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  • “The Urban Hymnal” has been submitted for a Grammy nomination in the category “Best Gospel Roots Album”.
  • The album mixes gospel with sounds and solos from the student marching band, as well as works from big names in the music industry in a variety of genres.
  • In 2021, the Fisk Jubilee Singers — based in Nashville at neighboring HBCU — won a Grammy in the same category.
  • Listen to an excerpt from AOB’s album at the end of this reading.

Almost every night of the school year in North Nashville, whoever passes Tennessee State UniversityThe campus can be lulled by the sounds of the school marching band.

Bass lines blown by powerful sousaphones and trombones. Bold but sweet melodies sing trumpets and saxophones. Light and airy notes whistle flutes and piccolos. And high-speed tap dancing barks snare drums. One of Nashville’s most enduring musical institutions is training.

The institution has a name that matches its many accolades.

The aristocrat of the bands.

One of the trombone players dances as the team walks off the field after the halftime show at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee on Saturday, October 8, 2022.

The group — the pride of Tennessee’s only historically black public college or university — has a long heritage filled with firsts. They were the first HBCU band to appear on national television in 1955, the first HBCU band to perform at a president’s inaugural parade in 1961, and the first band to perform on the White House lawn in 2016.

“My predecessor used to say nothing great happened in Nashville or the state of Tennessee without the Aristocrat of Bands,” bands manager Reginald McDonald said.

This year, the band adds another first to its roster: the first HBCU marching band to create a gospel album.

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And the band members are hoping for another win next year.

At the beginning of September, they submitted the album to the Grammy Awards seeking a nomination in the category “Best Gospel Roots Album”.

Last year, Fisk’s Jubilee Singers — an HBCU set housed in the same street as TSU and the source of Nashville’s Music City nicknamewon a Grammy after earning a nomination in the same category.

“We’re talking about going back to our roots and our ancestry, so how badly should Fisk win and then turn around and have the aristocrat of the bands,” McDonald said. “For us to fall into this category was very fitting and connected these pieces of the puzzle together.”

How ‘The Urban Hymnal’ was born

The idea for “The Urban Hymnal” was born out of the band’s connection with musical artist and songwriter Sir the Baptist.

Baptist became acquainted with Vice Principal Larry Jenkins during a visit to campus. Then a social media clip of the group inspired Baptist to attend a practice.

After the pandemic, the aristocrat of the bands moved him in unexpected ways.

Mr the Baptist

“They looked like legends,” Baptist said. “When I came here, I hadn’t toured, I hadn’t done anything, so it was more locked down as an artist.

“And coming out of that into over 350 horns and drums, feeling the vibrations…I couldn’t stay still. I was moving and shaking.”

Jenkins worked to make Baptist TSU the artist-in-residence for the spring semester. Then, during a February lunch at Cinco De Mayo on White Bridge Pike, the duo jotted down their ideas for the residency program on a napkin.

“I remember (Baptist) had a kind of sage-type vibe to him that day,” Jenkins said. “So I said, ‘Hey, bro. We should make an album. “”

“I was waiting for you to say that,” Baptist replied.

The result? “The Urban Hymnal,” which debuted on September 23.

album cover for

In 10 original tracks, the album uses gospel to convey not only the importance of the genre to African Americans, HBCUs and the band’s history. Tributes to songs like “Going Up Yonder” and “Wade in the Water,” which have been embedded in black culture and history over time, blend seamlessly with marching band tunes and the likes of other musical styles like jazz, afrobeat, hip-hop and R&B.

“For the black community in general, gospel music has sustained our people… All of these things are infused because they were never separated, anyway,” Jenkins said.

He and Baptist agreed that a nod to ancestry was only fair for an HBCU group. And Baptist, a powerhouse in the music and gospel industries, connected TSU and its students with the many professionals who lent a hand in the project.

Aristocrat of Bands assistant manager Larry Jenkins watches the game as he leads the marching band during Tennessee State University's homecoming game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee on Saturday, October 8, 2022.

The essence of the group

None of this would be possible without the students, and the album captures the diligence and talent not only of the band, but also of the Sophisticated Ladies (TSU’s cheerleaders), the university’s gospel choir, and other talent. from campus.

Whenever they could, Baptist and Jenkins attracted students, whether recording the whole band or just a few students. They layered the band’s music with recordings sent in by top artists and producers like Dallas Austin, J. Ivy, Jekalyn Carr, Kierra Sheard, Dubba-AA, Fred Hammond, Mali Music and more.

The marching band gathers inside the TSU Performing Arts Center in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.

One of McDonald’s mainstays as leader of the group was getting his students to buy into the process, which was both professional and popular.

“I remember times when Sir the Baptist or Professor Jenkins would edit something and all of a sudden they realised, ‘Dude, we just need a cat to play the trumpet’ or, ‘We need someone to play the flute’, and a child was walking down the hall,” he said. “And then Jenkins is sitting there writing the part and transposing it for the instrument over there on the spot for this kid to play the riff.”

One of those “cats” was Curtis Olawumi, a senior trumpeter and drum major who has been a musician since he was 4 years old. His improvisations are featured throughout the album, and he is on the cover of the album’s first single “Fly (YMMF)”

Cover for "The urban anthem" first single, "Fly (YMMF)," release in September 2022.

“One day they were like ‘Curtis, we need a solo,'” Olawumi said. “And I never hesitate, I’m just like, ‘OK, I got you.'”

He put on his headphones, played and the rest was history.

Today, Olawumi reflects on the experience as he awaits Grammy nomination announcements. The experience of playing his instrument and serving, and then seeing his name and likeness on the album, was “magnificent”.

“It really tickled me because it’s set in stone forever,” he said.

Another student on the album is freshman Me’Kayla Smith, who attended TSU because of “The Urban Hymnal”.

The 18-year-old singer was asked to sing on the album before she even considered TSU as an option for college. She planned to go to community college until the aristocrat from the bands and TSU became her family and finally gave her a scholarship.

“HBCUs are just different from anything you’ll ever experience, and it was something I wanted to be a part of, I just didn’t know how,” she said. “So they made a dream come true for me.”

Trumpeters practice in a classroom at the TSU Performing Arts Center in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.

It’s stories like these that prove to Jenkins that creating “The Urban Hymnal” was worth it. He, Sir the Baptist and McDonald also hope the album will help audiences and viewers understand that the Aristocrat of Bands and other HBCU bands like him are more than a cultural trend.

“It’s the essence of who the band is in a completely different way,” Jenkins said. “You get the personality of the band, and I think that’s why it resonates with people.”

Anika Exum is a reporter and covers youth and education for The Tennessean. Reach her at [email protected], 615-347-7313, or on Twitter @aniexum.


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