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Music Men (And Ultimately Women)

September 30, 1898


Meredith Wilson made it look easy. The Broadway playwright’s 1957 musical comedy, The Music Man, told the story of a goodhearted con artist named “Professor” Harold Hill who managed, despite his fraudulent intentions and complete lack of musical skill, to turn a ragtag group of Iowa boys into a full-blown marching band. But what the fictional Hill managed to accomplish in a matter of weeks took nearly 20 years for the real-life students on Mount Oread.

It wasn’t until September 30, 1898, after two decades of trying, that KU finally established a permanent marching band. From that small, student-led corps of all-male brass and percussion players, the Marching Jayhawks would grow into a co-ed ensemble some 250 members strong. Along the way, they performed everywhere from oratorical contests to major football bowl games, garnering a trunk full of prestigious musical awards.

The first attempt at a University marching band lasted less than a year. In February 1878 a dozen male students gathered in the cupola of the Old North College building to rehearse under the direction of fellow student Stuart O. Henry. Henry seemed a logical choice as bandleader, having had a bit of experience in the field. Previous to his time at KU he led a modest band in Abilene which, he joked in a 1913 article in the Graduate Magazine, had “performed at country cow fairs and in prairie dog towns” across the state.

Apparently his new KU band was not much of an improvement; Henry humorously compared its sound to “the anguish…of Cubist poetry” and laughed about “docile [citizens]…writhing in torture in our blare.” But when the band expired early in 1879, the Kansas Collegiate lamented that its “untimely death will come with crushing weight” to campus music lovers.

The next attempt at a University band followed 14 years later, in October 1892, when student Olin Bell organized a 19-member ensemble of brass, woodwinds and percussion. The KU newspaper Students’ Journal offered its encouragement, convinced that “this is a move in the right direction.” “We want a band,” the paper enthused, “[and we] have talent among us which needs only to be organized and put to work.”

KU’s second band, unfortunately, would be as short-lived as Henry’s first one. Its first public appearance came in April 1893 at a KU baseball game. Later the group performed at other games, and a Republican Party rally that autumn. But despite snappy new uniforms, red yachting caps, and an entry in the Quivira yearbook of 1893, the band folded soon afterward.

The third time was a charm. On September 30, 1898, student Curtis Osborne organized the first meeting of what would become today’s Marching Jayhawks. Some 25 male students, including the bandleader from nearby Haskell Indian Nations University, showed up to join the group, and the Kansas University Weekly declared that “an excellent band is assured.” Financial contributions from local businesses flowed in, but band member interest began to wane after the football season ended.

Things got interesting again in February 1899 when the band, which was accompanying KU’s oratorical team to a competition in Ottawa, Kansas, became entangled in a street scuffle with students and supporters of rival Baker University. Fists and bricks flew, and although the KU contingent was beaten back, one participant assured readers of the Weekly that they “fought a good fight.”

The band survived the scuffle as well as the troubles that plagued its ancestors, and by the early 1900s it had become an official University organization. In 1907 KU student Joseph C. McCanles assumed the directorship, and after his graduation in1909 the University retained him as a faculty member. “Mac” would remain marching band director until 1934, the first of only six in the ensemble’s history.

During his tenure the band grew to number over 100 members, large enough to split it into separate “red” and “blue” sections for multiple appearances. Members now gained academic credit for their participation, as well. The band’s presence at sporting events had become a tradition by the 1920s, and Mac’s leadership was praised across the Hill.

In 1924, basketball coach Phog Allen declared that, when it came to winning a game, “The band comes next to the team.” Allen claimed that his Jayhawks had often emerged victorious because of the enthusiastic support of the band, and he noted with admiration that “’Mac’ goes into the game just like a coach goes in.” It was also during this period that the KU Band premiered the most famous piece in its repertoire, “I’m a Jayhawk,” written by George “Dumpy” Bowles, a member of the KU class of 1912.

These accomplishments aside, the Marching Jayhawks were not without their troubles. Financial difficulties always plagued the band, for example, as replacing worn-out uniforms, fixing broken instruments, and travel expenses kept it on a tight budget. Another recurring issue centered on membership requirements and the potential role of women in the band. From its inception, the marching band had been a boy’s club. Men and only men were allowed to march, and the growing trend towards female liberation in the Flapper-happy 1920s had not altered this condition. By the late1930s, the situation had begun to change, albeit only slightly. In September 1939 baton twirler Saralena Sherman became KU’s first female band member, though the instrumentalists remained exclusively male.

After Pearl Harbor, as wartime requirements drained the campus of draft-age men, more of the old masculine barricades began to crumble. Director Russell Wiley (who replaced Joseph McCanles in 1934) was a diehard traditionalist who held firm to the belief that marching in a band was men’s work – its physical nature and its martial bearing, he believed, precluded the participation of the “weaker sex.” But with his male musicians now marching off to war, Wiley was forced to improvise.

In November 1942 he organized an “all-girl” concert band to supplement the shrinking pool of male players. Auditions proved that the female musicians, much to the apparent amazement of some, were quite talented. Wiley, for example, in a comment to the University Daily Kansan, noted that he was “surprised” at their quality. Indeed, to offset continuing manpower losses, in March 1943 Wiley merged the female concert band with the University Band to increase the latter’s numbers, though the move was only intended to last for the duration of the war. By September of that year, women musicians were donning the Marching Jayhawk uniform and performing alongside their male counterparts, a first in KU history.

