Melvin Miles and the Morgan Magnificent Marching Machine

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Melvin Miles Jr. directs the Magnificent Marching Machine. (Photo courtesy of Morgan State University)

The halftime show at an HBCU football game is sometimes the best part of the game. And while Morgan State University, scheduled to face off against the Hampton University Pirates on Oct. 17 at Hughes Stadium in Baltimore, is undefeated in the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference and 3-2 overall, the halftime show looks to be especially entertaining.

That’s because inside an office crowded with musical ephemera on Morgan State University’s campus in West Baltimore, Melvin Miles Jr. is preparing for the homecoming game. One of the many school bands he directs will take the field at halftime, the Morgan State University Marching Band, also known as the Magnificent Marching Machine. Miles is the director of university bands.

And while every game is important, some, like homecoming, are just a little bit more important. The Baltimore native, who received his degrees in Music Education from Morgan in the 1970s, was also a member of the funk band The Sound Experience, who recorded the album “Don’t Fight the Feeling” in 1974.

“I was in the band one year, and the next year I was running it. It didn’t start without some controversy. Who hires a 22-year old, 23-year old guy with a bachelors degree to run a band program? No one,” Miles said in an interview with the AFRO before the season began. “To some degree it speaks to the desperation that the department was looking at at that time in terms of trying to hire somebody. It also probably had some economic ramifications because the people they were looking to hire, who were seasoned, they couldn’t afford. I knew what to do and I was cheap.”

Miles lead the department from 1973-1975 and then John Newson was brought in to share duties. The two were co-leaders for about 10 years before Newson left to become the Director of Bands at Howard University in D.C. Miles has lead the department since 1985.

Morgan’s halftime show has evolved over the years, adapting to different musical trends and popular dance moves.

“If you look at what we do and how we do it from a technical stand point, it’s really not that different [from Traditional White Institutions]. The differences early on were we played different music. We went from playing the theme from “Hawaii-5-0” and “Mannix” to the theme from “Shaft,” which was much more mainstream with the audiences we were dealing with,” he said. “I think there’s an element we utilize a lot that most schools don’t do, and that’s the dance routine. In the old days they would call them flash moves. They would flash the horns. Well, we flash for two minutes.“

The difference, Miles said, between TWIs and HBCUs marching bands comes down style as well as who plays a role in the performance. “African-Americans bring a certain kind of style to just about anything they do. It’s deeply rooted in who we are and what we do. We [HBCUs] really utilize the announcer. It’s a huge part of what we do.”

Expect to see some social commentary amid the party atmosphere the band creates at the game. “I’m working on unity, peace and love. With all the things that have been going on in the community, we’re trying to figure out ways to promote that throughout the season,” Miles said. “Of course, we will do some current stuff. We wont’ be able to get by without presenting “Uptown Funk” somewhere, and presenting “I Can’t Feel My Face. “

Internet memes, however, are unlikely to put in an appearance. “Don’t expect internet memes like Kermit the Frog drinking tea. Morgan is Morgan and Ohio State is Ohio State, and they’re good at that because they’ve been doing it a long time.”