Game day for KU’s tradition-rich men’s basketball band is loud and strong, three hours long (cookies included)
by Chris Lazzarino / Photographs by Steve Puppe
This article originally appeared in Issue 2, 2017 of Kansas Alumni Magazine.
In precisely one hour, minus one second, the pregame clock for the Jan. 14 basketball game against Oklahoma State will tick down to 0:00, and, if all goes as planned, the horn will sound exactly as the men’s basketball band hits the final note of its rollicking rendition of “I’m a Jayhawk,” a tradition known within the band as “Beat the Clock.”
Sharon Ramsey Toulouse, f’97, g’05, a proud member of the men’s basketball band and Marching Jayhawks during her student days, is in her fifth year as director of the men’s basketball band and assistant director of bands in the School of Music, after five and a half years as a U.S. Army officer and conductor at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and Fort Meade, Maryland. Perched in a tiny triangle of space facing the band’s 10 rows of prime real estate in the southeast corner of Allen Field House, she greets her arriving musicians with an attitude and warm smile that radiate enthusiasm for the task ahead.
“She is 100-percent having fun,” says piccolo player Andrea Coleman, a sophomore music education major from Lawrence. “I don’t think she would consider this a job.”
A glance at her watch and, with the pregame clock reading 59:59, Toulouse dons a headset—one of the few modern breaks in tradition for a band that prides itself on eternally honoring its roots—so she can communicate with the Rock Chalk Video control booth, where director Mike Lickert orchestrates the show that’s about to unfold.
“I call him the voice of God,” Toulouse says of Lickert. “He’s the voice on the headset that tells me what to do.”
Lickert’s play-calling will be vital to a seamlessly choreographed basketball-and-more experience for the next three hours and 24 minutes, but for now it’s not necessary. Toulouse knows exactly what her first move will be, as do her musicians.
With 45:20 on the clock, 41 of the 42 musicians—all but the drummer—stand and raise their instruments. Twenty seconds later, at precisely 45:00, their director raises her hands and announces, “‘Sounds’! One, two, a one two three four!”
“Sounds of Summer” is the first song played at every men’s basketball home game and, by most insider estimations, the best. The 5-minute medley begins with The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” and rolls through upbeat pop standards while the band swings and sways.
“It has loads of horn moves,” Toulouse says, “and is very visual.”
“Sounds” was arranged for the Marching Jayhawks sometime in the late 1980s by band member Jay Stutler, ’92, who had spent the previous summer as a Disney musician. (He is now a Disney vice president for music.) The upbeat number was an instant hit with the marching band, and Ron McCurdy, g’78, PhD’83, then director of the men’s basketball band and now professor of music at the University of Southern California, brought it from Memorial Stadium to the field house. It has been the opening number ever since.
“That’s our kickoff,” Toulouse says. “Our kids look forward to it and they love it. It’s one of the biggest traditions we have.”
Other schools have asked for permission to play “Sounds of Summer,” but KU guards it zealously and denies all requests. The song is a treasured refrain, but when the band travels to NCAA Tournament games, restrictions imposed by the unique setting—two bands sharing performance time already limited by scoreboard marketing and announcements—the long medley is rarely played.
The students’ reaction? “They get mad at me,” Toulouse says.
Also popular are “Africano,” played when the team takes the court 28 minutes before game time; a swing version of “I’m a Jayhawk,” played only by the men’s basketball band, called “Jazzy Jay”; and a mashup of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and “Kashmir” that greets coach Bill Self when he first appears on the video board and then steps out from the tunnel with 1:35 on the pregame clock.
“I’m biased because there’s a trumpet solo I get to play in that one,” says pre-physical therapy major Jeffrey Doolittle, of Ottawa, “but that’s probably my favorite.”
How cool would it be to stand up in a packed field house, already rippling with pregame energy, and belt out a Led Zeppelin trumpet solo?
“The crowd is going crazy when Bill Self is walking out, so a lot of the time I think the crowd doesn’t hear me,” Doolittle concedes. “But it’s still a fun time.”
Another popular tune that fills the field house with jazzy brass joy is “Birdland,” written in 1977 by Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul. While many of the band’s game-day traditions are hard to pin down, “Birdland” is the exception.
All credit goes to the Cookie Lady.
Becky Habluetzel was born in Clay Center, hours before daybreak on a KU football game day.
