Part of a Series
In this sixth edition of our ongoing series, we visited high school football games in each part of Knoxville to record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.
It's a chilly late October evening at Austin-East's home football field, behind the high school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, with a youngish 5-3 A-E football squad girding themselves for battle with the 6-2 Tigers of Pigeon Forge. And just about now, 30 minutes to game time, there's a rumble in the distance: a knuckle-popping cadence from a 10-man drum corps that sticks together like triple-sided tape, syrup on glue. And here they come, marching 'round the gate leading into the stadium: the Mighty Marching Roadrunners of Austin-East.
The drums are leading the pack, toms and snares and cymbals and bass hitched to members of the all-male corps, scattered Weezy dreads erupting from the underside of red and blue toboggans, draped on the shoulders of like-colored hoodies. No unis tonight: The threads are at home in the closet, saving up for a homecoming performance at Knoxville College tomorrow morning. But it's not what the players are wearing that's noteworthy; it's what they're doing. Carrying on this airtight polyrhythmic cadence, the tomsmen twirl their sticks between beats like Tommy Lee. And the bass drummers do more than just whump an occasional heavy beat; they thrum thunderous syncopations, all while swinging and swaying their unwieldy charges on swivel hips. Even the cymbal players clang their brass with a rhythmic aplomb and showman's flair.
Then the flag girls and rifle corps come marching in behind, in band-issue T-shirts over thermals and toboggans, all high knees, swinging elbows and swaying hips; the line between "dancing" and "marching" had never seemed a difficult one to apprehend—at least not until now.
And then follows the rest of the band. With no music to play, they bop and grind to that irrepressible cadence, using their instruments as props, shaking saxes and trumpets and clarinets in strutting unison as they go. It's that A-E swagger.
"Swagger? That's the Roadrunners," says band director Dorothy Brice, herself a 1975 graduate of Austin-East, who obtained her bachelor's degree in instrumental music from Knoxville College.
A friendly mother bear of a woman, Brice has history with the A-E band; a saxophonist in jazz and marching band, she helped the school jazz ensemble win an international jazz competition in Montego Bay back when she was a member herself. "We played a Count Basie tune called ‘Little Darlin', and that's what put us over the edge," she remembers with a smile. Seems they had the swagger then, too.
She came back to shepherd the Roadrunners as band director 12 years ago, and carry on the vibrant tradition she'd shared in all those years ago. "We're the only African-American band in Knox County," she says. "And we're really more of a ‘show band' than a traditional marching band—more like the bands at schools like Tennessee State and Florida A&M, Jackson State. We incorporate a lot of R&B and hip hop into what we do."
It's not a large band—it's a pretty modest unit, in fact, that files into the bleachers in anticipation of kickoff—but the group plays bigger that it looks. It's a young group, too, much like the football team it's playing for, lots of sophomores and frosh. Brice calls it "the smallest band I've had in my time here."
She says problems at Vine, A-E's feeder school, and some eighth-grade transfers took a toll on the band's numbers, but membership is on the upswing for the future. "They're doing an excellent job at Vine now, getting neighborhood kids we need involved in the band program."
She pauses and adds, with that mother-bear certainty that is hers to command, "And we need all the help we can get."
Say this for them, though—they're a well-behaved lot. And attentive. They actually watch the game, once it begins. (Lots of band kids couldn't give a hang what those cave dwellers are doing out there on the field, beating each other daffy and tromping ruts in perfectly good sod; they're just waiting 'til halftime, and the Show.)
Maybe that's because they've got Mama watching over them, all the time, with a hawklike gaze that simultaneously admits of curiosity, benevolence, staunch protective instincts, and a certain talent for laying down edicts of the non-negotiable variety that will invest in even the most wayward of her flock a soul-crushing fear of the Almighty. Or at least of Ms. Brice.
"Good job; you quick," she says to a flag twirler, carrying on, as she seems to do, a dozen conversations at once as she stands in front of the bleachers, back to the game. "You sound like Memphis," to another band member.