If comments in the Kansan were any indication, the campus response to female marching band members was amused condescension. A December 1944 article, “Band Fems Don’t Mind Uniforms,” lauded the women marchers as they “battle the elements and trudge across the hill at the early hour of 7:30 a.m. to appear for marching practice…and freeze nobly at the football games for the sake of schol [sic] spirit.” But most important was their positive response to wearing men’s uniforms. This was due, the article claimed, due to the “fact that most girls are crazy about uniforms” in general. The KU band uniforms in particular were especially bright and colorful, and so “they attract attention, and that always did please the women.” An added bonus was the fact that men’s trousers were better than dresses at keeping cold breezes out “at those twenty below games.”

V-J Day, however, brought a return to the status quo. Just as Rosie the Riveter was relieved of defense plant work, KU Band women were sent back to the sidelines. Though the concert band continued to accept women after the war, in September 1948 Director Wiley banned women from marching. So it remained for 25 years. In 1957 Wiley told the Kansan that females still had no place in the marching band. The physical work was too demanding and the military precision and bearing was too masculine for them, he claimed. Besides, he went on, female majorettes had caused several vaguely defined “embarrassing incidents.” When Wiley ended his directorship of the band in 1968, the Marching Jayhawks were still entirely male.

But the rising civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s doomed the all-male marching band to extinction, as campus women began to demand equal access. Some band members refused to give in without protest, however. In August 1970 drum major David Koenig told the Kansan that he, for one, was not keen on the idea of female marchers. “The practices are not meant for women,” he claimed. Females compromised the band’s “precision,” and if they really wanted to play, he suggested, “they could organize a powder puff band just like sports.” Some non-members agreed. In 1972 KU student Steven D. Sooby railed fiercely against female band membership in the Kansan, for example, invoking the shopworn “physical strain” argument and charging, “female chauvinism has destroyed one of the few remaining refuges of mankind.”

The KU Office of Affirmative Action disagreed, as did the Office of the Chancellor. Prompted by a number of complaints, on July 13, 1972 the Chancellor’s office sent new band director Robert Foster a terse letter. It noted that preventing female membership in the marching band violated both the University Senate’s Statement of Principle and the Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Policy Statement of April 4, 1972, as well as contradicted the KU student handbook, which stated that KU bands were open to all students. The letter closed by urging immediate compliance with KU’s non-discrimination policies. The Chancellor’s office made its point well, for a week later the band announced, in a press release, the addition of “co-eds” that coming autumn. In September 1972, women marched as equal members of the band for the first time.

Not only did the Marching Jayhawks survive feminist integration, the band has been quite successful in the years since 1972. In 1989 the ensemble was the recipient of the John Phillip Sousa Foundation’s Sudler Trophy, one of the most celebrated awards in the world of college marching bands. It has also marched at Disneyland, performed in several foreign countries and appeared at a number of bowl games.

“Physical strain” remains part of the band experience, instruments and uniforms continue to age, and money is still tight. Performing can even be dangerous at times. Rowdy football fans from Kansas State University harassed the band in October 1982, for example, pelting it with garbage, stealing equipment, and causing the injury of one Marching Jayhawk who severely injured her leg while pursuing the thieves. Even KU fans have been less than supportive occasionally – in 1981 a drunken KU football spectator dumped whiskey down a sousaphone. But now, at least, the risks are shared equally as the Marching Jayhawks, men and women, parade into the future.

Brian Drake

Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Various student newspapers have covered the band over the years. For the early days of the band, including the failed versions, see the Kansas Collegiate, February 28, 1878, the University Weekly Courier, November 24, 1887; the Students’ Journal, April 27, 1893; and the Kansas University Weekly, October 1, 8 and November 19, 1898, February 11, 25, April 15, and September 30, 1899. For Phog Allen’s comments see the University Daily Kansan, March 9, 1924 and for Saralena Sherman see September 29, 1939. For “I’m a Jayhawk,” see Record Group 0/31, Box 1, folder 1920, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. The Kansan covered the “all-girl” band in some depth; see November 11 and 12, 1942, February 25, March 4 and 5, September 28, October 1, 1943, December 4, 1944, and September 24, 1948. For Wiley’s comments regarding women see the Kansan, October 23, 1957. For David Koenig’s comments see August 27, 1970, and for Steven Sooby’s see July 24, 1972. For incidents of the band’s abuse at the hands of spectators see November 6, 1981 and October 25, 1982. Other sources include Quivira yearbook of 1893, p. 127; Stuart Henry, “The First University Brass Band,” Graduate Magazine (April 1913), pp. 201-3; and “Girls in the Band,” Kansas Alumni 71 (October 1972), p. 5. Many of the band’s detailed records are held at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, Record Group 22/1, and this article has drawn liberally from them. Also see Office of the Chancellor to Robert E. Foster, July 13, 1972, Record Group 8/2. Finally, for a brief historical overview of the Marching Jayhawks see J. Bunker Clark, Music at KU: A History of the University of Kansas Music Department (Dept. of Music and Dance, 1986), pp. 33-9.]