Wolly Doodle” and can play it pretty well on a tin whistle I still have.) I don’t remember the names of my lower grade elementary school music teachers, but they were all women, Black women, who to us kids seemed more prim, pleasant, and easy going than our regular classroom teachers. Understandably so, as the regular teachers were locked down in a single smelly room and managing disruptions all day long.  

When I reached the upper elementary grades and began taking band class, all the music teachers were men, Black men.  They tended to be independent souls, who dressed funky and sometimes showed up to class a bit red-eyed. They strayed away from any kind of standard curriculum–one led us in a jug band (our jam: “Side by Side” done in sort of a boozy Dean Martin style), another taught us the hambone and had us belting out supposed Geechi songs and that 70s elementary school favorite Che Che Kule. And every chance we got, we’d beg one to play his soulful rendition of the Charlie Brown song, a.k.a. “Linus and Lucy” on the upright in the lunchroom.   The Black male music teachers tended to be more dour than their women colleagues– more odd uncle than parental figure.

My band teacher in high school was the ultimate cool cat teacher. He wore form fitting knit pants, Cosby sweaters, and Stacy Adams style shoes. He played tenor sax and usually had his “ax” strapped to his neck all during his classes and sometimes during band practice just in case he needed to break into a riff and show us how it was supposed to be done. He gave me what I considered my first piece of artistic advice: “Get you a man” he said, meaning find an artist you like and want to emulate. His man was Cannonball Adderley, the alto sax playing jazzman who made “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” famous. The tune was a favorite of Black band directors of that era, as its simple groove made for an alluring way to introduce students to jazz.  Also, Adderley– who was Southern, went to FAMU and had himself been a school band director, was something of a hero and mentor for black male music teachers. He was the cool cats’ cool cat.  My director gave me a copy of Down Beat to help me do some research, but like every other student trumpet player at the time, I already knew that Wynton Marsalis would be my “man.”

Being a creative within the confines of a public-school curriculum which marginalized the arts required lots of creativity when it came to engaging and teaching students.  Among my favorite memories are the pre-practice jam sessions that would break out in band room, where our director taught us improvisation not as an academic or music theory exercise, but as playful competition and experimentation over some simple repetitive chords played on a Fender Rhodes piano (usually “Mister Magic”).  Band sheet music and scores were always prohibitively expensive for schools to purchase new each year, so teachers relied on their own decades-old libraries filled with folders of yellowed and crinkled sheet music, always with lots of parts missing. The copy machine also facilitated a bit of a black market among the local band directors to share and trade music as needed. For marching band though, our director like a lot of the other Black high school directors, arranged and wrote most of our music himself. From curating a list of songs from the radio hit lists, to parsing out the chord progressions and melodies, to crafting and writing down parts suitable and playable by high schoolers– he single handedly did it all.  

This process presumably started during the summers, but it lingered on well into the autumn months. If a song became popular in, say, September, kids would desperately beg our director to let us play it. He’d give in and write an arrangement if he heard us struggling to pick out the song by ear.  We didn’t always like his arrangements, lamenting that they didn’t sound enough like the real songs on the radio, just watered-down variations. And sometimes our director’s jazzy inclinations would take over in the harmonies of his block chords, a secret sauce of show style band arranging which produces that big wall of sound anchored by the lower brass sections, makes the band project louder than its size would suggest, supposedly helps to hide bad intonation, and allows kids who can only play two or three notes on their instruments to participate.  In addition to his own arrangements though, our director always threw into our “book” some bought sheet music each year. This usually took the form of some “old” song like “Tea for Two” or some popular “white” song that the sheet music publishers had in their catalogs. While we never knew our director’s motivations– maybe it just saved him some time in arranging one more tune for us and he just got whatever music he could get–but we began to sheepishly admit that we like playing some of those songs. They introduced us to melodies and styles we didn’t know we were “allowed” to like and served as a bridge to the more complex and refined arrangements we’d have to play during stage band and concert season. And it was always fun to see our director pull the sax to his mouth while practicing these songs, his jazzy soulful sound bringing what belonged supposedly to them to us and our culture. He’d show us surreptitiously how WE could make anything OURS.

The recent death of Olivia Newton John brought all of this to mind recently, as one of the “white” songs we played in high school was “Physical,” her big 80s hit tinged with a lite-funk bass line and a catchy chorus.  We didn’t think of playing a silly pop song as us having our horizons broadened or us being exposed or assimilated, we brought US– our creativity, our style, our culture, our perspective– to IT. I remember our band once being teased by members from a rival school’s band for having to play another one of these corny songs– Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” I believe it was. One of the members from our band shrugged it off and retorted, “That’s OK, ‘cause We make that sh!t swang!”

The 1st trumpet part to “Physical” played by my high school band in the early 1980s.

That provided a lifelong lesson that I take with me when approaching artistic endeavors in the literary space. I can read Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Flannery O’Connor, whoever, and enjoy it, study it, analyze, sample from it, quote it, reference it and be inspired by it, but in the end, it is my creative style and culture and history driving my artistry. I am the one who makes my “sh!t swang.”

Below, an ode to our band director Mr. Johnson: A “play list” of some of the songs he arranged for the marching band from1982 to 1986.

The trumpet part for “No Parking on the Dance Floor” as arranged by Mr. Charles Johnson, circa 1983.
  1. Let it Whip, by the Dazz Band
  2. Planet Rock, by Afrika Bambaataa
  3. The Dream Team Is in the House by the L.A. Dream Team:
  4. No Parking on The Dance Floor by Midnight Star
  5. When Doves Cry by Prince
  6. I Really Don’t Need No Light by Jeffrey Osborne
  7. She Talks to Me with Her Body by The Bar-Kays
  8. Between the Sheets by The Isley Brothers 
    *Yes we played this in high school and our parents had no idea what we were playing. The arrangement was furtively titled “Sheets”
  9. Jump to It by Aretha Franklin
  10. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson
  11. Torture by the Jackson
  12. Candy Man by the Mary Jane Girls
  13. Glamorous Life by Sheila E
  14. Up Against The Wall by the Fatback Band
  15. Take a Chance, by Nuance/Vikki Love
  16. Electricity by Midnight Star
  17. Pack Jam by the Jonzun Crew
  18. The Show by Doug E Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew
  19. Rumors by The Timex Social Club
  20. Word Up by Cameo
  21. Oh Sheila by Ready for the World
  22. Don’t Look Any Further by Dennis Edwards ft. Siedah Garrett 
  23. Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell

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