And The Band Played On
By Joe Platania
It has been said that life's only constant is change. Baltimore's Marching Ravens, a football-loving musical institution that turns 60 this fall, can attest to that.
• When they began as the Baltimore Colts Marching Band on Sept. 7, 1947 -- the same day the season began with the Colts beating the Brooklyn Dodgers, 16-7 -- their uniforms were colored green and silver, to match those of the new All-America Conference football team that had just relocated from Miami.
Naturally, their togs morphed to blue and white for the NFL Colts and then again to purple and black when the band took on the Ravens' moniker and followed the team to its M&T Bank Stadium home in 1998.
• Longtime band president John Ziemann was auditioning a potential new band member on the night of March 30, 1984, even as the Colts were pulling out of town and moving to Indianapolis.
"I was asked, 'Are we even going to have a team?' " Ziemann said. "But there was no way we were going to stop playing."
• With annual turnover that is best described as heavy -- roughly 40 percent, according to Ziemann -- the band is always looking for musicians, color guard and flag line members and equipment crew workers. But even with all those changes, the Marching Ravens have been a constant.
On one hand, the band is an entity that has had to change with the times and reinvent itself. At the same time, it has served as an ever-present touchstone, a beacon of reassurance for those who enjoy the Ravens' current success and recall how vibrant Baltimore was when the Colts ruled the NFL and the lyrics to the team's fight song were as ingrained in the public's consciousness as those of any radio hit.
When joining this legendary musical institution, what can one expect?
FOR LOVE OF THE BAND
Since it's an all-volunteer effort, money is the last thing a potential band member should be looking for.
"It's not like college or high school bands, where they've got you," Ziemann said. "You're there, whether you like it or not. Here, anybody can leave at any time for any reason -- if work's too much, going to college, things like that. We're an open community band."
In other words, the band is its own community: Marching Ravens, approximate population 400.
The 225 musicians -- ranging in age from teens to 60-plus -- are just the start of it. The 50-member flag line, four drum majors, four banner carriers, 15-strong honor guard and 10-person paramedic staff are just the start of those that make the organization what it is.
For those in the band, the benefits are more intangible than money.
"We have a lot of really good people," said trumpet instructor and four-year band veteran Jen Gaffney. "There are so many amazing people involved with this band. It's not the kind of situation you see every day."
A Waynesboro (Pa.) resident, Gaffney knew she wanted to be a part of it when she and a friend sat down to watch a Ravens game in 2003.
"I've always been a big football fan," said Gaffney, who had played in her college band at Shippensburg State University. "My friend and I were watching a game and they showed a shot of the band on the sidelines, getting ready to go out and perform at halftime. I liked the uniforms, the logos on the hats. I wanted a chance to play my trumpet again, so I went to audition."
Auditions are held each Wednesday throughout the year. According to Ziemann, the band's calendar year -- one that could conceivably include 30-50 non-football events a year -- begins in March with an intensity that never lets up.
"[Practice is] four hours a week, but you have to move," said Ziemann, the band's president since 1984. "If you fall behind, you'll get trampled. The full band starts in March, but the percussion line, on every third Saturday they rehearse for nine hours straight."
Each year on July 4, the Marching Ravens play at least three and sometimes four parades. This year, they are scheduled to play Havre de Grace, Dundalk, Towson and Catonsville, events that collectively draw six-figure crowds.
For certain gigs, a smaller pep-style band of approximately 35 members is deployed. That unit will make its annual trip to Ocean City this weekend to entertain at the annual parade that accompanies the Convention of Baltimore Ravens Roosts.
Ravens game days begin with an early-morning march down the pedestrian spine that connects Oriole Park to M&T Bank Stadium. Add pregame and halftime shows and it easily turns into a 12-hour day.
Such a schedule might disillusion some, but the band's dedication is unmistakable.
"It's intense, but this is an outlet," Ziemann said. "People still want to play, they still want to produce, they still want to be part of an organization."
THE BAND PLAYED ON
For better or worse, owners of Baltimore-based professional teams have made plenty of headlines over the years.
Everyone knows the names: Jerald Hoffberger, Edward Bennett Williams, Peter Angelos, Carroll Rosenbloom, Robert Irsay.
But how many people remember Bob Rodenburg?
Rodenburg was the man who owned the Colts when they first began play in the All-America Football Conference in 1947 and had the idea to start a band, which wasn't a big deal back then.
After all, more than a few teams had bands. In fact, the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns not only had bands, but drum and bugle corps as well.
However, the Colts band faced its first crisis after the 1950 season -- their first in the National Football League after the AAFC folded -- when the team lost 11 of 12 games and went bankrupt.
A furious fundraising effort during the dormant 1951 and ’52 seasons impressed the league enough to award Baltimore the moribund Dallas Texans franchise. The cowboy/horse motif remained, as did the Colts’ name.
"But we changed uniforms and colors," Ziemann said. "We went to the cowboy-style uniform and we stayed with that for a long time."
The band played wherever and whenever it could during those years, a trial by fire that served it well three decades later when the team left for Indianapolis.
