Standing on the shoulders of his predecessor, Dr. Little judged HBCU Band Director of the Year

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Dr. Roderick Little (Photo by Charles Smith/JSU)

A panel of HBCU band directors, band staff members, and musicians, that had been assembled by Best American Craftsman (BAC), selected Dr. Roderick Little as the HBCU Band Director of the Year. This is a tremendous honor for Little and the band program. It was the first time that such an award had been presented, but BAC President Michael Corrigan promises that it will become an annual event.

As Little has grown in the position as director, the Lanier High School and Jackson State University alumnus has added to and enriched the tradition of “the Sonic Boom of the South.” The 400+ member marching band can be heard for more than a mile away as it practices and/or performs. Furthermore, no matter where they are in HBCU land, when people hear the Motown-originated, but JSU-arranged version of “Get Ready,” they immediately respond, knowing that it is JSU’s band approaching.

Since the late-1960s the band has featured the heavy brassy sound, which is so characteristic of “Get Ready.” Little has continued to prominently feature that sound. The band, however, is also still featuring its famous drumline, dubbed “War and Thunder.” It is a drumline so noted that the movie “Drumline” seems to have been modeled after it, although JSU was perhaps the only major HBCU marching band not shown in the movie. Thirdly, the band continues to feature its high-stepping tuba section, which always puts on a show for the youngsters as it marches back to its seats following half-time shows.

The Sonic Boom has long been known for its excellent musicianship and precision drills. This has been stressed under every director, going back to W.W. Davis and Harold Haughton.

When Dr. John Peoples became the university’s president, he initiated the idea of the Prancing J-Settes. They became immediately popular and have been an important component of the band’s performances since that time. Together, these and other components have made for an excellent entertainment machine, which has generally outdrawn the football team in terms of fans and “must see” parts of the game day affairs.

Little is very fortunate to have been able to secure truly talented and hard-working musicians from around the country, to have an outstanding arranger in Kevan Johnson along with other staff working with him, and to have such a rich tradition from which to draw.

As least publicized as is that history, the band program took off under the direction of W.W. Davis, its first full-time director. Davis had been head arranger for the famous Cab Calloway Orchestra. When he brought his considerable talents to Jackson State, they included not just musicianship and precision marching. He did a great deal of composing and arranging. Before long, the band was marching and playing Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. It advanced and played the big band sounds of Ray Charles, the brassy instrumentals of the young Stax house bands, the Mar-Keys and Booker T. and the MGs, the popular jazz of Cannonball Adderley and Ramsey Lewis, and much more. There was perhaps nothing that Davis’ 70-piece band could not play if he set his mind to it.

When Davis retired, he was replaced by a string of younger musicians who had grown-up hearing and greatly appreciating what they had heard from the Jackson State band. Harold Haughton, Lewis Liddell, and Dowell Taylor were among the Jacksonians who took up the baton, so to speak. Each carried on in a mighty way, down to and including Roderick Little.

Over the years, the band has performed at the NAACP Image Awards; the MOTOWN 50th Anniversary celebration; football games played in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, and New Orleans; and even the Macy’s Day Parade. Its excellence has certainly spread abroad. This only heightens how long overdue a recognition such as Little’s really is. 

One of the noteworthy things about the recognition of Dr. Little this year is that it was the result of the assessment of his peers – fellow college directors, band staff, and musicians. That says a great deal about how competent and outstanding his work has been. Over the years, recognition of the excellence of the band has come from the manner in which its top assistants have been hired by other colleges, and the manner in which the band’s style has been imitated by high schools and other colleges.

Our hat is off to Band Director Roderick Little for the excellent job that he does and for the outstanding tradition that he continues to uphold. He has exemplified the marks of a true Jacksonian, not just by having received three degrees from JSU. He has exhibited it through his leadership and musicianship. He inherited a great deal and proceeded to multiply it. 

The title of the award that he received is “HBCU Band Director of the Year.” Those who are familiar with college bands, Black and white, and who can appreciate the nature of the performances of the two sets of college bands and their performances know the truth. Black institutions put much more emphasis on and Black audiences expect more from their marching bands at half-time. Those in the know realize that in truth the award which Little received means that he is “the Best College and University Band Director in America.” ‘Nuff said. 

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Standing on the shoulders of his predecessor, Dr. Little judged HBCU Band Director of the Year

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
January 31, 2023