Chattanooga: Howard School band embarks on a revival

Chattanooga: Howard School band embarks on a revival

September 4th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

LaDarrius Slater, 11, plays the cymbals during band practice at the Howard School.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.


What: Howard School alumni and supporters want to raise $50,000 by Sept. 30. The money will be used only to purchase band equipment, organizers say.

To donate: Write checks to Howard School and indicate that the money is to be spent for the band only. Mail checks to The Howard School, 2500 S. Market St., Chattanooga, TN 37408.

For more information: Call Reuben Lawrence at 821-4405.

Pride and good intentions can take you only so far. Then you need a little duct tape.

The Howard School band has a proud tradition, boasting as many as 150 members in its heyday and performing at such prestigious events as Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Today the band is down to 30 members, with just 15 instruments among them.

What instruments they do have are two decades old, some held together with the ubiquitous gray tape. With others, such as the saxophones, student musicians must watch constantly to make sure parts don't fall off.

"We use duct tape, Scotch tape, cement. Sometimes it comes a'loose in the middle of a song and I get behind them and help them hold it together," said Dexter Bell, Howard's band director. "I probably don't have an instrument without tape or string holding it together."

But when the horn section blows and the drumline beats, the sound of rhythmic thunder still brings audiences to their feet.

"Our size is small, but our sound is powerful," said band captain LeFrank Johnson.

Now a revival is under way that Bell and Howard alumnus Cheryl Bryant hope will have the band fully equipped by year's end and at 100 members strong by the time the school marks its 150th anniversary in 2015.

Howard alumni and supporters are behind the effort and want to raise money to purchase instruments. The goal is to raise $50,000 by Sept. 30. The group is halfway there thanks to corporate contributions, said alumnus Reuben Lawrence.

"You can't keep students interested in band if they don't have an instrument to play," said Lawrence. "We don't want to lose these kids because we don't have equipment for them to use."

Some already may have been lost.

The band was at its peak in the late 1980s with about 150 members under the direction of David Sharp. In 1978, the year former drum major Bryant graduated, the band played Mardi Gras in New Orleans and performed so well, city leaders gave them a standing invitation to return.

In those days the band was known as the "Marching 100."

The decline began in the mid-1990s, when the Hamilton County and Chattanooga city schools combined, said Bryant. While bands for the inner-city schools decreased in size, bands at schools in more rural areas increased, she said.

And band directors such as the late Grady Black Jr., Sharp and the late George Edwards -- all legends at Howard -- became harder to find. After band director Elias Smith left in the early to mid-2000s to teach at a different school, no band director stayed at the school more than two years, Bell said.

Some band directors came and left in the middle of the school year, and the high turnover made it hard to keep track of instruments coming and going, Bell said. The number of instruments decreased along with the students.

By 2009, the high school band had so few students, the school started accepting middle school students to increase its numbers.

Bell could have had as many as 70 students in this year's band -- that's how many signed up. But he had to turn away about 40 of them because of the lack of instruments.

Unlike kids at some other schools, most Howard students can't afford their own instruments, Lawrence said.

Yet hope -- like the duct tape on the instruments -- abounds.

The band director has been at the school just one year, but that's all it took to get three students music scholarships to Tennessee State University. Before that, no student had received a band scholarship since at least 1984, Bell said.

Johnson said seeing students get scholarships gives him hope for a better future.

"I feel like if I weren't in band, I don't know where I'd be," said the 17-year-old senior. "I think band keeps me out of trouble and gives me something to do."

Like Bell and Bryant, Johnson wants to attend Tennessee State University. He wants to be a band instructor.

In recent months the band has performed in Nashville and Atlanta and also picked up an invitation to perform at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in October.

"We're bringing it back," said Bryant.

At the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's fundraiser kickoff in August, all 30 band students plus about 22 dancers, flag girls and baton twirlers came from different directions to form one line. Gold flags waved as students marched in white T-shirts and black pants while waving their arms and twirling batons.

Drummer Johnny Sanders, 17, and saxophonist Johnson played solos as United Way campaign Chairwoman Alison Lebovitz talked about the influence one person can have.

Then came the rolling force of the entire drumline and horn section blowing the bass line of the Temptations' "Get Ready." Lebovitz commented about the power people have when everybody works together, and the crowd exploded with whistles and applause. Even the Chattanooga Convention Center waiters, some of them Howard alumni, smiled and followed behind the band, cheering them on.

Chris Ramsey, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's director of the office of health care reform, popped from his seat and started taking pictures.

And once again the band has put on a show that overpowers -- at least for a time -- the poverty and other problems that infiltrate the inner-city communities where many Howard students live.

Bell estimates he'll be able to purchase about 20 to 30 instruments if the drive manages to collect the full $50,000. One sousaphone costs more than $3,000, and the band needs four, Bell said. Still, he wants every student to have a working instrument by December.

Meanwhile, students who don't have instruments still attend band practice to learn formations. Sometimes they hold instruments that don't work. Sometimes they use their imaginations and pretend to play.

After the instrument fundraiser, Bell hopes to raise money for more uniforms. And once he has enough equipment, he plans to recruit more students.

Bell said he is driven to restore the band to its former glory.

"It was electrifying, energetic," he said. "It touches you in your soul. It's something you never forget, and I've got a drive to get the '100' back."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or call 423-757-6431.