TSU's Grammy-winning Aristocrat of Bands to make Grand Ole Opry debut
Marching bands have a storied history on the Grand Ole Opry's stage. However, Grammy-winning marching bands — especially those from historically Black colleges and universities — do not.
That all changes on Tuesday, April 4 when Tennessee State University's recent Best Roots Gospel Award-winning Aristocrat of Bands debuts at the Grand Ole Opry.
The band's legacy of firsts — the first HBCU band to appear on national television, in 1955, the first HBCU band to perform at a presidential inaugural parade, in 1961 and the first band to play on the White House lawn, in 2016 — now expands to the 4,400 seat venue off Briley Parkway.
"HBCU band culture is vital to American music," TSU professor Larry Jenkins, the band's assistant director, told The Tennessean. "This culture reaching avenues beyond football fields and a limited number of genres and stages is always important."
Director of bands Reginald McDonald told The Tennessean in a 2022 story: "My predecessor used to say nothing big happens in Nashville or the state of Tennessee without the Aristocrat of Bands,"
Gospel's roots in Black spirituals and ancestral foot stomping, hand clapping, and humming blend with hip-hop and R&B-inflected marching band beats on the album "The Urban Hymnal."
The album's sound and style, described by The Tennessean as "10 original tracks that convey the importance of [gospel music] to African Americans, HBCUs and the band's history," earned the 110-year-old college's 77-year-old band its first-ever Grammy award.
Grammy nominees and winners affiliated with the project included producer Dallas Austin, Gospel vocalists Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Kierra Sheard and Sir the Baptist (like Austin, currently a TSU artist-in-residence), spoken-word artist J. Ivy (who also won Grammy's first-ever spoken-word poetry album award in 2023 -- the first poet to win a Grammy since Maya Angelou) and the singer-songwriter duo Louis York.
Louis York (the Grammy-nominated songwriting tandem of Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly) who made their Grand Ole Opry debut in February 2020, are now regularly featured on the program and are scheduled alongside recent Opry inductees comedian Henry Cho and Don Schlitz, plus Katy Nichole, Mo Pitney, Riders In The Sky and Rhonda Vincent to perform during the venue's two showcases on April 4.
"Finding when your work has its place in the world" was listed by Austin as one of his goals for the project in a 2022 interview.
Upon receiving his Grammy on Feb. 5, Jenkins stated that his students' "hard work and dedication created the pen that allowed [them to write their] own page in the history books."
That space expands to a 97-year-old musical institution next Tuesday night.
"The message of TSU's music will exceed the crowd's expectations," Jenkins continued. "The spectacle of having a full band presentation — in suits and boots, plus drum majors and the Sophisticated Ladies dancers — will be an immersive, sensory overload of a marching band experience."
The history of marching bands on the Opry stage includes the U.S. Navy Band's seven-member Country Current bluegrass and country ensemble, pairing with Australian-born country vocalist Diana Trask (famed for her four top-20 American country hits in 1973-74, plus two decades of TV appearances) for the 1975 album "The United States Navy on Its 200th Salutes the Grand Ole Opry on Its 50th."
Country Current last appeared on the Opry stage in September 2022.
Insofar as Grammy Best Roots Gospel award-winning HBCU representation on the Opry stage, TSU follows the over 150-year-old Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose "Celebrating Fisk!" album won Best Roots Gospel Album in 2021.
"We're talking about going back to our roots and our ancestors, so how fitting for Fisk — the reason why Nashville is called Music City isn't because of country music, it's because of them — to win it and then to turn around and have the Aristocrat of Bands, another top ensemble, [win]," McDonald said. "[It connects] those pieces of the puzzle together."
When asked to summarize the power of the moment, Jenkins offered a broad, pointed statement.
"The TSU band now represents how this music, our music, on multiple levels, thrives in every setting," he said.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee State's Aristocrat of Bands to make Grand Ole Opry debut