Tennessee State University Marching Band Walks Off With Grammy Award

It was the music honors’ first-ever win by a college marching band

The last of the CFB bowl games finished a month ago, when the Georgia Bulldogs took down TCU Horned Frogs at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles for the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship. But there was one more honor to be given to a college team, and it had everything to do with sound.

During Sunday night’s 65th annual Grammy Awards telecast, the Tennessee State University Marching Band — aka “The Aristocrat of Bands,” or AoB — earned the first-ever Grammy Award given to a college marching band. Its recording of The Urban Hymnal was the winner in the Best Roots Gospel Album category. It was also the first time a college marching band had ever been nominated in that category. The school’s reaction was nearly as loud as a playoff game.

Fans of Tennessee State University in Nashville and the school’s Tennessee State Tigers team know the 100-piece, high-stepping, show-style marching band well. They’re a staple of the HBCU culture, but their reach extends well beyond that. Between 1956 and 1978, the TSU band performed halftime shows for nine professional football games, including the 1963 National Championship game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears at Wrigley Field.

In 1955, the AOB was the first HBCU band in history to appear on national television, a halftime performance at an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams. To this day, its ties to pro football run deep. Named the official band of the Tennessee Titans in 2002, the AOB usually performs at one Titans game each season at Nissan Stadium, which is also TSU’s home stadium.

The band has also appeared in the Coca-Cola Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, the Atlanta Football Classic in Atlanta, the Orange Blossom Classic in Miami, the Heritage and Blues Bowls in Memphis, and the Grantland Rice Bowl in Wichita Falls, TX.

The Urban Hymnal came about last year as a collaboration between AOB Assistant Director Larry Jenkins; gospel artist Sir The Baptist, who has notched two previous Grammy Award nominations as well as two Dove Awards and two Stellar Awards; and co-producer Dallas Austin, who has one Grammy win and nine nominations. Featuring a mix of classic TSU anthems in addition to jazzy AOB renditions of gospel classics, the album showcases the band’s wide-ranging aesthetic, incorporating jazz, classical, gospel, and R&B styles — all performed, says its website, in “distinct musical style using clean articulation, expressive dynamics, balance, and technical ability.”

At the Grammy Awards, the AoB was up against not only the genre’s finest, including the Gather Vocal Band and Karen Peck & New River, but also an album of gospel favorites by country legend Willie Nelson and his family band.

Besides the win’s coming during Black History month, there was a little extra icing on Sunday night’s cake: the AoB was featured on poet J. Ivy’s spoken-word album The Poet Who Sat by the Door, which also won a Grammy Award, in the Best Spoken Word Poetry Album category, giving the band’s participation in a second Grammy Award the same night.

Beyoncé, who picked up her record-setting 32nd Grammy Award that night, just might have a bit of competition in the future.

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