The Magnificent Marching Machine of Morgan State University will represent the state of Maryland and play in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2019. No strangers to the big stage, the Morgan band also recognizes the challenge ahead.
Selected from more than 100 marching bands, the 150-member Morgan band has energized audiences at Morgan State football games, NFL games, U.S. presidential inaugurations, the World Series and in regional and local television appearances. They also made a cameo in Chris Rock's movie, "Head of State," and welcomed the Ravens to Baltimore during their first game in 1996.
"It's definitely special," said Melvin Miles, band director since 1973. "The application process is extensive. They ask you who you are as a band. It's an honor that people think we are a good band, but a parade is a little tricky. I've already started thinking about what we are going to do. It's a humongous parade. I've got 12 months to prepare."
The Machine's repertoire encompasses a wide range of material from traditional marches like "Stars and Stripes Forever" to songs by Aretha Franklin, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson and Missy Elliott, according to Miles.
The parade appearance resulted from conversations between Morgan president Dr. David Wilson and Miles. They talked about the expanding the band's visibility to a national level.
"This is the first time that the Magnificent Marching Machine will perform in the Macy's parade," Wilson said. "The young musicians on campus are excited to have this opportunity -- the whole campus is excited. It will give Morgan the chance to showcase to the nation what a unique university we are."
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade requires a unique approach. There are 3.5 million attendees and 50 million television viewers.
"You have to entertain everyone along the parade route and also perform 90 seconds of music for the television audience -- music that's really good for television," Miles said. "As a band director, I'm like a head coach in football with no coaching staff."
John Ziemann, the president of Baltimore's Marching Ravens, agrees.
"It's not easy, everything must be perfect," he said based on his band's experience in the 2007 Macy's parade. "We practiced seven days a week. You are constantly playing from the very first step -- it's drum cadence, song, drum cadence, song and it's worth every minute. But if you are not on your game, they will pull you."
According to Ziemann, nobody deserves this honor more than Miles.
"It's definitely something Melvin will never forget and it's a tremendous honor," he said. "Morgan State University needs to name a building after that man. He is a great music teacher and he's tough, but he has a heart of gold. He turned down job offers. He stayed true to his city, his university and his students -- and he's a treasure."
Miles grew up in Baltimore City and played the trumpet. He wrote his first piece of music in middle school and attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore. He graduated from Morgan in 1973. His influences included musicians Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. He's met Marsalis several times.
"I learned about music in the Baltimore City schools and I wouldn't be who I am today without them," said Miles. "It was a music curriculum and a music diploma. I loved every minute of it. I watched rehearsals and paid attention to the process. I started warming up the band."
Miles wrote and performed music for filmmaker Barry Levinson's movies "Diner" and "Avalon" and appeared in both films. Now he passes on his love for music to his students at Morgan.
"Nothing gets me in my heart like seeing a kid with an instrument," Miles said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Melvin Miles
Issue 249: November 2018
Originally published Nov. 15, 2018