Carnival season means marching bands, the parades providing a coveted slot from Louisiana schools and colleges, and foreign soil from Alabama to Michigan.
Few bands carry such precision and musical authority as the Seventh Ward Catholic boys’ high school, the St. Augustine Purple Knights, Marching 100. They are in such demand that the Krewe of Rex, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, cut a deal whereby the Purple Knights march in each parade, in alternating years, on Carnival Day. For Mardi Gras 2018, St. Aug goes with Zulu.
The repertoire of a marching band reflects the impact of popular music, anchored by certain standards. As the Marching 100 music director, Eddie Williams (class of ’87), explained: “We still play a lot of rhythm-and-blues; but we have to add new music to keep the interest of young people.”
Old school R&B in the 60 selections of the marching songbook include “Lil Liza Jane,” “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and “Hey Pocky Way.”
“We have ‘St. Louis Blues,’ ‘March Gradioso’ and ‘Dem Basses,’” added Williams. But with many songs for a given parade, the selection has added rap and hip-hop favorites to stay with trends.
In adapting a pop song to a march, the arranger distills the melody, while converting guitar lines to woodwind passages.
Some songs leap from the charts into Carnival via parades or balls. “You Can Cal Me Al,” from Paul Simon’s mega-selling Graceland has the melodic bounce and space for big horn charts to suit the formal balls.
“Earth, Wind and Fire did ‘In the Stone’ in 1979, which became a signature march for us,” continued Williams, of the decision by the late Edwin Hampton, the longtime music director, and Williams’s mentor.
“Mr. Hampton saw the direction of techno-beats and the beat-box that made things difficult for arrangers. You learn to adjust. We try to cover every generation’s style of music. We play ‘Victorious,’ a rock tune. A lot of rock tunes have more instrumentation and less techno-type beats, or heavy guitars which make it for easier for an arranger.”
A sharper change in the generation since Williams attended St. Augustine is the decline in clarinetists. “On average, we carry eight sousaphones, sixteen trombones, eight baritone horns, nine mellophones, forty saxophones, three or four clarinets and one or two flutes.”
Why so few clarinets? “They don’t think it’s manly enough,” he sighed. “When I graduated from St. Aug we had eighteen saxophones, sixteen clarinets and three flutes.”
What caused the change? “It was not just rap. College bands became more competitive – a bigger sound, more powerful the better. Band directors saw that. Middle schools competed for a power sound. Band directors put males in the percussions and brass, young ladies on the woodwinds. That hurt us as at an all male program. It makes it difficult doing concert music without woodwind.”
A linked problem, Williams said, is that Louisiana schools do not teach music with the same focus as many northern school districts, with individual classes on percussion, brass, and woodwinds. “We need that level of teaching,” he insisted.
In the meantime, as the St. Augustine Purple Knights suit up for Carnival, the Marching 100 carry a tradition with the flexibility it takes to roll with the hands of time.