ABOVE: Brian Simmons, Texas Southern University Director of Marching Band (Photos By Jelani I. Productions)
I’m always a little nervous before interviewing someone. I scribble notes that only I can make out in a random notepad that I have lying around and then I anxiously type them out in a document to try and make sense of them. After that, I print the document and read it aloud, studying it religiously in an attempt to memorize the flow of the conversation. But this interview was different. I didn’t do any of that. I abandoned those methods and simply studied Brian Simmons, Texas Southern University’s brand new band director in action. I combed through his Instagram page, YouTube videos and any articles that I could get my hands on. I was fascinated to say the least. For starters, Simmons doesn’t look a day over thirty years old but he is wise and intentional. He served as Associate Band Director at Southern University. He was appointed Director of Bands and Director of Fine Arts at the Louisiana Leadership Institute in 2018. He arranges deep cuts from new R&B sensation Lucky Daye’s album for fun. He seems passionate, yet light-hearted; distinguished, yet laid-back. He is an enigma.
I arrived to the Texas Southern University campus brimming with excitement. Mr. Simmons and I had never met or had a conversation. I was escorted into the band room and if it hadn’t been for the sharp gray and blue suit that he was wearing, it would be easy to mistake him for a student. He is cool and confident, sipping coffee in a paper cup. He begins with a rather interesting confession.
Brian Simmons: You give me positive Amanda Seales energy.
Chelsea Lenora: I’ve never gotten that, but I guess I’ll take it. *laughs*
So, the reason I’m excited to talk to you today is because I’m a musician first. I’m in several bands and I also studied opera intensively in my past life. So once I saw that you were the new Band Director here at Texas Southern University, I reached out to a friend of a friend who is also your friend because I had to feature you.
Simmons: Well, I hope we create some magic and I live up to the hype.
Lenora: I’m sure you will. So first, I’m intrigued because you look so young; and you don’t have the “typical” look of a college band director.
Simmons: Should I be in sweats?
Lenora: I feel like in my mind, I imagine an old guy. If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?
Lenora: I’d say anywhere between 29 and 32.
Simmons: I’ll be 30 in November. You were right.
Lenora: Are you the youngest Band Director in TSU’s history?
Simmons: Yes, I am.
Lenora: Wow! It’s crazy to me that you went to Southern University and ended up here at TSU as the Band Director. How do you feel about coming and directing one of your rival schools?
Simmons: Well, I went to Southern University and I’m a two-time graduate of Southern. So once I graduated from Southern the first time, I got my undergraduate degree in music at 22 years old. I graduated that May and I was Assistant Band Director and arranger the next month in June. So I worked there for seven and a half years. Coming to Texas Southern was different. It still hasn’t hit me, honestly.
Lenora: Well you just got here top of July so that makes sense.
Simmons: Yeah and I work. I work every day, since I was about 15 or 16 years old. I’ve never really been on a vacation or any of those types of things. It’s just one thing to the next. So even during the pandemic, at Southern we were kind of chilling and then I got the call to take Louisiana Leadership Institute and get them ready for the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Inauguration. Then once we started that, the Spring kicked off and at Southern we had football and then Louisiana Leadership Institute kicked off again; and then All-star band season. Then I was interviewing for this job at Texas Southern and now I’m here. I never had a break, so it never really dawned on me. Since I’ve come in the door it’s just been work, work, work. So I can’t really tell you how it feels because I haven’t gotten a chance to really settle in.
Lenora: That’s fair. So you’ve been in leadership positions for a very long time at a young age; do you ever have any difficulties with students respecting your leadership?
Simmons: No, not anymore. Right before I started teaching at Southern University I was a senior in the band and bandsman of the year. I went from bandsman of the year to band director the very next year. So I still had students that I brought through the band and I had to teach them how to draw that line. My 20s weren’t average. Being 22 and teaching on a college campus, the people that I’m supposed to hang with were my students so I had to draw that line. I didn’t have an average 20-something year-old experience. I was always with people who were older. So now it’s like second nature. All the guys and girls who are in band now grew up watching me do what I do. It’s not a thought in my mind anymore so it’s easy.
Lenora: I was having a conversation with someone yesterday about being “extraordinary.” And we went back and forth, wondering if it’s a gift or if it is a choice. What do you think? Did you become extraordinary by adjusting your mindset and making that choice? Or do you feel like you were chosen?
