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After 25 years, one last halftime show for Howard’s marching band director

Howard University marching band director John Newson conducts the alma mater song for the final time as cheerleaders and the football team gather behind him at a game in November. Newson is retiring after 25 years as director. (André Chung/For The Washington Post)

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, as the football teams from Howard University and Bryant University prepared to face off in Washington, a 70-year-old man named John Newson sat in the end zone stands wearing a dark suit and a striped tie, topped by a black overcoat and a Howard baseball cap. "It's the last hurrah!" a passerby said to him. "Haaa-le-lujah," he replied, laughing.

Today was Newson’s last football game after 25 years as director of Showtime, Howard’s marching band, as well as the Ooh La La dancers and the Flashy Flag Squad; he plans to retire at the end of this school year. Newson is an institution on campus: At Howard and other historically black colleges and universities, the post of marching band director is a high-profile job. Many people go to games as much for the bands — known for their dance steps and brassy renditions of the latest hits — as for the football. Successful band directors combine the discipline of a drill sergeant, the flair of a wardrobe stylist and the thriftiness of an accountant tasked with stretching dwindling resources.

After Bryant scored within the game’s first 13 seconds, some of the band members groused; the Flashy Flags waved their hands and lowered themselves onto the bleachers with a serpentine flourish. When Howard scored, Showtime’s horns blasted the chorus of “Crew,” by GoldLink, and the drums echoed go-go percussion beats. Not long after the first half ended — with the game tied at 35 — Newson parked himself on the sidelines at the 50-yard line, and the band made its way to the field. Over the sound system came the voice of Bruce Edwards, Howard’s game announcer, heralding the band’s entrance: “It’s Showtime!”

A few weeks earlier, I had visited Newson's basement office on campus, where the walls were plastered with photos from Showtime's performances and snapshots from band trips to Bermuda. Known affectionately as "Papa New," the director has a fine white mustache that frames an easygoing smile. Students often pop in before practice or between classes to chat. Still, he said, he feels most at home with his band on the field. "The field work is kind of a relief for me," he said. "I'm in a comfort zone teaching drills and formation. Here, it's work."

When Newson arrived at Howard in the 1980s, the marching band was known as the Howard University Soul Steppers. He brought a fresh style to the uniforms, introducing contrasting colors that would create a different look each time a formation pivoted on the field, and high-water pants that highlighted the instrumentalists’ white spats. He also brought some of the theatrics he picked up from his days as an undergrad performing with the Human Jukebox, the famed marching band at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge. During his tenure, Showtime and the dancers have performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and at numerous NFL halftime shows.

Paul Adams, a former band director at Norfolk State who taught Newson at Southern, described him as an ambitious student who hung on to small-town values that emphasized steadiness and reliability. “He was one of the youngest old men I knew,” Adams said, adding that Newson’s tenacity and patience served him well as he guided Showtime through challenging times. At an HBCU, Adams explained, “it’s very difficult to maintain a band ... because the economics don’t make sense.”

Some observers, such as Jarrett Carter, founding editor of the news website HBCU Digest, have argued that colleges and corporations reap the benefits of these marching bands while the students in them have had to fight for funding. That’s certainly been the case at Howard, where the university as a whole has faced well-publicized financial struggles in recent years. Showtime’s funding issues came to a head in the fall of 2015, when Howard failed to distribute band scholarships.

During an Oct. 31 football game that year, band members wore black during their halftime performance. The protest was branded on social media as #SilentShowtime. Newson “wasn’t necessarily neutral, but he was careful in how he proceeded because he knew his job would be on the line,” recalls drum captain Malcolm Henry, who participated in the protest his freshman year. “He definitely encouraged us to do what we had to do because he understands what it means to be a marching band student.” The school capitulated following the protests, though Newson alleged in October that the administration had been slow to award some scholarships this academic year. (A Howard spokesperson said in mid-December that all of the band scholarships had been processed and awarded.)

Now the task of keeping Showtime going will fall to Newson's successor, who has yet to be named. At halftime during the game in November, he beamed from his spot by the 50-yard line as drum major Christian Adkins wielded his silver mace and leaped across the field, followed by Showtime's 64 instrumentalists, 11 Ooh La La dancers and 11 Flashy Flags. The band served up a catalogue of songs, including Anita Baker's "Sweet Love" and Usher's "Caught Up," and peppered its dance routine with D4L's "Laffy Taffy" and Waka Flocka Flame's "No Hands." The Ooh La La dancers kicked like the Rockettes and twisted in their short silver boots. The instrumentalists played while diving their heads from one side to the other, creating an undulating wave. The entire ensemble ended the show doing the splits, and the crowd went wild.

“Outstanding show. What can I say?” Newson said, tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s a good way for me to end my career.”

Leigh Giangreco is a writer in Washington.

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