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Great band is finding its beat again

Darkness fell over Johnson C. Smith University as uptown's skyline glistened in the distance and a cool breeze blew through the hilltop campus for a night of quiet study.

Yet any chance for calm was quickly broken. The International Institution of Sound, JCSU's 110-member, high-stepping marching band, was about to start another three hours of practice.

At 7:10 p.m., the drumline pounded a marching beat, revving energy through the band as whistles from three drum majors sounded the order to march.

Rehearsed and stretched, hips swiveled, feet shuffled. Sweet brass filled the air, and the band – dancers and the flag corps in tow – snaked as one through campus to the practice field.

Students hung out windows, or off to the side, bopping to the beat.

It's been that way since at least 1917, the first evidence of JCSU's band program.

But two years ago, the band fell on hard times, dwindling to 50 members. Longtime director Duncan Gray left the west Charlotte campus, and two more directors came and quickly went.

Enter Thurman Hollins, the band's 12th director, and its fourth in five years.

“So much changeover can kill a band program,” Hollins, 30, said. “We're still rebuilding, but the energy is back. Not to where we want it, but it's back. We've got stability now.”

Restoring an alluring culture

Johnson C. Smith football without a marching band – even a scaled-down version – seems like peanut butter without jelly.

At most historically black colleges, the band is part of the culture.

It's Hollins' job to restore that culture at Smith. As a freshman in 1996, he'd marched at Smith but transferred to Norfolk State University after JCSU stopped offering a music education degree.

“I wanted to be a band director,” he said.

Hired last year, he hand-picked the band's current freshmen and sophomores from solid high school band programs.

“We chose kids who just wanted to be in a band and get an education,” he said. “In the historically black college culture, it's prestigious to participate in the band. That experience alone attracts young people to Smith.”

Freshman Cardell Smith, a bass drummer, came from Seattle, Wash., to play in the band and get a music business degree.

At 9, he saw the JCSU band perform in Charlotte.

“I knew then I wanted to come to college here and play for this band,” Smith said.

The band drew drum major Adam Graves of Atlanta. He'd seen it play as a high school sophomore.

“This band was different as far as its energy and enthusiasm,” said Graves, a senior. “It looked like they loved what they were doing.”

Keeping fans in their seats

They'd better love it. Practices run long.

They start with each section rehearsing parts. Then the parts blend into a whole. Once Hollins and his staff are satisfied, the band marches to the practice field.

Halftimes at most college football games are for concessions and restrooms. Not so at Smith and other historically black colleges.

“Here fans usually get their hot dogs and nachos near the end of the second quarter and are back in their seats at halftime for the entertainment,” said former band member Steven Wilder, now its announcer and historian.

After the game, fans don't leave, staying instead for the “fifth quarter,” when bands from both schools compete.

Over the years, the Smith band has made history.

In 1992, it broke the Guinness Book world record, marching 45 miles around Charlotte to raise money for a trip to Spain that it never made.

Two years earlier, it marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin, Ireland, and beat 37 bands to win top honors as the best international band. That's when the band became the International Institution of Sound.

“This is a band with a significant soul,” Wilder said.

Returning just for the show

Some graduates return to campus just to see the band.

Charles Walls, class of 2000, played four years in the band, marching with Hollins in 1996. Last week, he was in Charlotte for a friend's wedding and found himself at a practice.

When the band was down to 50 members, he mourned for his “big family.” He was pleased by what he heard.

“It's so good to see they're getting back to where it should be,” said Walls, who lives in Chicago. “Every time I'm in town, I stop by and listen to them. Once you march with a band, it's family.”

Now that family wants to make it to Atlanta's Honda Battle of the Bands in January, the yearly competition that showcases 10 of the best historically black college marching bands.

The Smith band competed in the first two Honda battles, in 2003 and 2004.

To return would mean Smith is scratching back to the top.

Junior euphonium player Zubida Bakheit believes Hollins will lead them there.

“When you have great leadership, it shows, and people want to be a part of that,” Bakheit said. “I fully trust Mr. Hollins and believe he can lead us anywhere.”

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