However, not all doors were open at first.
"Nobody would take a chance on us that first year," Ziemann said. "They were scared to death. They thought we were a protest group."
But nobody raised a dissenting voice once they heard the band. It played at nearly three dozen NFL games in places like Buffalo, Foxboro, Mass., and Giants Stadium during Baltimore's exile from the league.
When the band played the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, it received what is believed to be the first standing ovation for a marching band at that event.
As well-received as the Colts' band was at those venues -- not to mention at games featuring the USFL's Baltimore Stars and CFL's Baltimore Stallions -- there was another that stood out for the simple reason that it was the first team whose owners extended an invitation to play.
"If there was one team that took a chance, it was Art Modell and the Cleveland Browns," Ziemann said with pride. "The second team was the [New York] Giants, so you're talking about the old guard of the NFL with the Modell and Mara families. Anything we could do to help put Baltimore back in the NFL, we did it."
HAPPY DAYS, HELPING HANDS
Aug. 22, 1997, was a hot, humid evening in Memorial Stadium.
It was also the night "Mambo" was born.
On the field, the Ravens were engaged in a surprisingly entertaining preseason game with the Buffalo Bills, a game the visitors would eventually win, 31-28.
In the stands, the band was trying to lay down some cool licks for the red-hot crowd when then-trombone player and current drum major Marcel Gwynn decided to take matters into his own hands.
"We were playing a mambo-type song and I just started dancing, right there in the stands," said Gwynn, a drum major since 2000. "I started dancing with one of the fans and she takes out a dollar bill and sticks it in my uniform. My nickname has been 'Mambo' ever since then."
Whether it was Mambo's gyrations, the third-quarter "Hi-De-Ho" chants that accompanied the playing of Cab Calloway's "Minnie The Moocher" in the early years at M&T Bank Stadium or the many community initiatives the band has undertaken, connecting with the fans is still a priority of the present band.
"You can see it in their faces, what this band means to the community," Gwynn said. "It's awesome to see how people react to us and enjoy us."
What has been especially helpful in those efforts has been the support of main sponsor M&T Bank, as well as Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, past and present team presidents David Modell and Dick Cass and the hard work of fan development and special events coordinator Megan Collins.
"David still couldn't get over the fact the band stayed together," Ziemann said. "He kept saying, 'Only in Baltimore could this happen.'"
But the euphoria over Baltimore's re-entry into the league has been tempered by the sober realization that the community is what matters.
Even though former Ravens left guard Edwin Mulitalo recently signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent, his Big Ed's Band Foundation -- which attempts to acquire instruments and ignite the same kind of in-school music programs that sparked Ziemann's initial interest in the band while attending Patterson High -- will continue.
Not only that, the Marching Ravens also participate in the Ed Block Courage Foundation, the Cancer Walk and the Maryland Special Olympics.
The group is also involved with the Leslie Moore Scholarship Fund Heart Walk, named for the late son of Colts Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who passed away the same day the Ravens beat Oakland to win the AFC Championship Game and advance to Super Bowl XXXV.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In his nearly half-century with the band, Ziemann has come to rely on stalwarts such as music director Todd Clontz, vice president Bill Turcan, flag line coordinator Charlene Ziemann and musical director emeritus Harry Wacker.
But when fans watch the Ravens' band these days -- with its "script Ravens" pregame field sprint and retooled fight song -- there is someone else they should thank for their enjoyment of the experience.
"The stadium is hard to get sound out of," Ziemann said of the M&T Bank Stadium acoustics. "It's not built for sound, it's built for football."
Audio assistant Dave Wurzel came up with a plan, mounting four microphones onto poles that are placed near the band at field level. Those mics are patched through to the Ravens' main audio board up on the press box level.
From there, it goes out over the public address system, making for a very tight, cohesive sound.
Besides the sound advances, the team also has computers on which they can work out field position drills and design new formations. The band's playlist is constantly updated as well.
"Usually, I like Latin-type songs, because they're good for trumpet players," Gaffney said. "Herb Alpert, Maynard Ferguson, things like that. But we're making an effort to be more contemporary. This year, we're going to be working in more songs from bands like Metallica and Green Day."
Advances such as those are symptomatic of the changes any entity must make if it is to survive in the present day, short-attention-span environment.
But the constancy and mere presence of the Marching Ravens is what counts for fans in a town like Baltimore, which values continuity as much as it does success.
It's a philosophy shared by the band, especially by Gwynn, who is about to undergo a huge domestic change: his wife, a member of the Army Reserve, is being deployed to Iraq later this year.
"I want to do this for as long as I can," Gwynn said. "I enjoy playing music and I enjoy being part of something special."
Ziemann agrees. "This is something we all do out of love for the Ravens," he said. "And it's a love of our community as well."
For the Marching Ravens, that's something that probably won't ever change.
Interested in joining? Fax the band at 410-557-6385 or contact Ziemann seven days a week at 410-557-8335.
Photos: John Ziemann/Sports Legends
Issue 2.22: May 31. 2007