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Music lives in the heart of Jackson State University, and two of the most conspicuous components of that commitment to the expression, generation and perpetuation of music as essential elements of our culture are WJSU-FM, the city’s premiere source for living jazz, rhythm and blues and gospel, and the summa cum laude of bands, The Sonic Boom of the South.
The Jackson State University Marching Band was dubbed The Sonic Boom of the South in 1971 by students in the band. The band was formed of college students and students from Lanier High School in the 1940s. Through the years it has become known for intricate precision marching and a jazz-infused, “big band” sound. The band has performed many halftime appearances for the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals, and is a premiere attraction in halftime performances during football games and parades across Mississippi and in other states. This past June the Sonic Boom held their second band camp on the campus of Jackson State University in Jackson, attracting some 150 students. “The bulk of the students are from the South, from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas,” said Roderick Little Associate Director of Bands at JSU. “The bulk of the camp this year is from Texas. There are several groups out of Dallas, Texas, and they brought maybe about 20 kids each. We also have students from Kansas City, Maryland, and most surprising a student from California.”
The camp is designed to provide extensive curriculum and teaching instruction of musical pedagogical approaches and marching fundamentals while providing a fun, strategic learning atmosphere for secondary school instrumentalists and band directors. Competencies will include leadership skills, social maturation, instrumental/musical growth, physical fitness and networking amongst students. Master classes were offered by the Sonic Boom band staff, including Leadership Skills, Classroom Management, Field Show Content, Arranging, Instrumental Pedagogy and more. Social events such as talent shows and dances were also held.
“We are continuing to reach out as music educators. I think that the college should be forerunners for secondary schools as it relates to teaching others how to be proficient,” Little said. “This camp is designed to continue to teach kids in music education at the secondary level. Because as I mentioned, I think that’s the job of collegiate programs: to help others. People should know about the continuing outreach of education from collegiate to the secondary sectors and the teaching of life skills.”
This past May, National Public Radio broadcast a feature story on the marching band at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans. The story focused on music education as not just another part of the school’s curriculum, but more as a lifeline for kids struggling against poverty, crime and urban decay, how marching bands keep kids off the street, give them a reason to come to school, and even get them into college.
“That story is very true to what we do here at Jackson State,” Little said. “As a matter of fact, the director, Christopher Herrero, is an alumnus of JSU. In particular, kids in those urban areas really take a liking to band, or really any sort of extracurricular activity for that matter because it helps keep them out of trouble. I think it told the story of really more than just one thing that a band can do. It’s more than teaching music. For a lot of students that come into collegiate bands, particularly from urban settings, the scholarships are very important because these are students whose parents would not be able to pay for school otherwise. So we do offer scholarships to students coming in, even though our scholarship budget isn’t as large as we could hope it would be. We do try to supplement the students who come here to Jackson State as much as we can. The recruiting is very competitive because every college wants the best students, the top students, so we go out and basically bid for students.”
One outstanding element of the band camp at JSU is the instruction of jazz to high school students. According to Little, this is an essential component of the experience Jackson State offers to the visiting students.
“Jazz lives here at Jackson State, and jazz is an art form that many people tend to run away from because it’s hard to understand because jazz is such an emotional kind of music; you have to be emotionally connected to it to actually play it,” Little said. “And I’ll be honest; it takes a special type of person to play music in general, but it takes a different type of person to play jazz because you have to connect to it. By implementing a jazz ensemble here at camp, we want to take those students who have that little something extra and teach them how to take it to the next level. All of these different ensembles together make up what we call a holistic band program. So the jazz ensemble plays a major role because it adds to that feeling of what we’re doing here. We have two great jazz ensemble directors, one of whom is on our band staff, and so what we wanted to do this year with camp is that we wanted to open it up, not just to subject the students to training in marching bands, but to teach them in ensemble work, and jazz is one of those ensembles.”
Henry Martinez is a trumpet player from Dallas. “I like the jazz band. We play our instruments in ensemble sessions, and then we go outside for the marching drill formations,” Henry said. It’s hard work, and they keep us on our toes, but I like the discipline, and I hope to bring that sense of discipline back to my school, how to be a leader and get everyone to work together instead of a lot of individuals just sticking up for themselves.”
