Boasting one of the oldest and proudest marching band traditions in the country, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band (AAMB) has done it all!
In 1995, the presentation of the prestigious Sudler Trophy for Excellence in College Marching Bands, rewarded more than 100 years of effort. Lovingly referred to by students as the Heisman Trophy for marching bands, the Sudler can only be won once. The selection of each year’s trophy recipient is based upon musicality, precision, spirit and excellence, and is decided by a vote of college marching bands around the country.
Where did this tradition of excellence begin?
The Purdue Band was first formed as a drum corps for the Purdue Student Army Training Corps, a predecessor of ROTC, which would begin just before World War I. In October of 1886, almost a year after the student newspaper noted the purchase of a bugle, the same paper noted that the band “as thus far organized, consists of Floyd and Lutz, cornets; Hicks, baritone; Remster, alto; Butterworth, tuba.” From those five musicians attached to the military training came Purdue University Bands.
The drum corps played sporadically during the early years, depending upon whether anyone qualified to drill the group happened to be on the university staff. There was little or no musical training available.
The first band members didn’t learn their music from university studies, or as members of high school bands as high school bands didn’t exist in those early days. Rather, they learned their music from friends, family or private instructors, and played in community bands that sprang up throughout the state, especially in the days following the Civil War. The members of the band were required to furnish their own uniforms, instruments, music and maintenance funds.
Football was introduced at Purdue in 1887, and students soon noticed the natural affinity between the sport and bands. Band reorganization was a frequent activity during the early years as there was no permanent director. Band directors, who were professors and students, came and went and were elected by the bandsmen. Gradually, the band grew in both size and quality, with the 1900 Debris (the school yearbook) claiming that “it can now be classed foremost among the best college bands in the country.”
By 1902, the band had grown to 50 members – its first significant jump in size and moved toward solving its old money problems by becoming partially self-supporting from revenues derived from concerts and other appearances. But its main role still was to perform for military drilling inspections and ceremonies.
It was into this situation that Paul Spotts Emrick came in the fall of 1904 when he entered the band as a freshman. Emrick, from Rochester, Ind., came from a family of band directors and had already had experience conducting musical groups for dance and dramatic productions. In addition to his main instrument of clarinet, he could also play the violin, the cornet and several other instruments.
With this musical background, it was not surprising that he was elected president and director for the band the following year and went on to serve in that capacity until his retirement in 1954. It was under his leadership that the band became the first in the nation to break out of military ranks and form a letter on the football field. The Block “P,” that they first formed back in 1907, is still created before each Purdue home football game.
Some other firsts that followed:
- First band to carry all the colors of the Big 10 schools
- First band to play the opposing school’s fight song.
- First band to think enormous when it came to drums, creating what’s still considered to be the “World’s Largest Bass Drum.”
- First band to perform at the Indianapolis 500, a tradition that continues today.
- First band to stage a night half-time show on a completely darkened field by lighting its members and instruments with tiny, battery-operated strings of lights.
- First band to create nation-wide recognition for its featured twirler – the Golden Girl.
- First college band to play at Radio City Music Hall.
- First band to have an alumni on the moon – Neil Armstrong in 1969.
- First college marching band to appear in Singapore Chingay Procession.
- First college band invited by China to perform in 2008.
- First Big Ten Band to perform in the Macy’s Day Parade in 2010
Today the Purdue University Bands is about much more than marching band; even through the “All-American” Band remains as its heart. Multiple jazz bands, concert bands, percussion ensembles, a wind ensemble, symphony orchestra – even chamber music – exist in the department.
The Department of Bands has achieved international success. Its ensembles, led by the marching band, have performed for huge, live audiences throughout the nation, and have been seen by millions in the numerous local and national television appearances they have made.
The “All-American” Band has appeared many times on the Radio City Music Hall stage in New York City. It has made more than a dozen trips to South America, three European tours, a USO tour of Iceland and Greenland, several Canadian tours, and two tours of Japan. In January 1989, the marching band made its first appearance in the presidential inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. In 1992, 60 members of the band traveled to Singapore for a Lunar New Year celebration. In 2008, the Chinese government invited the band to perform as part of their celebration for the Summer Olympics. In 2010, the AAMB was the first Big Ten Band to perform in the Macy’s Day Parade.
Football bowl appearances have taken it all the way from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, and the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
In its long history the “All-American” Marching Band has had just five directors -Paul Spotts Emrick, 1905-1954; Al G. Wright, 1954-1981; William C. Moffit, 1981-1988; Dr. David A. Leppla 1990-2006; and our current director Jay S. Gephart who became the band’s leader in 2006!