Wynton Marsalis on the fifty-yard line.

Everyone knows the happy ending: At the Big House on October 15, the Michigan Wolverines dispatched the Penn State Nittany Lions, 41–17. But for the 400 students in the Michigan Marching Band, their guest performers at halftime and walk-on conductor in the third quarter were almost as exciting.

Announcer Carl Grapentine welcomed the crowd at noon. In the first half, the Wolverines stalled out in the red zone, scoring three field goals and one touchdown against the Nittany Lions’ two touchdowns. Michigan led by just two points at halftime.

As the teams headed to their locker rooms, the band was standing on the sidelines, waiting to take the field for the halftime show. Standing beside them were a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winner and more than a dozen top-flight professional musicians.

Then Grapentine’s voice echoed through the stadium: “Today the Michigan Marching Band is honored to welcome the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for ‘A Night in New Orleans.’ Please welcome their artistic director, the incomparable Wynton Marsalis …” 

Marsalis’s trumpet rang out in the first notes of “Feeling Good,” the liberation anthem made famous by Nina Simone. The orchestra, seated on the fifty-yard line wearing blue suits and yellow winter beanie caps with a blue Block M, joined in, and the band followed as the musicians flowed into formation to spell out “NOLA.” They went on to form “JLCO” and “BOURBON” (the street, not the drink) and a Mardi Gras mask.

The latter parts of the show resembled “what’s known as a second line,” emails Richard Frey, the band’s associate director. “I think people outside of New Orleans would recognize it better as a jazz funeral. So it started with an old hymn—‘Have Thine Own Way Lord.’ Then, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and that’s how the show ended.” 

It was the JLCO’s first-ever performance with a marching band, and the crowd loved it. So did the young musicians.

“I have a few friends who got to hang out and talk to Wynton and talk to members of the orchestra,” says Blake Brdak, a junior and rank leader in the trumpet section. “They were all super, super friendly, very welcoming to all of us.” And “everyone was super thrilled with how the performance went.”

Santa Ono assists Richard Frey.

Brdak is a computer science major. Why does he put in the time and effort that the band demands?

“Even though I’m not planning on being a professional musician—nor are most of the people in the band—I think the big draw to the marching band is to continue to perform in college,” he says.

“There is no bigger stage than the Big House. And even beyond that, the band creates a super cool environment for all of the members. We’re all one big family. All of my best friends are in the MMB.”

Marsalis and the JLCO, of course, are accustomed to large stages—in September, they had played at the Hollywood Bowl. But even for them, it was a quite a crowd. And for Marsalis and company, the football game was part of a bigger mission.

University Musical Society marketing VP Sara Billmann emails that it began in 2019, when “UMS President Matthew VanBesien and Senior Programming Manager Mark Jacobson went to hear Wynton at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York.” Together, they “hatched a plan” for a weeklong residency.

The football game was tucked into a schedule crowded with master classes and coaching at schools in Ann Arbor, the Lincoln school district, and Detroit; a Penny Stamps talk at the Michigan Theater where Marsalis and U-M athletic director Warde Manuel discussed art, athletics, and the creative process; and a UMS presentation of Marsalis’s 1999 jazz opera All Rise. This “jaw-dropping 200+ artist ensemble,” in Billmann’s words, marshaled the JLCO, the U-M Symphony Orchestra and choirs, and the UMS Choral Union in Hill Auditorium.

The JLCO and the marching band met for the first time just two days before the game, at the band’s regular late-afternoon rehearsal on Elbel Field.

Marsalis and his musicians “slowly came in about the same time as we did,” Brdak recalls. “It was super cool to see all of them go by and see Wynton go by. The trumpet section took a picture with him, and some of the other trumpets from the JLCO as well. It was super great.” 

Frey and MMB director John Pasquale were equally thrilled. Frey explains by email that he and Pasquale split conducting duties “so during the first half he’s up top [on the podium] and he’s calling ‘After a third down we’ll do this song, and after a first down we’ll do ‘Let’s Go Blue’—that sort of thing—and so I’m watching the game and supporting him, and vice versa in the second half.” 

Frey writes the “drill” for the formations, while Joan Noble-Pruett does the choreography for the flag corps. “The flags don’t have a musical role, but the choreography highlights the music visually,” Frey explains. “What I write in terms of formations and choreography relate to that,” so he and Noble-Pruett “work together on a lot of things … It’s always a collaboration.”

That afternoon, the flags, band, and JLCO worked together for thirty minutes, “making sure everything was put together properly,” says Brdak. Afterward, “we had a super cool moment when Wynton actually gave a whole talk to the band. He really praised the work of the Michigan Marching Band, and he was very excited to do the show with us.” 

The Wolverines took control after halftime—and when the band launched into “The Victors” after their first touchdown in the third quarter, a guest conductor joined Frey on the podium: Santa Ono, who’d just taken office as the U-M’s fifteenth president.

Brdak says the band members had seen the new president circulating through the stadium, and “a bunch of us were trying to get Dr. Frey to get him to come over, and let him know that he could come up on the podium.”

“It was just a fun kind of moment,” Frey says. Ono “was engaging a lot with people and fans, and I know our students were really excited to connect with him … It was a great time to play ‘The Victors’ and celebrate together, and have a great connection.” 

 Ono “seemed very thrilled to be there,” Brdak says. Needless to say, so were the students.

“Everyone was so excited,” says Amanda Dowdican, who’s in her fourth year playing clarinet in the MMB. Ono “smiled and waved at us, and then Dr. Frey showed him how to lead the band in ‘The Victors.’”

Frey was up there with Ono, but says the president “didn’t need any advice.” The Canadian-American immunologist and academic administrator is a classically trained cellist. “I let him know that ‘The Victors’ is ‘in 2,’” Frey recounts, “and he took it from there.”

The fans “always sing along and do the hand motions and stuff when we do the fight song,” Brdak says. “I’m not sure if they caught that the president was on the podium or not. I was more involved with being excited about the fact that he was there to really check out what the crowd was doing.” 

“President Ono did a great job,” emails Dowdican.


And then, Frey recalls, the students started screaming again. “I looked up and said, ‘I know, he’s on the sidelines,’ thinking they were referring to President Ono. The band member said, ‘No, look!’ And there was Michael Phelps taking a picture with the drumline.” The Olympic gold medalist trained in Ann Arbor in the mid-2000s, and head coach Jim Harbaugh had invited him to the game as honorary co-captain.

Phelps “came over and talked with people in the drum line, and took a picture with some of the trumpets and drum line,” Brdak confirms. “That was a very neat experience as well.” 

Brdak is from New Baltimore in Macomb County. His parents were at the Penn State game, too.

“They loved the show,” he says. “They are big Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra fans … so they were thrilled to see that we were doing a collaboration with them.”

Brdak also took away the memory of the talk Marsalis gave on Elbel Field after the rehearsal on Thursday.

“A big thing that Wynton highlighted was that … he wants all of us to stay involved in music,” Brdak recalls. “He’s a big proponent of that—regardless of if you’re a professional musician or not, the benefit of having music in your life is huge.

“It provides you a community. It provides you a creative outlet. It’s something that people tend to do for their entire lives … Even though few of us are going to be professional musicians, Wynton was very encouraging about staying involved in music, even after we’re done with school.”

Looking back on it, “I can’t ask for much more from a game day,” Brdak says. “We got the whole package, you know? Super awesome, super great show. Some involvement with the president, and Michael Phelps, really showing the variety of things this university has to offer.

“From Olympian swimmers to cool halftime shows with the band, the new president … and it’s always great to see the football team take home a big win.”