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Making the Band: JSU’s Sonic Boom makes history, band director to be honored by city council

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Dr. Roderick Little received his first taste of band directing as a 16-year-old student at Lanier High School. Now 36, Little is one of the youngest band directors at Jackson State University, but he is not lacking in experience. (Photo by Charles A. Smith)

Dr. Roderick Little received his first taste of band directing as a 16-year-old student at Lanier High School. Now 36, Little is one of the youngest band directors in Jackson State University history, but he is not lacking experience. (Photo by Charles A. Smith)

Jackson State University’s very own marching band, the Sonic Boom of the South, has just made history at Jackson State University. The Boom’s halftime field show performance during the New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons has been selected for showing at the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) Southern Conference held Feb. 20-22 at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

This will be JSU’s first time participating in the conference, founded in 1941, and the university is the only historically black college selected this year.

According to their website, members of CBDNA are devoted to the teaching, performance, study, and cultivation of music, with a particular focus on the wind band medium. It is an inclusive organization whose members are engaged in continuous dialogue encompassing myriad philosophies and professional practices. It also serves as a dynamic hub connecting individuals to communities, ideas and resources.

“The reason why this is significant is that HBCU’s usually aren’t selected to be shown in this particular light, so this is new grounds for JSU. It’s a sentiment to the hard work that our students are doing,” says Dr. Roderick Little, JSU’s band director.

A band director from each selected school will be on hand to showcase their band program, share the development of their field shows, and educate participating schools on techniques.

“In that realm, people tend not to understand what we (JSU) do. So, now we have a vehicle or avenue for predominately white colleges to understand that what we do matters at HBCU’s and not just at predominately white institutions (PWI’s). It’s more of a connection for us culturally, but then again it is for them,” says Little.

“People will leave during halftime at a PWI because they come to see the football team, which is a big thing for PWI’s, as opposed to HBCU’s halftime shows where the HBCU’s bands are just as important as the football team; so people actually stay and watch the Sonic Boom of the South. The things we do to entertain is way more different from what a PWI would do.”

On Tuesday, Little, a graduate of Lanier High School, will also be honored by the Jackson City Council for his long-standing service with the Jackson Public School system and his accomplishments at JSU, both in which he served as a music instructor and band director.

The Sonic Boom of the South is known for its high-energy performances, dynamic drum majors and the prancing JSettes. (Photo by Charles A. Smith)

The Sonic Boom of the South is known for its high-energy performances, dynamic drum majors and the prancing JSettes. (Photo by Charles A. Smith)

At 36, Little has been one of the youngest band directors and arrangers in the history of JSU. It’s an accomplishment that makes him proud he says. It also makes him feel more connected to his students.

“I started having band director duties at the age of 16. I have a lot of experience, and so you definitely need someone to connect to the generation of the millennials,” says Little. “If you don’t know how to connect with them, and overall understand the trends of what’s going on now, you can miss out on a lot of things.”

A JSU alum, Little received his bachelor’s and master’s in music from JSU, and more recently, a doctorate in urban higher education. He shares that some of the band’s song selections are a reflection of what he believes is the best way to cater not only to the JSU community but, just as importantly, prospective students.

“We have a wide range of people who we serve. However, the way we need to look at this as band directors is that we are recruiting 15, 16, and 17-year-old kids. We really have to thread that needle cause we do want to tend to those people who give back to the school but also those kids because they increase enrollment, so it is a catch 22,” says the director.

Little shares that his dream has always been to be a band director for JSU and light a torch for students who attend and graduate from the university. He also shares more far-reaching plans for the university’s music and band program.

“My goal is to shed light on the program [the band] on a national standpoint. I believe the last thing we’ve done nationally was the 34th National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards in 2003,” he says. “It’s time to get the band out on a national scale because right now, we’re the best-kept secret. Though a lot of people know about us, we can do so much more nationally.”

The director explains that when he inherited the marching band program he often wondered how he could contribute to the rich legacy of the Sonic Boom and all the “great directors” that came before him. Although he had ideas, Little says he could not pinpoint which direction he’d go in.

“Over time, my goal was to honor the traditions of the Sonic Boom while implementing creative themes to better frame the shows, interesting drills that change on a weekly or biweekly basis, putting spins on the traditional aspects of the Sonic Boom and focusing more intensively on the sound. Examples of the aforementioned would be floating different formations down the field or different variations of the beloved JSU,” says Little.

Realizing that innovation takes risk with trial and error, Little says they have managed, and are still developing, to find just the right formula to take the legacy of the Sonic Boom into the 21st century and they’re just getting started.

“Since being honored and blessed to take the helm of the Sonic Boom in 2015, the Sonic Boom has had several “legendary” shows that display the awesome talents and hard work of our wonderful students. The following shows will display a small part of why the Sonic Boom is (still) being recognized with such high honors from 2015-present:”

 

 

“This 2015 show displayed the drilling prowess of the Sonic Boom and how we still take the “traditional” 8 to 5 squad-based drill that Harold Haughton implemented in the 70s.”

“This 2016 show displayed the electrifying energy of the Sonic Boom, and its ability to adapt to any environment by playing for/to a very enthusiastic crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

“This 2017 show displayed that by implementing witty commentary, high energy dance routine and reiterating who THEE BOOM is towards the end of our shows will captivate any arena.”

“This 2018 show displayed the ability of the Sonic Booms storytelling while telling the great legacy of HBCUs and all of the wonderful things they have to offer; from Greek life to graduation.”

“This 2019 show displayed the ability to follow a theme and the raw emotion that the Sonic Boom and its ultra-talented students can display. This show featured our very own head drum major- Gavin Hughes”

“Featured show at the 2020 CBDNA Southern Division Conference- This show displayed the Sonic Booms versatility. We consider ourselves a band that can captivate any crowd and play any genre of music while still staying true to our roots.”