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The competition for HBCU marching band of the year

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today was college football's Celebration Bowl, the de facto national championship for historically Black colleges and universities. There were some other Black national championships decided last night as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: On the eve of the football game, Atlanta hosted the inaugural HBCU band of the year competition, featuring four of the country's top marching bands. One of the finalists was Jackson State University's Sonic Boom of the South, led by band director Roderick Little, who joins us today from the bus on the tail end of the drive back to campus from Atlanta. Dr. Little, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RODERICK LITTLE: Oh, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be on.

DETROW: I've got to start by letting the audience know that that you all did not win band of the year in your division for bigger schools. You were edged out by North Carolina A&T, and the winner wasn't announced until this afternoon. You all just found out. How are you all feeling?

LITTLE: Overall, we're doing good. You know, of course, we would have liked to come out on the winning side. But, you know, one thing that we discuss to our students at length is that, you know, we don't need anybody or polls or adjudicators to validate what we do in our program. And so as long as we are better than what the previous Sonic Booms were in the past, which is our dial to basically gauge how we're doing as a program, then we're fine.

DETROW: Yeah.

LITTLE: So you know, so right now we're taking it in stride, you know, heading back to Jackson as we look forward to a great holiday break, much-needed break.

DETROW: The commentators of today's game were talking about this during the broadcast. They thought you would all win. They said your sound and swagger were huge. How did it feel to your band to be out under the bright lights in this competition?

LITTLE: Well, you know, actually, being out, you know, in the bright lights is nothing new to us. You know, we just had, you know, a nationally known coach by the name of Deion Sanders. You may know him.

DETROW: Heard of that guy.

LITTLE: I mean, he brought a lot of - yeah, he brought a lot of prestige to the university. And even prior to that, you know, Jackson State has always had a storied legacy of illustrious alumni and fan base. And so the Sonic Boom of the South, we're pretty much always watched by at least 30 to 40,000 people every weekend. But however, you know, being able to be on a platform like ESPN was a good look for us. So it was an honor to share the stage with three other great band programs.

DETROW: Tell us about the show that you played in the and the choreography and what the general plan was last night.

LITTLE: The idea that we came up with was featuring the music of Usher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).

LITTLE: Usher is very - well, he's been popular for, you know, a number of decades now, but, you know, especially now he has a residency in Las Vegas, and, you know, he's going to be doing the Super Bowl in February. So we thought that it'll just be an outstanding time to pay homage to his large catalog of music. And at the same time, you know, I wanted to make sure that we have a cutting edge on the drill content that we did as well, so we just kind of moored both of those ideas together.

DETROW: I need to say, you're talking about all the things he's done this year. He did a big Tiny Desk Concert here at NPR as well. But...

LITTLE: Yes, yes. So huge.

DETROW: I think, bigger than the Super Bowl, I think some people listening might not just fully grasp how big of a deal marching bands are at a lot of HBCUs. Can you tell us about the depth of the tradition at your school, just how big it is? You said yourself right there, playing for 30 and 40,000 people every week already.

LITTLE: Band programs and HBCUs, they have a hand-in-glove correlation. The cultural and historical background is systemic in a way that you really can't, you know, have a reputable HBCU without having a band program of some sort. You know, of course, we have many other great HBCUs that don't necessarily have band programs, but I feel as though - well, actually, I know that band programs just add to the prestige, the public relations of the institution. So with that being said, you know, you can't say Jackson State University without mentioning the sonic boom of the South, so it basically just kind of goes hand in hand. It's a marriage.

DETROW: This was the first time that that ESPN organized this competition. You've now been through it. Any advice on how you'd like to see this event build over the years, having gone through it just now?

LITTLE: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, I've been in conversations with the organizers of the event, really ever since June. And there was another fellow, one of my colleagues, that was there, as we, you know, were in general discussion about what this thing is going to look like. And, you know, obviously, by being the first year, there's a lot of things to improve.

And so you know, I'm going to be getting back with the facilitators of the event to, you know, just kind of improve some of those things that we'd like to see as band directors overall. So - but, you know, again, by being the inaugural event, you know, I think overall, things went well. But of course, everything can stand to have improvements. And I plan on sharing my sentiments with the necessary parties involved.

DETROW: I've got to ask, is one of those suggested improvements on your end not waiting the - not making the bands wait nearly a full day before they found out who won?

(LAUGHTER)

LITTLE: Yeah, that'll be great as well. And I think, you know, what they try to do - because this thing is connected with the Celebration Bowl as well. But I think what they tried to do was, you know, tried to create more viewership for the Celebration Bowl, you know, from the - so from the standpoint of, you know, business acumen, I can understand that. But from the standpoint of bands, it was definitely waiting on pins and needles to figure out who (inaudible) - who was going to be the winning band for that competition.

DETROW: That's Dr. Roderick Little, director of Jackson State University's Sonic Boom of the South marching band. Thanks so much for talking to us.

LITTLE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMP LO SONG, "LUCHINI - THIS IS IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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