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‘Do you want to be great?’: Morgan’s Magnificent Marching Machine gets first new band director in almost 50 years

On the second floor of the Morgan State University Murphy Fine Arts Center in late August, past the lockers and uniforms, the marching band’s version of Dua Lipa’s radio hit “Don’t Start Now” blared. Inside room 233, five rows of students played their instruments while four then-drum major candidates stood on the left pumping black batons in the air in tempo.

A new director stood at the front of the room for the first time in nearly 50 years.

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Jorim Reid Sr., director of bands, stood in front of his students dressed in memorabilia and merchandise signaling his ties to historically Black universities. He wore a Morgan State hat and t-shirt. A purple Omega Phi Psi fraternity bracelet wrapped around his wrist, and the silver chain of his band whistle hung around his neck — a treasure he’s kept since his time playing in Florida A&M University’s band as an undergraduate.

His office, still filled with moving boxes, has a bookshelf dedicated to Kappa Kappa Psi, the national band fraternity, of which he is still a member. Reid’s doctoral graduation gown hangs in the back corner, and pictures of him in various bands throughout the years are scattered throughout the space.

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Reid assumed a position previously filled by legendary Director of Bands Melvin N. Miles Jr., who served Morgan State for 49 years, dating all the way back to the 1970s, and has since retired. Still, Miles remains active, working with the school’s jazz band. He said he helped select Reid to take his position, and he knows Reid will carry the band forward. Miles said he looks forward to homecoming this October, where he will serve as the ceremonial grand marshal instead of band director, allowing him to watch the festivities from a new perspective for the first time in decades.

Morgan State will play its first home game of the season on Sept. 17 against Sacred Heart University.

Despite being a fresh face in the band room, Reid has extensive experience with HBCU bands. Starting in 2000, he worked as director of bands at North Carolina Central University for 14 years. Afterward, he transitioned to director of bands at Fayetteville State University. When completing his doctoral music arts degree, he focused his dissertation on HBCU bands.

Reid said he wants to usher in a new era while respecting the groundwork laid before his arrival. This includes asking the students for their feedback and listening to their suggestions, such as adding more modern songs to the band’s repertoire and booking performances abroad. Making Morgan State history, he’s also named four drum majors this year, one of whom is Morgan State’s first-ever female drum major, Angel Mitchell.

At the Aug. 31 afternoon band practice, Reid signaled for the four drum major candidates, now official drum majors, to stand in front of the band, known as the Magnificent Marching Machine, letting them help lead the school’s unofficial fight song, “We Are the Bears.” Assistant Director Eugene Diggs said all freshmen learn the lyrics, and the crowd goes wild when the band performs it. There’s a part where the song transitions from playing to chanting and dancing. The band nods side to side, and the drum majors stomp while waving alternating arms in the air.

“I’m about to go stupid up in this,” one student said aloud as everyone rose from their chairs.

Reid stood silent on the conductor’s podium with his arms crossed, waiting patiently for his students to follow suit. As the band kicked off the piece, Reid nodded his head, looking down and flipping through the sheet music.

The band only played a few bars before Reid waved his arms asking them to stop then restart. He stopped them again shortly after.

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“Real quick, on that whole note right before you go to chant…have y’all ever had a release point?” Reid asked. He followed the question by singing what he meant.

“It used to go into [a song called ‘Talkin’ Out The Side of Your] Neck,’ [by Cameo] Diggs replied.

“OK,” Reid said, waving everyone quiet. “Release on four,” he decided.

Restarting the piece, Reid counted to four in the air with his fingers right where he wanted the band to hold the note. His face contorted, thinking about how he liked the sound.

Again. The band played “We Are the Bears,” and Reid continued to nod, this time watching the band more than the notes on the page.

Reid got his start in music at a young age. He was born in Gary, Indiana, birthplace of Michael Jackson, and grew up surrounded by musical family and friends. After moving to Miami, he enrolled in band for the first time, picking up instruments like the flute, the saxophone and later, the oboe. At FAMU, he joined The Marching 100, his first HBCU band and where he would meet his wife.

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Travis Jones Jr., a senior band member and drum major, said it means a lot for Reid to come in with so much experience with HBCU bands, especially as historically Black university bands gain more attention in popular culture — in 2019 The Machine was featured on “The Today Show” ahead of marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Fellow senior band members and drum majors Mitchell and Troy James echoed Jones, saying Reid recognizes the importance of Morgan State’s traditions and understands where the band students come from because he’s been there before.

Still, Jones said it’s been a huge transition having a new band director. The new director is training students to be more accountable, changing how practices function and asking them to show up ready to rehearse.

Tyrome Fowlks Jr., senior band member and drum major, said the new style is prompting the band members to ask themselves what type of band they want to be a part of.

“Do you want to be great?” Fowlks said. “You gotta know it.”

The band switched gears to sight-read — perform without preparation — Reid’s arrangement of “Skin I’m In,” by Cameo. As the tempo wavered, Reid tapped his baton on the metal music stand in front of him for a few beats.

Following the initial run, Reid asked individual sections to play their parts until they improved.

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“Tubas, right at measure five,” he directed. “One, two, ready, begin.”

The tubas played until Reid told them to stop. He sang the phrase for them and instructed them to play again. And again.

“There you go!” Reid praised. And again.

“Beginning, everybody,” Reid said. “Whole band showing it down.”

Each round playing the phrase, the band performed more in tune with more accurate rhythms. The successes earned them the privilege of playing more of the song. All the while, Reid counted along aloud, helping clap syncopated rhythms.

“More whip on that quarter note.” The band repeated the same phrase.

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“Da dee dee da,” he sang. “Da dee dee da.”

“Play again. Play again.”

“Better and –”

“Good.”

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“Good!”

Reid plans to double the size of the band, which would make it one of the larger HBCU bands in the nation. By comparison, Grambling State University’s Tiger Marching Band has 250 members. When Reid arrived at Morgan State, there were about 100 members. That number has since risen by around 30. Students said they’re encouraged to participate in recruitment events and tell their fellow students about The Magnificent Marching Machine.

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Reid has a history of boosting band participation. At North Carolina Central University, he said he grew the program to 200 musicians. Diggs said he can also see the students buying into Reid’s vision, that the new director has embraced him and the culture of Morgan State.

“It’s the same thing, tubas,” Reid said, laughing and shaking his head while the band sight-read another arrangement of his, “Outstanding.” “It’s the same thing.”

Reid checked his watch at 6:47 p.m., less than 15 minutes before practice was scheduled to end. Still, the band kept playing.

He signaled a thumbs up as they continued playing the song “Outstanding,” by The Gap Band, and waved his arms to have the band swell into a crescendo. For a few brief moments, Reid danced to the beat on the podium.

“Considering we just passed this out and [that was] pure sight-reading, that was decent,” Reid said. “It’ll be magnificent in a week.”


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