Bringing Funk to the Funkless: The Story of Stanford Band

Published by admin on February 13, 2017

By Mikaele Baker

The Stanford band performs during the Orange Bowl as the Cardinal faced Virginia Tech on Monday, January 3, 2011, in Miami Gardens, Florida. Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT

On Friday, December 9th, 2016, as Finals Week loomed, the members of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) lived every band member’s nightmare. They arrived at their Band Shak (analogous to Husky Marching Band’s Dawghouse) to find that the locks had been changed.

Students were later given one hour to clear the Shak of decades of band memorabilia, as well as instruments and costumes. In a letter to the Band published on the same day, Stanford University announced its intention to completely restructure the LSJUMB under a professional director, and that the Band would be suspended through Spring 2017. There would be no on or off-campus activity, and the Band would effectively cease to exist as an organization.

 

“Band is devastated,” Stanford Tree Sam Weyen told Stanford Daily, “I’ve cried with maybe 20 separate people tonight. Understand that we didn’t lose a social activity, we lost our home. We lost our hope. Let’s not even talk about the egregious timing with finals knocking at the door. I for one have never felt so empty inside, as the Stanford band was my safe space, my smultronstalle, my everything. I’m left hapless wondering if Stanford actually gives a shit about me.”

Stanford officials, including Vice Provost of Student Affairs Greg Boardmen, have cited violations of the travel and alcohol ban imposed on the LSJUMB, including an unsanctioned trip to Lake Tahoe.

 

“If, as the University now claims, Band has a ‘systemic cultural problem,’ it is that it does not fit into the mold that provides the University a lucrative brand,”

 

But the Stanford Band and other students are not convinced. The Band released a statement on December 12th as a direct response to the Stanford Administration, amidst an outpouring of support from students and alumni.

 

“On the announcement of sanctions in May of 2015, we acknowledged a disparity between our ideal vision of Band and the reality,” the statement reads, “While we used the 2015 investigation as an opportunity to examine this contrast, the process has dragged on – far beyond the original 2011-2012 complaints that generated the investigation. This suspension disregards all of the positive changes in favor of viciously prosecuting alleged minor infractions by a small number of Band members…”

The statement goes on to call into question the transparency and the goals of the Stanford Administration, which many believe is being unfair to the band which has “held hundreds of hours of trainings and discussion, explicitly formulated our values, restructured selection processes for Band roles, evaluated and made appropriate changes to our traditions, and rewritten our founding documents to reflect the present cultural attitudes within the organization,” according to the same Band leadership.

“Throughout this process, administrators have responded with continually moving targets, incompletely communicated expectations, and a persistent resistance towards viewing the issues from students’ perspectives. We are deeply disappointed that the Administration does not recognize the immense amount of effort put in by students, and we hope to demonstrate the degree to which we have evolved and encouraged positive change.”

The next line is in bold and reflects the attitude of many Stanford students: “If, as the University now claims, Band has a ‘systemic cultural problem,’ it is that it does not fit into the mold that provides the University a lucrative brand, a well-manicured image, and administrative expedience.”

 

This includes one anonymous Band member, who published a scathing and heartfelt Op-Ed in the Stanford Daily on December 14th.

“But one thing I haven’t seen pointed out is that even in the recommendation letter to Greg Boardman that he cited in his letter to Band, the OCB panel didn’t try to pretend its recommendation came from a place of concern for the students,” she writes, “the concern they cited was about ‘the risk and liability to the University community and to Stanford’s reputation.’ In a way, it felt good to see them drop the facade of pretending to care about students and confirm in writing their real motivations.”

But for a more complete understanding of this issue, we must examine the history of the Leland Stanford University Marching Band as it is today.

The Band of the Counter-Culture

The Stanford Band has existed since 1893, but its true birthdate is more likely 1963, when the University hired Arthur P. Barnes as the interim director. The previous director, Julius Schuchat, had been very popular, and his departure caused several members of the Band to go on strike.

According to the Band’s lore, Barnes won the approval and loyalty of the LSJUMB by ceding pretty much all control to the students, along with his powerful arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner. It substituted the usual marcato (or occasionally chorale-style) verse with a solo trumpet, joined later by soft woodwinds, and reserving the full power of the brass section for the final statement.

“I’ve never heard such a loud silence.” Barnes said, referring to when the arrangement was played at the “Big Game” against Cal, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The Band is very much a product of the 1960s. The students elected to eschew traditional marching uniforms and music, and adopted a repertoire of mostly popular music. The band’s current uniform consists of a red blazer, black pants, a white fishing hat (with as many buttons as will fit) and “the ugliest tie you can get your hands on.”

