Video by: UAB Visual Content
As Blazer football's countdown clock ticked toward September 2, another team wearing green and gold helmets prepared for its own return to the field. But this team never stopped marching, despite some worries after the football shutdown three years ago.
“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” recalls Catherine Bates, a senior mellophonist in the Marching Blazers from Alexander City, Alabama, majoring in political science and anthropology. “We weren’t sure we would be able to continue.”
“A lot of the connection people make with us is through football,” says Gene Fambrough, D.M.A., assistant director of bands and associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Music. “In many instances, football is why marching bands exist.” Fortunately, UAB’s band rebounded, taking on an expanded role as university ambassador.
In fact, the band stayed as active as it had been during football seasons, says Fambrough, who served as interim director for the past year. Instead of performing at six away games each season, the band seized opportunities to perform in six high-profile contests and parades.
The contests, which serve as both exhibition platform and recruitment tool for college marching bands, shifted in priority, becoming a primary focus instead of an extra chance to be seen. The Marching Blazers’ crowning achievement was the 2015 Music for All Bands of America Super Regional Championships in Indianapolis, where the band gave the event's closing performance.
“It’s the biggest marching band competition for the biggest marching band organization,” says Cody Ray, a senior percussionist and music education major, a music lifer who grew up in Morris, Alabama, waiting to join the Marching Blazers. “Music for All sets the standards for judgment.” As the main event, the Marching Blazers performed for high school bands from across the country, showing off their skills as they put UAB in the spotlight.
When they weren’t traveling to compete, band members traveled to perform in parades, entertaining Atlanta Falcons fans, families at Walt Disney World, and visitors to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, among others. Led by Cara Morantz, Ed.D., assistant professor of music and assistant director of bands, the Marching Blazers kicked off 2017 by participating in Rome’s New Year’s Day Parade, marking the World Day of Peace. The route led the Blazers and other musicians from around the world down grand historic boulevards to the majestic St. Peter’s Square. Ray says Rome was gorgeous, with nice audiences, but one moment stood out above all others: “We were blessed by the Pope!”
Back home, Bates, the mellophonist, and other band members joined fellow students to rally support for football’s return. They marched in Homecoming parades and performed around Birmingham. But other than that, the band’s presence on campus felt minimal, Bates says. “It was cool to advertise UAB, but no one from UAB really saw us,” she explains. She eagerly anticipates fall games and pep rallies where the musicians can “show our UAB family what we can do and reclaim our identity on campus.”
New look, new leader
Part of that identity involves a striking new look. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $70,000, band members are sporting new uniforms with designs inspired by UAB mascot Blaze. The uniforms have dynamic fronts and black backs, adding shifts in color to the band’s movements on the field.
A new leader also has taken the helm. This spring, Sean Murray, Ph.D., joined UAB as director of bands and associate professor of music. The tuba player began planning the fall halftime show as he relocated from Boca Raton, where he directed bands at Florida Atlantic University. He’s also welcoming a surge of interest from potential new members of the Marching Blazers, typically 200 students strong.
Murray appreciates what many of the veteran band members have experienced in the last few years—the globe-trotting travel, the competitions, the parades, the rallies—and he’s inspired by their unflagging enthusiasm. “I’m so impressed with how gung ho they are for the return,” he says. Murray has a lot of work to do, getting oriented to his new city and to UAB, but getting the band back on its feet is not necessary, he says. “The best part is that they’ve kept going. They’ve proven themselves, which makes this year so much easier.”