Simmons: It’s a combination. I feel like everyone has gifts and skills. As a band director, I can look at a student and say, ‘This person has what it takes to be really special.’ But it’s all about the discipline. And the discipline is a choice. Again, me being young and able to do all of the things that I was doing at the time, I had to distinguish myself from everybody else. While everybody else was out turning up, I couldn’t be that guy. While everybody else was on social media, saying whatever, I couldn’t do that. So, it was choices and choices keep you from going down the wrong path. Every day you wake up, you have a decision to make; ‘Do I want to be common? Or do I want to be extraordinary?’ So, it’s a choice.
Lenora: When it comes to your college experience, do you feel like you missed out?
Simmons: At the time, I didn’t feel like I missed out. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a “square” person. But I didn’t engage or indulge in certain things. So as I got older and I’m teaching, I started to see what they were really doing and I’m like, ‘Man, this was a thing? You mean to tell me y’all put on shirts, shorts, flip flops and go in the gym to dance in detergent soap and call it a foam party?’ I missed all of that and now that I’m older I’m like, I didn’t miss nothing. *laughs* But it varies. I can’t go back and change that. We have a lot of adults nowadays that kind of mess themselves up because they try and go back to re-capture those moments. But it’s over. You have to learn how to enjoy life in the now.
Lenora: One thing that I get from you is that you truly are balanced. Have you gotten a chance to familiarize yourself with the students in the band here yet?
Simmons: I meet a few of them every now and then. Like yesterday I was talking to Ms. Coach-Riley [TSU Director of Operations] here and I left to get something to eat. As soon as I pulled up, she called me and was like, ‘We have a young man here who wants to be in the band.’ So I drove out of the Whataburger line to come back here and meet this young man; and the crazy thing is, he didn’t know who I was. I’m always intrigued by that because in Baton Rouge, I can’t go anywhere. If I go to Walmart, I’m getting stalked by the towels, like, ‘What y’all playing this week?’ But to meet this high school student who has just graduated high school and is interested in joining the Ocean of Soul band, and he has no idea who I am, is powerful. Because a lot of time we get caught up in our own thing. So meeting these students that I meet now, they’re so fresh and that’s good. Because we need to build natural chemistry. They don’t have to read an article or watch videos. You learn me right then for yourself. He and I sat on the bench and had a conversation and afterward he shook my hand and said, ‘I can’t wait to be in the band’. So every now and then I’m meeting some students. I met with the percussion section a few days ago. They were receptive.
Lenora: Have you noticed any similarities or differences between the Texas Southern [University] and Southern [University] programs in terms of regimen and structure?
Simmons: Yeah. The similarity is that we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all here to educate our young Black children and to help them to determine which direction they want to go in life; and to be effective, efficient members of society. And we use music to do that. But here’s the difference that I’m seeing. The thing that makes Southern University marching band so successful, is for a period we had the same band director for about thirty-six years. There was a level of pride and continuity that was built; whereas Texas Southern University has had breaks and changes. There’s a difference in organization and infrastructure; and we’re working to re-build that here. I’m looking to build continuity, consistency, contingency.
Lenora: Obviously the students are about to begin the semester soon. What’s the first thing up on the Ocean of Soul’s schedule?
Simmons: We’ll have a week of camp with the Freshmen and then we bring in the upper classmen (sophomores, juniors and seniors) and we’re going to give them a day or two by themselves to refresh. And then we’ll mix everyone together. It’ll be especially interesting because I’m here and there will be a new team of people, so it’s really going to be a time for everyone to get to know each other. But we also don’t have that kind of time if that makes sense. We’ve got to get with the program quickly. I expect some people may not be able to adjust but I think for the most part, all students want to be successful. We’ve got roughly four weeks until we perform at the Battle of the Bands at NRG. So we’ve got to get right.
Lenora: So y’all are going to have to hit the ground running.
Lenora: Is it safe to say that you have a leadership style that is no-nonsense?
Simmons: Yes, but you used a word earlier; I’m balanced. I can ice out the room by saying something or giving a look; and then I can say something silly and the entire room bursts into laughter. So they just roll with my personality but they understand when it comes down to music and band, I mean business. It’s a balance. With music I want to teach them the creativity, feeling, expression and interpretation; so that’s where we can get a little loose.
Lenora: Let’s get a little personal. I want to know when you fell in love with music.