“We’ve had a band at our school for a long time, but it’s like we change directors every year, so there’s not really a feeling of tradition like I’ve found here,” said Destiny Hopkins, a piccolo player and drum major from Atlanta. “I thought it was really going to be hard when I came here, but the staff really went out of their way to make us feel like we were part of something, part of a group. It’s like we’ve been doing this together forever. I’m looking forward to taking home of a piece of the musical tradition I’ve found here.”
Tarique McClendon from Atlanta, who plays baritone, said, “The pride that they instilled in us the very first day is so important, and that’s something I hope to bring home. The very first day, when we walked into orientation, Mr. Little got us all together and called us the ‘Baby Boom’. At that moment, and from then on, we were like family, we were all really close, it was like Destiny said, it was like we’d all been doing this together forever.”
In addition to the classes for students, the band camp at Jackson State also offers instruction for music educators who attend. “We have sessions with directors to help them with their preparations with their bands. Also, the thing which I consider most important, is that they come together from different parts of the United States and discuss problems that they might be having, holding round table discussions on how to fix those problems. I think that’s the most important thing. But coupled with that, we as advanced teachers at Jackson State sit them down and talk to them about things that can improve their programs, and that’s the gist of those classes.”
Carleton Cooper, of Wilmer Hutchins High School in Dallas, Texas, said, “I’ve been directing for about fifteen years. The camp is exciting. I’m getting a lot of technique from band legends. Growing up as a kid, I watched Dr. Taylor (Dowell Taylor, Assistant Professor of Music, Director of Music Technology and Director of Bands), and his band on BET as a kid, as well as Dr. Sanford (O’ Neill Sanford, Visiting Professor of Music and Assistant Band Director, is the President of the HBCU National Band Directors’ Consortium, founder of the HBCU “Battle Fest” Battle of the Bands), and there just aren’t that many legends that you can have hands-on conversations with, especially in Texas, in Dallas. Just being to have access to the wealth of knowledge that those gentlemen have is inspiring. For me as a director going into my fifteenth year, they’ve inspired me to keep pushing, because if they can do it for so long, that gives me a sense of following in their footsteps, and it renews my spirit. Our band program includes about 70 students,” Cooper said. “The experience that we’ve gained from coming to the camp has really helped the students with their music. We had the opportunity to attend the camp last year, and the students brought back some phenomenal skills, great leadership skills and musical skills. We also had a chance to see our kids blossom and mature just from the college experience and being away from home. This year, we hope to capitalize on that by taking the same thing back, but expanding on it.”
“We are helping mold children to be better,” Little said. “Band teaches more than just music. It teaches so many other things a child is going to need; it teaches life.”
Photographs courtesy of Charles Brice- Brice Media LLC
Here is another old story from Calhoun County, a poignant tale of love, loss and thralldom, doubtless embellished with the romance of legend, as tales of that brutal time often are. Note please that this story, like the earlier one I posted about the outlaw Dock Bishop, was also published in The Monitor-Herald (this version was reprinted in the summer of 1972) a now-defunct weekly that served the people of the county well for a century and took the extra step in community journalism by documenting the history of its public.
In the cold, dreary winter of 1852, just after the organization of Calhoun County, quite a number of citizens of Spring and Brushy Creeks were sitting in a rude log cabin by the roadside, where John McCord kept a store, lightly stocked with the necessities of life, discussing the new county and squirting tobacco on the old, rickety stove. Bob Brown, the Postmaster, (for there had recently been established at this place a post office called Banner), came around and stood in the door. Snow and sleet were falling thick and fast and the cold north wind howled through the towering pines and drifted snow against the rude fences. All nature seemed at war–and the howling storm quelled the spirit of those pioneers, who were acquainted with trouble and knew danger and privations.
“The coldest day I ever felt,” said Bob. “Everything outside is freezing.”
