High School marching bands have been embedded in American tradition longer than our love for apple pie. Since the days of the American Revolution, the rumbling roar of a drumline has become the backdrop to some of the most patriotic moments in our time. Ask many musicians, and they will recall their most cherished high school band moments. Without the pageantry of high school or collegiate marching bands, parades would feel like a deflated balloon. Rich Central High School’s Marching Director, Phillip Crews, understands this more than most people.

Growing up Phillip Crews loved playing drums and being a part of his high school band’s percussionist section.

“I grew up in St. Louis, was a part of a great band program at Normandy H.S. We had a great orchestra, concert band, marching band, jazz band—just a full program. I entered a competition that came to my school. The judge for that competition was the director for admissions for band and music. He asked me to audition for the school after he saw my performance. I got a scholarship to attend Vandercook College of Music where I attended from 1988 to 1992.”

Rich Central High School Band Director, Phillip Crews

His father’s love of drums prompted him to purchase a set for his brother who eventually because disinterested. Crews immediately were drawn to them and fell in love with playing.

His skills and talent drew the attention of the Musical Director at Vandercook where they offered him a scholarship. His ultimate goal was to perform with no desire to teach until he was offered a teaching position at Thorton High School in 1994.

“I brought all of the things I learned in high school to that situation. In Harvey, they weren’t listening to Buddy Rich,” he laughs. “But, the kids were with me, and they got what I wanted to do. I started to learn very quickly as I had to do something that would catch their interest and also build their musicianship.”

Understanding HBCU Bands

Going through the traditional process and attending a PWI (predominately white institution), Crews was not familiar with the sacred tradition of HBCU bands. That would all change when he and his wife, a Grambling graduate would attend his first BayouClassic in New Orleans.

“Admittedly, he says, “I used to throw shade at HBCUs. All that dancing— play. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It changed my whole view of HBCUs, the pageantry of it, the history, the entertainment value. In a traditional drum corps, you might have four or five songs, but I had no idea, the HBCUs could play an entire evening—30 songs memorized. It was amazing to see. I’ve never seen a band get a police escort. I’m here in New Orleans, stuck in traffic and they’re getting a police escort. They value their musicianship; they appreciate the bands at a high level in the South. I’ve never seen that before.

At Rich Central High School, Crews has taken elements from the HBCU band culture to the traditional marching band format. “From that time on, I’ve integrated that in our band. We have a high standard, and I honor the HBCUs and the types of performances they usually put on. I also bring that background from my high school—the drum corps side. I merge them to bring something special,” Crews says.

Rich Central High School Band

The Magic of Bud Billiken

Every year, the high school band is a regular fixture on the parade line-up. This year is no different, and the students are looking forward to performing.

“When you’re marching down the street in “The Bud” parade you know when you’re doing a good job or not, the crowd will say, ‘Hey you’re doing it.’ or ‘Hmmm…go back to the drum board.’ I love the honesty and the fact they support young people doing something.” Currently, Crews is preparing incoming freshman to participate in this year’s parade.

“It’s a different parade; they’ll never let you rest. If you go one block without doing something, the crowd shouts ‘do something, do something!’. People what to see what you can do. It’s what starts our year, every season. We can’t get a good start to our season without marching in the Bud Billiken parade,” he says.

Note: This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of Bronzeville Life Vol. 1 for August/September 2018.