Then as A-E takes a 14-7 lead on the field, late in the second quarter—on a lovely half-moon fade route, 31 high-arcing yards from quarterback Keyshawn Johnson to wideout Jyshon Forbes—Brice releases the band, and they make their way to flock in the end zone near the field house.
"I've done my part; now I turn 'em loose," she says. (Which is to say, with an asterisk. The occasional directive still issues forth, such as when she has a runner, "Tell the twins to tuck their shirts in!" Or better yet, when she snaps her fingers and points at seemingly everyone and no one in particular, and simply bellows "Aaaaa-aaay!"—an instructional message which the actual recipient seems to instantly recognize as intended for himself and himself alone, and which seems to bring about swift compliance.)
By Brice's telling, there's a strong measure of pride, and a great deal of hard work—well more than seems typical for a high school marching band—that goes into being a member of the Roadrunners unit. Unlike other schools, where so-called "band geeks" are often bullied and ostracized, she says, "when you're in the Mighty Marching Roadrunner Band, they know the work that goes into it. You're on a higher plane."
It's not an all-comers outfit; the Roadrunners hold auditions every spring, for instrumentalists and flag/rifle corps alike; and the musicians must have sightreading skills, in addition to instrumental proficiency. "We want to see how creative you are, how you express yourself," Brice says.
The discipline extends to the classroom, too. The band syllabus includes loads of music studies—new songs to be learned among grand staff studies and sightreading and scale theory and breathing exercises and time signatures. But then there's some stuff from out of left field, like weekly essays on social themes; classroom examinations of music and its role in the civil rights movement; classroom debates concerning lyrical content of popular hip hop and R&B…
That's all behind them, for now, though, as they stand in rigidly packed columns along the sideline, the teams having left the field for halftime, and 20 minutes loaded onto the field's digital scoreboards. "We're going to do a few tunes for you… hip hop… Beyoncé… James Brown… Future… We hope you enjoy the show."
The voice is Brice's; she's taken a seat on one of the team benches fieldside, and she keeps a running commentary for the duration of the show on a portable mic, emceeing, narrating, doling out chatty call and response to the band on the field.
And when the Roadrunners go, they launch, like one big spring-loaded funk-laden big-band-for-the-hip-hop-generation perpetual motion groove and dance machine. It starts with the percussion—tight, always tight, and then building, busier; busier; until it fairly erupts, into a consuming locomotive roar.
And then there's the dance—because it's not just flag-twirling; or rifle-spinning; or even just marching, as executed by the rank-and-file members of the orchestra. All of the band members qualify as dancers in their own right; and especially the flags and rifles, who prance and gyrate and spin as if to channel the freaky fly girl wiles of Beyoncé herself, even as the band plies brassy, sassy arrangements of three B. tunes.
Sometimes the Roadrunners do nothing but dance and drum for minutes at a stretch; and yet the effect is mesmerizing, the band molting and unfurling into formation after recombinant formation, its individual parts carrying various weights of motion and spectacle. And then, inevitably, the horns bring it back around with a focused blast of middle brass, or a massive sousaphone riff that mimics the nimble bass line of a popular song.
And finally: "One more time, show your love for the Austin-East Roadrunner Marching Band," that from Ms. Brice, from her seat on the sideline. And thus the 'runners gather in formation and fairly strut off the field. As they exit through the gate, they begin to break ranks; the hard part of the evening is over, at least where the band is concerned. (The teams still has some work to do, en route to a 33-14 victory.)
"Sorry I messed up, Ms. Brice," one of the freshmen says as he piles back into the stands, eager to please.
"No, that was a good show," Brice says, her eyes wide, the rye-and-honey rasp of her voice more emphatic than usual. Then she pauses, and says again—"That was a good show." The look on her face tells of four decades of Mighty Marching Roadrunner pride, and that more than anything lets on that she means it.