“My mom’s doctor thanked her for having me at 2:30-something in the morning,” Habluetzel says from her Lawrence home, “so he could come down to watch the game.”
She did not attend KU, but always felt an affinity for Lawrence. When offered the opportunity by her employer, AT&T, to move here in 1994, she and her husband, Lynn, gladly accepted. More than a decade ago, Habluetzel found her way into the field house by signing on as an unpaid usher for men’s basketball games, and one day she brought home-baked cookies to snack on at her post.
“One of the band kids walked past me and asked if she could have one,” Habluetzel says. “I said sure, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”
The chance encounter with a hungry student gave Habluetzel the idea of baking for the band. Because fans can’t bring food into the field house, the band designates one member to serve as what Habluetzel calls her “cookie picker-upper”—known as “CPU.” Habluetzel tracks the number of years she has supplied cookies to KU musicians by counting her CPUs.
“I’m currently on No. 8, and there have been at least three of them who have done it two years. So, at least 10-plus years.”
Using her sister-in-law’s recipe for the big chocolate chip cookies she baked for family gatherings, Habluetzel spends more than four hours baking and wrapping seven dozen cookies for the band, plus an extra dozen for her CPU. Band members feast on two cookies apiece at halftime and serenade their benefactor with “Birdland.”
“They’re really good,” Doolittle says. “I don’t know when that started, but it’s been going on as long as I’ve been here and I don’t complain.”
(Another fan, affectionately known as the Coke Lady, for decades donated money for the band to buy soft drinks, and she was thanked every game with “It Had to be You.” That tradition sadly ended with the Coke Lady’s death last fall.)
Habluetzel says the first time professor emeritus and former director Tom Stidham left her tickets for a game, she found them in an envelope labeled “Becky the Cookie Lady,” and she’s been the Cookie Lady ever since. She also recalls that it was CPU No. 5 who had the idea of thanking her with a song, and Matthew Smith, then director of the men’s basketball band, offered a list of options.
“‘Birdland’ was at the top,” Habluetzel says. “I listened to it and I said, ‘That’s it.’”
Because it was one of her favorites?
“No, I’d never heard it before.”
Instead, she found meaning in the name. Her late husband, who died of cancer in 2010, had carried the nickname “Chirp,” and her son, Phillip, whom she lost to a motorcycle accident eight months later, was called “Big Bird” by his friends after one day pairing a yellow ball cap and yellow shirt.
“And of course,” she adds, “there’s the Jayhawk.”
When she stopped working as an usher, Habluetzel watched games at home with her husband. Sort of. Lynn preferred to hear the TV commentators while Becky wanted to listen to Bob Davis and Max Falkenstien, c’47, on the radio, so she donned headphones and watched games on a muted TV in another room.
When they heard that the ESPN GameDay crew would be in town, Lynn suggested she bake them cookies. She’d already heard that ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt had once sampled one of her chocolate chip masterpieces during a previous visit, and Habluetzel says she was “thinking and hoping that he would be one of the crew.” At one point during the game, she saw her husband gesturing frantically. When she removed her headphones, he shouted, “Dick Vitale has your cookie!”
“Van Pelt was in the studio,” Habluetzel recalls, “and when they cut back to him he said, ‘Dick, the band gave you my cookies.”
She enjoys laughing at the memories. Connecting with vibrant young people has helped her deal with painful losses and prevents her from shutting herself off from the world. When basketball season rolled around again after she’d lost both her husband and son, Habluetzel finally bought herself season tickets (and joined the Alumni Association as an associate Life Member), and she can be found perched in Section 10, directly behind the band, at every game.
Now when they wrap “Birdland,” the musicians turn and wave.
And she smiles and waves back.
“I’m dedicated,” Habluetzel says. “Once somebody has my loyalty, they have it for life.”
Toulouse sees a shared purpose for both military and athletics bands.
“The Army’s mission is to foster a goodwill with the community and the military, and it’s kind of the same thing with the University’s athletics bands,” says Toulouse, who remains in the Army Reserve and commands the 451st Army Band, based in Minneapolis. “Both are very outreach oriented and focused on the community.”
The privilege of joining the men’s basketball band is hard-earned. Participation in the Marching Jayhawks is required, and musicians also must shine in blind auditions. (Faculty judges listen to the music without knowing the performer’s identity.) Those with the top scores are invited to join the men’s basketball band, and the next group forms the women’s basketball band.
