The band program at Virginia State University has an illustrious history that dates back to not long after the university's founding and is rich in achievements. The Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, the precursor to Virginia State University, was established in 1882. During the 1888-1889 school year, Ulysses S. Grant Patterson, a student who played the cornet, established the school's first band. In the first year, there were just ten members of the all-brass band. Patterson not only led the band but also taught instrumental instruction. Because of the band's service, the school provided the instruction free of charge. Patterson requested payment from the Board after not being paid for his efforts with the band. Eventually, the Board agreed to pay him $18.33 each month.
It was 1891 before the school allocated funds to purchase music and instruments. After Patterson graduated in 1891, he became a full-time faculty member, teaching instrumental and vocal music. Many considered Patterson the "Finest Negro"; Cornetist in Virginia. Patterson resigned at the end of the 1891-1892 school year to join a minstrel troupe. Walter P. Steptoe, who had played in the band since its second year, followed Patterson as the band director. He led the band for two years.
The school lost its college status in 1902. The new name of the institution became Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. The band had 17 members by 1903, 10 of whom played on the football team. George Tucker was the student director of the band. In 1906, the musicians in the band formed an orchestra. Over the next three years, interest in the orchestra r, but the students revived it in 1910 under the name The Clef Orchestra. In 1911, the students also formed a second orchestra utilizing only female students called the President's Glee Club and Orchestra. The group gave its debut performance in April 1912.
By 1919, funding for the band had increased. The band now had 39 brass instruments and 42 uniforms. Benjamin F. Stevens was hired as the band director in 1919, ending the tradition of student leaders. He added woodwind instruments to the band. Stevens was followed by Joseph P. Tynes, a carpentry instructor in the industrial department when he died suddenly before the end of the 1920–1921 academic year.
In the 1930s, the Virginia State College for Negroes had its only female band director in school history. Gladys Harris, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the vocal teacher and the band director. She earned degrees from the Julliard School of Music in New York, New York, and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio. In 1934, she took her band to the Thanksgiving Turkey Day CIAA Championship at Morgan State University, where the band's performance was well received. During the late 1930's and early 1940's, the band diminished as the draft forced many male students to enlist in the military for World War II.
In 1946, the school's name changed to Virginia State College. In 1947, the band program began to flourish with the appointment of Dr. F. Nathaniel "Pops" Gatlin to the music faculty. Dr. Gatlin served as Director of Bands from (1947-1973). A native of Mississippi, Gatlin earned his undergraduate degrees from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and his graduate degrees from Northwestern University and Columbia University. In his early years, Gatlin made improvements in the instrumentation of the band, conducted band clinics, and started Children's Band. Under Gatlin, the instrumental music education program grew. In the early 1960s, Gatlin envisioned an organization that would foster the growth of music programs at colleges in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA). As a result, the Intercollegiate Music Association (IMA) was established to enrich and enhance the musical experience of student musicians in the conference.
The band program attained national recognition under Gatlin's direction with the assistance of Drill Master and Assistant Conductor Dr. Claiborne T. Richardson, who began working with Gatlin in 1954. Dr. Richardson, a Petersburg native, graduated from Virginia State College in 1949. He received his Master of Music from the University of Michigan. The Marching Band, which came to be known as the "Marching 110," performed for professional football games with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Washington Redskins. Over twenty of the "Marching 110's" performances were nationally televised. In 1966, they also had the honor of being the first American marching band to perform at a Canadian Football Game when they performed in Montreal, Canada, for the Montreal Beavers.
Dr. Richardson served as the Marching Band Director from (1967-1973). Under his direction, the band continued to perform at professional football games, parades, and various festivals from as far south as Florida and as far North as Massachusetts. Dr. Richardson was also the director of the school's ROTC Band, which won all three First Place awards at the annual Musical Festival sponsored by the National ROTC Band Association. The band competed with colleges and universities from throughout the nation. Dr. Richardson also created the Summer Elementary School Instrumental Program at Virginia State. While Richardson was leading the marching band, Dr. Gatlin led the symphonic band that performed at Expo 67' in Montreal, Canada, and went on a Goodwill European Tour in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, and England in 1972. From 1969-1972 Mr. Robert Thomas assisted Dr. Claiborne T. Richardson with the "Marching 110."
The marching band expanded during the leadership of Dr. J O'Neill Sanford (1973–1976) as the "Sounds of Distinction." Dr. Sanford, a native of Louisiana, earned his bachelor's degree at Southern University and his Master's Degree from Vandercook College of Music. Mr. Nelson Lawson assisted Dr. Sanford. Dr. Sanford's band had the merit of being listed as the third-best HBCU Marching Band in the country when included in the 1975 Jet Magazine band poll. Under his leadership, the band continued performing at NFL games as they performed for the Washington Redskins.
