Columbia University Marching Band

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The Columbia University Marching Band forming a pyramid

The Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB) has performed for Columbia University since 1904. It claims to be the first college or university marching band in the United States to convert to a scramble band format, making the switch in the 1950s. Today, all of the Ivy League bands (except Cornell), as well as the Stanford Band, have adopted the scramble band style.

More concerned with outrageous halftime shows than marching patterns and musicianship, the CUMB has a reputation for edgy humor, and is often thought to be the most controversial and irreverent of the scramble bands. Since the 1960s, national news outlets have covered the band's most infamous pranks. CUMB bills itself as "The Cleverest Band in the World."

One innovation of the CUMB has been the introduction of the "miscie," which rhymes with "whiskey" and is short for miscellaneous. While many of the band members carry a musical instrument onto the field, the band's miscies carry whatever they choose. Some miscie instruments of the past have included a washboard, spoons, juggled balls/pins, the Game Boy Advance, the ROLM phone, beer bottles, spare tires, steel mailboxes, condom harp, football stadium bench (no longer attached to the stadium), passenger handle from the interior of an MTA Redbird subway car, unicycle, and kitchen sink. Other, slightly more melodious, instruments have included the shofar, the E♭ contrabass sarrusophone, a didgeridoo (the didge), and the B♭ lenthopipe (an 8-foot length of electrical conduit, with rubber hose and horn mouthpiece at the bottom end, and funnel at the extreme end).

In addition to playing at every Columbia football game, the band also plays in the stands at Levien Gym for Columbia basketball games, and at various other events. These have included the New York City Marathon, the Walk Against AIDS, and at New York City's 34th Street post office on Tax Day.

The CUMB has appeared on many television programs including an early episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the Late Show with David Letterman, The CBS Morning Show, MTV's Total Request Live, The Howard Stern TV Show (on WWOR), a Japanese morning news program, and Columbia's student run television station CTV. CUMB has also been featured in the films Turk 182! and Game Day.

Band members have a long history of raiding competitive Ivy League schools and other institutions for memorabilia, including flags of Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Berkeley and the outsized stick used to beat the Harvard University Band's iconic giant bass drum. In a guerrilla action, the band once surreptitiously switched its regular dress for the dark blue of Yale University and appeared in the Yale Bowl as the Yale Precision Marching Band.

Orgo Night[edit]

Lisa Birnbach's College Book named the CUMB's Orgo Night performances as the university's most popular campus tradition. Since 1984 the band has performed at 11:59 p.m. on the night before each Organic Chemistry final exam. The course is notorious as one of the most challenging undergraduate subjects. In an effort to relieve pre-exam jitters, the CUMB interrupts studies at the main reading room of Butler Library. Several hundred students gather for the show, often standing on desks and bookshelves. Orgo Night performances are presented in a style similar to their halftime shows, and have sometimes included comedy banned from those shows by the university's censors. [A respondent adds: "Although I cannot personally attest to its continuity, the "Orgo Night" performance dates back to at least 1975; a photo of the event that night appeared in the New York Times of December 20, 1975."]

Controversies[edit]

The band regularly stirs up controversy due to its irreverent sense of humor.

  • In 1964, the band performed a "Salute to Moral Decay," featuring a formation of "the upper part of a topless bathing suit" (all marchers left the field except for two sousaphones, while the band played "My Favorite Things") and a typically heavy-handed reference to Walter Jenkins, an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, who had been caught in flagrante delicto in a men's room. Columbia's president had to fend off angry letters from several notables, including conductor Leonard Bernstein.
  • In 1966, the band was suspended for several games for the infamous "birth control" show where they formed a birth control pill, a calendar (for the rhythm method), and a chastity belt.
  • In 1972, at West Point, the band formed what it called a "burning Cambodian village" on the field. The band has been effectively banned from ever playing at West Point again.
  • In 1973, a brawl broke out between the CUMB and the Harvard University Band over the alleged attempted theft of the giant Harvard Bass Drum.
  • The band performed a 1981 halftime show at Holy Cross with the theme "The Lions vs. The Christians". Holy Cross administrators subsequently dis-invited the band from any future games played in Worcester. Columbia's next road game vs. Holy Cross in 1983 was the beginning of what became an NCAA-record losing streak; the Lions would go almost five years withotu a win.
  • The band's script for the 1982 season-opening road game against Harvard mysteriously turned out to be identical to the script the Harvard band had planned to use moments later. The CUMB denied the idea that such an astonishing coincidence had anything to do with the fact that two of its members had spent the previous week posing as new freshmen at Harvard's undergraduate orientation.
  • In 1990, the band received a bomb threat over its symbolic formation of a burning American Flag accompanied by The Doors' "Light My Fire". This performance occurred following a controversial United States Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to flag burning.
  • In 1992, during "Youth Day" at the Yale Bowl, the band pantomimed the consummation of a same-sex marriage on the field.
  • In 1993, the band drew parallels between the Holocaust and homelessness policies proposed by newly elected New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The Anti-Defamation League demanded an apology.
  • In 1993, at Princeton, the band recreated the Magic Bullet Theory as put forth by the Warren Commission on the John F. Kennedy assassination, complete with band members representing scattering skull fragments.
  • In 1998, at the Yale Bowl, the band performed a show featuring a homosexual, pot-smoking Jesus Christ as a homage to Columbia alumnus Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi. Angry Yale fans left the stadium and demanded their money back.
  • During a game against Fordham University in 2002, the band joked that Fordham's tuition was "going down like an altar boy" (in a joke improvised minutes before the start of the pre-game show). In the ensuing media frenzy, band Poet Laureate Andy Hao was featured on MSNBC's Phil Donahue Show in a debate with Catholic League President William Donohue, who called the comment anti-Catholic bigotry. Additionally, the New York Times profiled the CUMB as part of an article about scramble bands. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger ended the controversy in one of his first official acts as University President when he apologized to Fordham president, Joseph A. O'Hare, S.J..
  • Following a loss to Cornell in 2011, the band sang an altered version of the Columbia fight song lamenting the football team's winless season. After a member of the team coaching staff overheard the rendition, the athletic department promptly banned the band from performing at the Brown game the following week. The story was picked up by various news outlets including The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and ESPN. Following this media firestorm as well as an outpouring of support for the band from various alums, students, and bandies, and an apology from the band, the Athletics department—in the interests of Columbia's "core free speech values"--allowed the band to perform at the season's final game.
  • After being allowed to play at Fordham in 2012 following their ten-year ban, the band made posters referencing the death of Christians at the hands of lions in the Bible. For this they were banned again for an unspecified period of time.
  • In December 2012, a promotional flyer for Orgo Night which featured a pun on "Gaza Strip", i.e. "Everyone Wants a Piece" was met with some back lash by student groups on campus as well as activist Sherry J. Wolf. Subsequently, Kevin Shollenberger, Dean of Student Affairs, criticized the band via a student-wide email. In the wake of the event, despite the few protestors who attended Orgo Night, the band received overwhelming support from the Columbia community.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Lisa Birnbach's New and Improved College Book, by Lisa Birnbach (1992) ISBN 0-671-79289-X