While the men were buttoning up their coats, preparatory to breasting the storm en route to their homes, Bob looked eastward along the road and saw a lone woman trudging through the snow storm, coming in the direction of the store. She soon appeared at the door and asked permission to warm at the fire. The gentlemen gallantly gave way and tendered her a seat near the stove.
“Bad weather to be out,” remarked McCord, the merchant. “Quite unpleasant,” replied the woman in soft, sweet voice. She was well and comfortably clad, and had in her hand a well filled grip. She was tall and well formed, with a handsome figure and soft, appealing eyes. Her hair was long, dark and wavy, and her skin was a soft yellow–not quite as dark as the Indian. Her features were animated and her countenance sparkled with every change of expression. Her step, quick and elastic; voice, soft and musical; her language, pure and faultless English and her age about 22 years. The men soon started for home through the drifting storm, and left McCord, Brown and Sid Brantley and the woman still clustered about the stove. The able, big-hearted Brantley asked the woman how it happened that she was caught out in the storm, and where she was going in all this bad weather.
After some hesitation, she answered in a low, musical voice, “I am part Indian and I am making my way to the Indian Nation, where my tribe, the Chickasaws, went in 1836. I was then a small girl living with my grandmother. My mother, a Chickasaw died when I was a baby. My father, a white man, went with the tribe. My grandmother, being very old, was left with me. After grandmother died, I was taken by a nice family of whites, who gave me a home, taught me the art of dressmaking and educated me. But I could not forget my brothers and sisters in the Indian Nation and at last resolved at every hazard, to make my way to them. I have no money or friends that I can call upon for assistance, so I am trying to make my way afoot.”
Her simple story touched Mr. Brantley’s heart, and he cordially invited her to his nearby home. She, with some hesitation, accepted his generous invitation and accompanied him home, where she remained until the storm was over. In conversation, on the way home, Brantley asked her name. She modestly answered, “Bombazelle McAllister”. She was introduced to the family and assured that she could make her home with them until the weather settled. She was assigned a room with Brantley’s oldest daughter. The next day was still cold and blustery and the ladies were confined to their rooms. The stranger soon became familiar with the family. Miss Brantley had a nice new dress pattern she was preparing to make up. Bombazelle examined the goods with great care and suggested how it should be designed. Sissy was delighted. Bombazelle took her measure–a thing heretofore unknown in these wild woods–and she assisted in making the dress. The family was delighted with the attractive design and the gracious fit of the dress. Hence the news spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood that a marvelous designer and dressmaker was stopping at Sid Brantley’s–and the blushing lassies in all the region gathered ’round to have Bombazelle cut and fashion their dresses. She moved from home to home as her services were requested, and at night, occupied rooms and beds with the young ladies of the community.
The snow storm had passed, but Bombazelle remained, kept busy cutting out and making dresses. She was well paid and was kindly received by every family. She was ready and willing to give the young ladies instructions in cutting materials and in dressmaking. She was a fine talker and a lovely girl, her color rather dark, but being part Indian, this was understood. She soon became the Belle of Banner, and the boys called her “The Yellow Rose of Schoona”, and she received the attention of all the nice young men in the neighborhood. John McCord fell desperately in love with Bombazelle, and after a spirited contest with the young swains about Banner, won her heart. McCord was, as the term was known in those far-off days, “well-off”. He had a good house, servants and quite a number of Negro slaves. The couple was married at Brantley’s home, Esquire John Hankins making the happy couple man and wife. There was quite a gathering at the wedding, and, as was the custom, all who wished, were privileged to kiss the bride, as did some of the girls and women present.
The springtime in all its beauty was rapidly approaching. The dogwoods were budding, the birds were all a-twitter and the geese were flying north to their faraway homes. Bombazelle was happy in the home of John McCord. She had a husband who was a leader in the young county and was loved and admired by everyone. She also had Old Sylvia, her trusted servant, and her flock of boys and girls, to attend to her every want. She kept a close eye on the servants, and they had to “toe the mark”. She had her rooms well furnished, wore wonderful clothes, and kept everything about the place in “apple pie” order. Every servant jumped when she spoke, for she was a firm mistress, and ran the house with energy and ability. McCord, too, was happy with his beautiful wife and his elegantly arranged home. The “Yellow Rose” was happy and excited because she was the leader in style and fashion in the whole county. She was constantly sought out and consulted about dresses and was a close friend to the young belles for miles around.