The Band often appears at non-athletic events in “rally” attire, which is something members of our own Husky Marching Band will be familiar with. The Band has a vast repertoire, never playing the same song twice in one day, with the exception of All Right Now, Stanford University’s de facto fight song.

 

“Band encouraged and helped its members to become their truest selves.”

 

But the counter-cultural tradition runs far deeper than wacky outfits and rock and roll. In the same Op-Ed from above, a Stanford Band member describes the culture of the Stanford Band.

“Band’s culture ultimately promoted one thing — being comfortable and confident as yourself in your own skin, whoever that is.

[The LSJUMB was] a community that stressed radical self-acceptance and self-expression. The wacky, colorful rally gear, the funky and freewheeling dancing and the music itself were all part of the judgement-free atmosphere that encouraged us to shed our self-consciousness and express our true selves. The value of nonconformity led to a promotion of individuality. The rejection of societal norms encouraged us to think independently, and to question authority and standards that we subconsciously took to be true. The fact that Band was student-run empowered every single one of us to shape the organization in our own way, while preserving the culture and traditions that we found to be important. The total lack of membership requirements sent a message to all current, former and future members that they were welcome as they were, no matter who they were.

Band encouraged and helped its members to become their truest selves. I’ve heard so many people say that Band helped them figure out who they really are.”

 

The Band is notable for being the first band in the conference to regularly play at women’s athletic events, and an open letter signed by over one hundred female alumni states, “Besides offering numerous leadership and management opportunities for women, LSJUMB has also been a safe haven for gender expression of all kinds.”

The same letter accuses the administration of engaging in “benevolent sexism… reinforcing sexism in assuming that women are weak and need protection” and points out that the University’s decision to suspend the band has disempowered the Band’s first ever all female leadership council. “What a bitter irony to invoke [Title IX] in eliminating the first all-female band leadership.”

The Most Controversial Band in the PAC

The Stanford Band’s values have not always been consistent with those of Kappa Kappa Psi or those of the University of Washington Bands. The Stanford Band’s Wikipedia page contains long list of controversies, and consequently the Band is highly polarizing among fans and bystanders.

…one does not have to look far to find commenters calling the Stanford Band a disgrace to collegiate bands everywhere…

While exact comments will not be reproduced here, one does not have to look far to find commenters calling the Stanford Band a disgrace to collegiate bands everywhere and demanding that it be brought to heel.

One of the most common reactions to this controversy is that the Band had it coming for years of going over the line in the name of irreverence and satire.

The Band is banned from Husky Stadium, apparently for a show involving the popular fast-food restaurants Dick’s and In-N-Out. Other controversies include poking fun at polygamy in a game against Brigham Young University, dressing their drum major as a Nun in a game against Notre Dame, and performing a Farmer’s Only show at the 2016 Rose Bowl against Iowa, a full transcript of which is available online.

Conclusion

Perhaps the Band did have it coming. Perhaps the administration’s seemingly capricious reasons for suspending the Band are in reality just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nevertheless, it is hard not to mourn the loss of such a unique institution.

 

“Though the future may be uncertain, we will always fight for students’ ability to freely express themselves, question authority, and rock out.”

 

Stanford Band is one of the last noteworthy “Scatter Bands” (sometimes called “Scramble Bands”) in the country, with others including the infamous University of Virginia Pep Band and the Princeton Tiger Band. In a conference with many great marching bands, the Stanford Band stood apart, hip-thrusting to the beat of a different drumline (one including a kitchen sink).

 

Even if the Band crossed the line, their tradition and culture may have been a valuable one, especially in times of political and social turmoil. In suspending the Stanford Band, the University is losing an organization that – for all its many faults – was run by students and for students with the intent to celebrate individuality and diversity while also providing a safe environment for its members to freely express themselves.

So ends, if nothing else, an interesting chapter in the history of collegiate bands.

The Band will have an opportunity to appeal the University’s decision, but after two long years, morale is low among members. The Stanford Band student leadership concludes their statement on December 12th with “Though the future may be uncertain, we will always fight for students’ ability to freely express themselves, question authority, and rock out.”

“The funkless still need funk, who will bring it?”

 

NOTE: At the time of publishing, the LSJUMB has been reinstated as a student group by the Stanford Administration, pending further reforms.