After Dr. Sanford, Mr. Richard Wilson (1976–1977), with Dwight Jennings' assistance, and Mr. Moses Hall (1977–1981), with Dr. B. Dexter Allgood's assistance, followed. During Hall's tenure, the "Sounds of Distinction" added dancers to the band, performed for the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins home opener, and a playoff game for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The final director of the "Sounds of Distinction" era was Dr. Victor Herbert (1981–1984), who had assistance from graduate student Mr. J. Otis Harris. Virginia State College officially became Virginia State University in 1979.
In 1984, seventeen students showed up for the first day of practice when Jackson State University graduate Mr. Harold J. Haughton, Sr., became director. Haughton, a native of Canton, Mississippi, and assistant band director and arranger Mr. James Holden, Jr., another Jackson State graduate, left the 180-member "Sonic Boom of the South" band at Jackson State to come to Virginia State. They made significant changes to return the band to greatness. Haughton changed the name of the band to the "Trojan Explosion." Mr. J. Otis Harris continued to serve as a Graduate Assistant to Mr. Haughton in 1984.
In 1986, Mr. Haughton added Rev. Sylvester Bullock, a graduate of Hampton Institute, to the staff as assistant director. Mr. Haughton was the only band director to have been selected twice as CIAA Band Director of the Year and chosen to direct the All-CIAA Band. He was also nominated twice to conduct the Intercollegiate Music Association Symphonic Band. In 2001, he directed the VSU concert band in a performance at the National Association for the Study and Performance of African American Music Conference, held in Birmingham, Alabama. After 19 years of leading the "Trojan Explosion" Harold "Big Whistle" Haughton, Sr. retired in 2003 as Director of Bands Emeritus.
From 2003-2013, Dr. Mark W. Phillips, a native of Petersburg and a graduate of Virginia State University, served as Director of Bands. Under Dr. Phillips, Mr. Holden and Rev. Bullock continued to serve as Assistant Directors. The Trojan Explosion Marching Band was selected to participate in the Honda Battle of the Bands in Atlanta, Georgia, for nine years running under Dr. Phillips' direction. The "Trojan Explosion" was also featured in a French film called "Marching Band in 2009". In addition to numerous gubernatorial parades, accolades, and other achievements, the Virginia State University Drumline performed at the White House for President Barack Obama during the signing of the HBCU Funding Bill in 2010 under Dr. Phillip's leadership. This historic event marked the first time a drumline performed at the White House.
The drumline also performed and won the Big Apple Classic held in Madison Square Garden two years in a row and placed 2nd the third year of the event, 2009-2011. Dr. Phillips' concert band performed as the reading band for new concert band literature written by African American composers at the NASPAAM Symposium in Chesapeake, Virginia, and the HBCU-NBDC Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011, Dr. Phillips took the VSU Brass Ensemble to the National Association for the Study and Performance of African American Music Conference in Houston, Texas. Throughout his tenure as band director and department head, Dr. Phillips worked as a clinician, judge, and guest conductor. He also served on several Boards and filmed segments still airing on PBS and BET for the music program and the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.
In 2013, James Holden, Jr. became Director of Bands. In addition to serving as director of the world-renowned VSU Gospel Chorale, Mr. Holden had served as Assistant Director of Bands since 1984. Arguably one of the top arrangers in the country, Mr. Holden is known throughout the musical country as an exquisite saxophonist. Taylor Whitehead, a Virginia State University alumnus, was hired by Mr. Holden as the band's assistant director in 2013.
Under Mr. Holden's direction, the pep band performed several times on the live news in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the CIAA tournament, at the Barclays Center for the Big Apple Classic, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's Governor's Ball in 2018. The Jazz Band performed at the 2018 HBCU National Band Directors' Consortium. The marching band has performed for the Washington Redskins Training Camp, the African American Day Parade in Harlem, NY, NASCAR Racing in Richmond, VA, and Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, for the Urban League Classic.
Taylor Whitehead was appointed Interim Band Director in 2022. Mr. Whitehead is continuing to build upon a legacy of excellence. Under Mr. Whitehead, the band performed for the Hartford Yard Goats minor league baseball team in Hartford, Connecticut, the Bubba Wallace NASCAR Block at the Richmond Speedway, and the HBCU Week Battle of the Bands in Wilmington, Delaware. In February of 2023, the band returned to the Honda Battle of the Bands for the 10th time. Several Trojan Explosion Pep Band members also appeared on NBC's Today Show and performed at the White House for President Joseph Biden's White House Black History Program in February of 2023. Their performance at the White House marked a collegiate band's first performance for the annual ceremony. Today, the Trojan Explosion is the premier band in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The band receives yearly invitations to perform at high school exhibitions, parades, university functions, political events, weddings, and Battle of the Bands.