Spring opened in all its glory. The whippoorwills sang at evening, the sun smiled all day on the new fields, just wrested from the primeval forests, and the birds and animals made love in the swamps and endless forests. Late one afternoon, a fine looking gentleman was seen riding a splendid blooded horse into Banner. Mrs. McCord (Bombazelle) observed him–and, in consternation, made it convenient to disappear at once. The traveler alighted and entered the saddle shop owned by J. Brown, and after passing the compliments of the season, inquired if there had been seen in that place a woman who had disappeared. He gave an accurate description of Mrs. McCord. Bob hesitated, looked wise and gave an evasive answer. Night was approaching, so the stranger asked if there was a house of entertainment in town. Brown directed him to Mr. Arnold’s home, just west of town. He made his business known to Mr. Arnold, and said he had traced the woman to Banner–and that she was his Negro house servant and seamstress–and that she had run away from the family home at Aberdeen, Mississippi. Arnold repeated to him the story of Bombazelle’s appearance, her captivation of the community and her marriage to John McCord months before.
“That’s my Negro,” said the stranger, “she is almost white in appearance and is very smart.”
It is hardly necessary to add that the people of Banner were stirred up and greatly excited by his revelation. The belles and beaus were crestfallen. The girls who had entertained and associated with Bombazelle were dumbfounded. The idea of having so cordially entertained this servant in their homes was humiliating. And the young men who had called upon Bombazelle and sought her hand were shocked beyond expression while the older men, who had so fondly kissed the yellow blushing bride, were punched in the ribs by their wives for having embraced the woman in their presence. But the “Yellow Rose”! Where was she? McAllister (the stranger) could not find her anywhere. She had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. McCord was wild and miserable. His happiness was swept away in the wrinkling of an eye. Dispirited and troubled, he stood about, wondering what to do! His wife, with his knowledge, had been secreted in a cabin on Schoona, there to await the issue. McCord was a good man, law-abiding and honest, yet he did not know but that McAllister was a fraud.
McAllister posted off to Hartford (the community now known as Oldtown, which was the county seat at that time), here he learned that the marriage certificate had been issued to John McCord and Bombazelle McAllister, and that it had been returned by Esq. Hankins. He at once instituted suit against John McCord and his securities, for marrying a Negro, contrary to the laws of the State of Mississippi. McCord’s friends were in close consultation all day, devising ways and means to extricate McCord from his dilemma. Brantley, with a keen eye to business, also went to Hartford, and there met McAllister. Brantley, being always a friend for anyone in distress, had a long interview with McAllister, and induced him to suspend legal proceedings until he could see McCord, assuring him that it was a fraud practiced on McCord, and McCord truly believed that she was part Indian, but had never dreamed that she was a runaway slave–and that she would be found and returned to McAllister. Old Sylvia was the happiest Negro in the county. She and her children clapped their hands at being relieved of such a hard head mistress.
Brantley returned to McAllister that afternoon, after having a long talk with McCord and Brown, entertained him that night and promised him that Bombazelle would be forthcoming in the morning. So, in the morning, bright and early, “The Yellow Rose of Schoona” fondly embraced Mr. McCord, bid him an affectionate farewell, and promptly reported to her master, and they departed for Aberdeen.
Editor’s Note:  In the 1940’s, Dr. W. A. Evans of Aberdeen researched The Monitor Herald story of Bombazelle McAllister in the county courthouse records at Aberdeen. He found advertisements by the man McAllister, giving notice that his slave Bombazelle had run away. After McAllister took her back to Aberdeen, he sold her at once, as she had given trouble before. The money paid for Bombazelle went into the building of a new McAllister home, located in the city of Aberdeen. Dr. Evans reported that no further evidence of Bombazelle exists after she was sold.