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UCLA

Clothes Make the Band

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By Mark Davis, Photos by Misha Gravenor

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM


Brazen. Funny. Serious. Strong. Dramatic. Silly. Solid.

Music to Your Eyes

For more info about the UCLA Bruin Marching Band and its history, visit www.UCLABand.com. Check out Band Director Gordon Henderson’s photo gallery of band uniforms through the years; browse lists of the band's TV and movie appearances; learn how to audition; and hear Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson and Wyclef Jean explain why you should "Join the Band."

A university's marching band can be many things, but one thing it should never be is out of step.

Consider, then, the uncomfortable ground the UCLA Bruin Marching Band was treading with the navy-blue uniforms it wore for decades.

Following years of uncertain color chaos and confusion, years in which Bruinwear of all sorts and stripes exploded in a cyan anarchy of powdered to royal to pilfered blues (not to mention the infamously brief experiment of black basketball uniforms), the campus finally settled on one true Bruin blue in 2004.

From the warriors on the teams to the fans in the stands, the new blue swept through campus like a loud, jubilant cheer. But not to the proud 250-member "Solid Gold Sound," which — through no fault of its own — was a little off-color.

"Before that, the football team wore powder and the basketball team wore royal, and [the band] had navy," explains Gordon Henderson, director of the UCLA Bruin Marching Band. "There has been real emphasis in the past few years to adopt this true blue. You look up in the crowd at football games and you see this sea of true blue, and then there was the band in a navy blue and that sticks out as different."

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John Vaughn in the original Bruin uniform.

Henderson recounts a particular game day walking with his uniformed band members in the Rose Bowl, when "one of the fans yelled, 'You're wearing the wrong color, those are Cal's colors.' " Ouch.

Technically, he explains, the navy-blue band uniforms were University of California colors, and any school in the UC system could wear them with impunity. But the underlying strains were crystal clear: UCLA's fiercely independent fans had hopped on the bandwagon, so why hadn't the band?

The simple answer, Henderson says, is money. To support a top-notch marching band, you have to pay the piper. Music, travel, instruments, staff — none of that can be had for a song.

That tune's as old as the band itself. Founded in 1925, the pep band that would become the UCLA Bruin Marching Band didn't acquire its first uniforms until 1928, and even that required a major push from student body presidential candidate Ken Piper, who also pressed to hire the group's first director, Ben Laietsky.

Those original, military-style costumes with dashing capes arrived just in time to welcome John Philip Sousa on his last visit to Los Angeles.

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The Bruin Band performing a parade block in 1941.

The typical lifespan of a uniform is eight years, Henderson notes, and "UCLA had never gone more than eight years without replacing the entire set, going back to those first uniforms in 1928. They replaced them in 1933, '34, '39, '45 ... They always found the money."

Until 1985, when UCLA purchased its last full set of new marching band duds.

"We got enough in the mid-'90s to replace a few at a time, but we couldn't redesign. We've had the same design, that same navy blue, for the past 22 years. Every year we'd say, 'They're getting old, they're wearing out,' then that would be the end of it."

But in November 2006, School of the Arts and Architecture Dean Christopher Waterman — who knows something about good design — suggested that the time was ripe for a new request. Henderson quickly put together a proposal that included much-needed instruments as well as new duds.

And then he waited. And waited. By summer, when Henderson was all but certain that the request was dead, word came that Acting UCLA Chancellor Norman Abrams had approved a special allocation.

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The trombone section performs in the Rose Bowl halftime show at the 2006 13-9 upset game against USC.

As it turns out, Henderson says, there was a solid gold lining to deferring uniform replacement for nearly two decades. Over those years of regular replacements, Bruin bands had suffered from the occasional fashion faux pas.

There were the years without blue, when the uniforms were colorless black and white. There were the years with the big, furry hats, possibly meant to emulate a live bear's head and about as comfortable to wear. In 1973, the band ditched its sleek, traditional look for something new and daring.

"They ordered these hip and cool fancy new uniforms," Henderson says. "Gold jackets, white turtle-neck sweater, navy pants and no hat. They wore them for one game and everybody hated it. They put them in boxes and went back to the old uniform."

Determined to avoid past mistakes, Henderson and the campus uniform review committee eschewed a complete overhaul, opting to tweak the look Bruins have come to know so well. So while the color has been updated, the capes remain, hearkening back to those first uniforms in 1928.

Fans, too, were elated to see the Solid Gold Sound get into true blue sync. The new uniforms hit just the right note in their debut on campus at the 2007 Blue and Gold Week Parade on Nov. 29 and on the field at the USC game the following Dec. 1.

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