Unlike marching band, which endures two-hour practices three days a week and a full day of rehearsal and performance on game days, the basketball band has one short rehearsal a week.
“We keep pretty much the same book, so it’s the same music every year,” Toulouse says. “Once they get it, they’ve got it for their whole career in the basketball bands, which is helpful.”
Toulouse occasionally adds popular new tunes, “and some of them can be pretty tricky. We don’t have a lot of rehearsals, so they have to be spot-on the first time they’re reading this music. But they’re great musicians, so they’re able to learn it quickly.”
The band’s history is so murky that even after being a member for six years and directing the band for five, Toulouse is uncertain of its origins. The confusion is likely due to the slow evolution of campus bands across the decades, says Robert Foster, professor emeritus and longtime KU bands director.
University Archives has photographs of uniformed band members playing at men’s basketball games in Hoch Auditorium in the 1950s, and Foster’s guess is that, given Hoch’s design, with the court flanking the stage, a band was probably intended for games in Hoch since it opened in 1927.
Foster suspects the basketball band likely evolved from a subset of the marching band and gradually moved toward the sport-specific corps that was already thriving when he arrived in 1971.
“It became a defined band way earlier here than at many schools,” Foster says, “and it became a high-priority band, where you wanted the best students in there and the best students wanted to be in there. It was a band with a special mission, clearly defined as supporting basketball.”
With the team aiming for its 13th-consecutive Big 12 crown and perhaps a long dance through March Madness, it’s a mission these musicians take seriously.
“We get told all the time that whenever it starts to die a little bit, it’s our job to keep the crowd energy going,” says junior baritone player Kellie Simerly, a second-generation KU band musician from Omaha. “We’re dedicated to school spirit, and we want to be a part of that in the best way we can, as musicians.”
With great seats close to the action, the musicians (and their director) follow every second of the game, celebrate three-point field goals with three-fingered high fives and cheer madly for their hoops ’Hawks.
“We’re playing during timeouts, pregame and everything, but during the game we’re KU students,” Doolittle says. “We’re passionate about KU basketball, and we’re just as hyped as everyone else.”
Says junior alto sax player Andre Womack, “We’re part of the student section. The only difference is that we have instruments.”
Their opening 45-minute set, from “Sounds of Summer” to the national anthem, is a grueling challenge, especially for brass players. The use of facial muscles to properly push air through a mouthpiece is called “embouchere,” and it requires training to develop and maintain.
“I tell kids all the time, ‘You’re an athlete. You have to work out those muscles to make them stronger. You have to condition,’” Toulouse says. “Last year, that three-overtime game with Oklahoma? They all needed ice after that game. Their faces were about to fall off.”
Musical performance majors and professional musicians practice many hours a day; musicians in athletics bands also perform for long stretches, but do so in short, loud bursts.
“It’s like a sprinter versus a marathon runner,” Toulouse says. “The athletics band type of playing really trains you how to use and control your air, which is 90 percent of playing your instrument and getting a good tone quality and range.”
Toulouse and her faculty colleagues watch for one particular bad habit that can tempt exhausted horn players: generating the necessary sound by pushing the horn hard against their lips.
“You’re really pushing it into your face to keep that buzz happening, when you need to be using air instead of pressure,” she says. “And I do remind them that we have to play musically. Not all dynamics are fortissimo. There is some mezzo piano in there, too, and that makes a song more interesting.”
When the clock hits 0:00 at the Jan. 14 game against OSU, the Jayhawks’ 49th-consecutive victory in Allen Field House, Toulouse strikes up the band for yet another round of “I’m a Jayhawk,” then calls out, “‘All I Do Is Win’! ‘All I Do,’ one two three four!”
After standing the entire game, band members finally take a seat. They’re not quite done, though.
In keeping with many years of tradition, they play “The Stars and Stripes Forever”—“Nice entertainment as the crowd is exiting the field house,” Toulouse says—and, with many fans still in their seats just to hear the band and perhaps take comfort in the familiar ritual, the band ends its performance, as always, with “Home on the Range.”
Their fans applaud, and Toulouse, wearing a broad, happy smile, shouts, “What kind of day is it?!?”
The band members reply in unison:
“It’s a great day to be a Jayhawk!”