Simmons: That’s a great question. It happened in the younger days. My dad used to listen to a lot of music and he thought he was the man. In the ‘90s he had a six-disc CD changer in the trunk. He would listen to all kinds of CDs. He’d listen to Sade, Mos Def, Dr. Dre, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Jill Scott. So I would hear all of that. And then when Limewire came out, he would make his own CDs and they would never make sense. They would go from Kirk Franklin to Anita Baker to Lyfe Jennings. So it was very bipolar in the car. And then with my mom, it was kind of weird, because she was always no-nonsense. She had three sons and she was in her 20s. You know that young Black mama patience is very thin. But I would listen to the stuff that she would play and I’d think, ‘How can you be this hard up and you listening to Michael Jackson It’s The Falling in Love?’ So I would hear all of that. And then I went through a phase like in fourth or fifth grade when I was a little emo and liked Evanescence, Green Day, etc.. So I was always balanced. When I went to school, I had a personality; I was that guy. But when I was home, I was very in my shell. So that’s when the music would take over. And I remember being at a point where I was like, ‘I want to do this. I don’t want to write the lyrics. I don’t want to learn how to play guitar. But I want to learn how to piece all of this together.’ So when I got to sixth grade I started doing musical scores and arrangements. I didn’t know what I was doing for a long time but I would come home and I would just sit there and work on it. I’d see shadows passing by underneath the door, at 6’o’clock… 7’o’clock…8’o’clock… 9’o’clock until everyone was asleep. And I did that every day for about three months until I got it and I never turned away.
Lenora: Who are some current artists that you like listening to?
Simmons: I like Brent Faiyaz and his flow changes. Drake is the voice of our college days. You tell me a moment of college, good or bad, I can tell you a Drake song. I like Giveon’s music. I like Ari Lennox, Jazmine Sullivan. My students just put me onto Yebba. She’s incredible. I just started listening to H.E.R. I really like Lucky Daye at this point in time. He makes brown liquor music. It just burns so good!
Lenora: Who are some of your favorite old school artists?
Simmons: I like Sade! It’s a vibe. They say don’t drink and drive. I say don’t drink, drive and Sade. You don’t know where you gone end up. I like Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson. I like Erykah Badu.
Lenora: Wait! You consider Erykah Badu old school?!
Simmons: She is. She was dropping in like ’97.
Lenora: Wow! I feel archaic. *laughs*
Simmons: Who are some old school artists you like?
Lenora: I love Michael Jackson, of course. Earth, Wind and Fire, The Whispers; I love Chaka Khan and Donna Summer. I’m a disco girl. Marvin Gaye, of course. A dear friend of mine put me onto the 5th Dimension a while back and I’ve been diving into their stuff lately.
Simmons: I can dig it.
Lenora: So I watched a few older clips of the Ocean of Soul on YouTube from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Did you get a chance to delve into any of the older Ocean of Soul performances prior to starting here?
Simmons: If it’s on YouTube, I’ve seen it.
Lenora: Well I was watching this performance that they did in the early ‘80s. They performed Prince’s 1999 and it was incredible. Even though the quality of the video was low, the energy was electrifying. Do you feel like there has been an overall decline of interest or a disconnect with marching band since that time?
Simmons: Yes and no. The culture was different. The difference between the ‘80s and now is that in the ‘80s, everyone listened to music when they got in the car. There was a select number of stations that you’d listen to. There were the Black stations or R&B/Soul, the White stations or Pop, information radio. When you turned on your TV and watching MTV or wherever you watched your music videos at the time, those were the videos you saw on television. So everybody was taking in the same information at the same time. When you went to the football game, we all could relate to what was going on. Now we’re at a point where media is at our disposal. People don’t really listen to the radio anymore. So when we’re all at the football game, there’s not much that connects us. When the Ocean of Soul was playing 1999 in 1982, everybody knew what that was. So, I think now, students and the culture are more driven by the things that interest them because they can. We live in a world now that’s full of options.
I put a hard stop to our conversation in the band room because Simmons and I became fast friends and quickly realized that we could spend hours trading musical influences and ideologies. We were blessed with a perfectly sunny day, so we decided to stroll through the campus and take some photos at the Tiger Walk. Along the way we pressed our smart phones up to one another’s ears, sharing original arrangements and music. We underestimated the sun and returned to the band room to retrieve our belongings.
In a full-circle moment that felt kismet, there was a tall, lanky student waiting outside of the band room, donning drum major marching boots. He’d seen Simmons in action at Battle of the Bands years prior, while enjoying the event with his mother and aunt. The two drifted into the band room and built a natural chemistry that was inspiring to see.
Brian Simmons’ energy fills up the band room as if he’s been there for many years. It is a huge gust of fresh energy and a welcomed new wave to the Ocean of Soul’s rich history.