Wednesday, January 4, 2017
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE: March to the Joyous, Raucous Beat of the Jackson State University Sonic Boom of the South
College football seasons come and go, but the joyous thunder of Jackson State's iconic marching band rolls on
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It takes two charter planes to move the Sonic Boom of the South from its home in Jackson, Mississippi, to the first event of the season, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 230 musicians are traveling with four band directors, support and medical staff, a security detail, a social media and video unit, cheerleaders and a team of swivel-hipped female dancers called the Prancing J-Settes.
The Sonic Boom of the South is the marching band of Jackson State University, and a leading exponent of the high-stepping, high-energy, razzle-dazzle style that has developed in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Deep South. Known as “show style,” it combines the military marching band tradition with funky syncopated rhythms and elements of jazz, R&B, pop and hip-hop. The bands play with tremendous power and incorporate tightly choreographed dance routines into elaborate field drills. This unique American art form has honed and perfected itself over many decades and is now breaking through into wider cultural prominence.
Michelle Obama, in her commencement speech at Jackson State in April 2016, declared the Sonic Boom of the South one of the best bands in the country, and told university officials how much she enjoyed watching the band’s performances on YouTube. The Boom, as it’s known for short, played at the 2016 inauguration of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and just headlined the annual Jackson Christmas Parade, a holiday tradition drawing thousands of spectators. “We don’t have the very best musicians, or the most precise drill formations,” says O’Neill Sanford, the director of bands at Jackson State. “But no one else can bring the same energy and showmanship, and electrify a crowd of 110,000 people like we can,” he says. “That’s what everyone wants to see.”