Our History

The Central High School Band of Knoxville, Tennessee, has a long tradition of excellence, marked by a 90+ year record of distinction through local, regional, and national performances. A source of pride for the surrounding Fountain City community, the band is one of the oldest in the area. Following are some highlights of the band’s history, as researched by David Dixon, retired Gresham Middle School/Central High School Assistant Band Director (1982-2007). Click any photo for a larger view.

Early Years...

From its beginning in 1906, Central High School offered various small musical ensembles for student participation. In 1928 the school annual, then called The Sequoyah, presented what it labelled as the first band at the school.

 

This photo shows a modest, all-male group with directors C.C. Cottrell and Neil Gray. The 28-member band did not have uniforms and included several faculty members to fill out instrumentation.

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By 1930, the group had grown, with hats and capes serving as a basic uniform. This photo shows the group posed on the front lawn of the school. Sadly, the Great Depression soon forced the suspension of many activities at the school including the band program and the school annual. Better days were to come.…

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Hassie K. Gresham, CHS principal from 1919 to 1947, was determined to restart the band program in the fall of 1935. To that end, she hired a new director, Malcolm Morrison, and issued a call for students to search the community for band instruments.

 

During the 1935-36 school year, Mr. Morrison assembled a group, found the old hats and capes, and rehearsed the band for the annual Veterans Day Parade in downtown Knoxville. The students wore white shirts and black pants with red grosgrain ribbon sewn down the legs. Miss Gresham arranged for several streetcars to transport the rest of the student body to the parade to cheer for the band. Her continued support over the next decade was a vital part of the development of the program. That band is shown in the above photo from the 1937 annual.

O'Dell Willis

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A new era began with the arrival of O’Dell Willis as the new band director in 1937. He was to become a legendary, revered figure in the community and the band profession.

Here’s the 1939 band, now with new uniforms including a red jacket and hat with black pants. The students owned their uniforms and bought them from graduating seniors for five dollars. Mr. Willis added bass clarinets, bassoons, and four tubas/sousaphones--evidence of impressive financial support. As part of his legacy, Mr. Willis also composed Red and Black, the school fight song, which is still performed to this day.

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Over the next several decades, Mr. Willis and the CHS Band took an important leadership role in the growth of the school band movement in East Tennessee. Mr. Willis was one of the six area band directors who founded the East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association in 1938-1939. The first ETSBOA event was a concert festival held in April 1939. Out of ten bands, Central received one of only four Superior Ratings. Here is a rare item—the band’s plaque from this historic concert festival. The festival is still held today.

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Another special artifact is this large, hand-tinted photo of the 1941-1942 band. By this point the band was recognized as one of the premiere programs in the area. Note the increase in size as well as the continued upgrading of instruments.

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The band continued to win honors, performing in regional events of the now-defunct National Band Competition in the early 1940s. Plaques from these performances are on current display in the CHS Commons. This photo shows two students looking over the plaques with Miss Gresham.

 

The 1945-46 band won a statewide competition, earning the honor of performing at the state music teachers conference in 1946. A newspaper article quoted Miss Gresham as saying, “Proud? Why, I can hardly stay on the floor!”

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During the nine years under O’Dell Willis, the band grew from 40 members to over 100, winning honors throughout the state and the southeast region. Ready for a change, Mr. Willis spent 1946-1949 working in a managerial position at a local music store. Lillard Luttrell, a CHS Band graduate, led the band during those years, purchasing new uniforms in 1948 that were gray with red trim.

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Mr. Willis returned in Fall 1949, and we see him here with the 1950-1951 band. In addition to his CHS duties, he was now the Supervisor of Instrumental Music for the Knox County School System. He was honored with a 1952 article in School Musician, a nationwide journal.

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Throughout the remainder of the 1950s the band had many special moments, as shown in this wonderful photo of the 1954 band in Washington, D.C. Performing in a downpour at a parade competition, the band placed fourth among 65 national and international bands. A newspaper article described the band's being met by “hundreds” of well-wishers upon their return to Fountain City.

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The 1956 annual was dedicated to Mr. Willis.

One of the most interesting highlights of the O’Dell Willis era came in 1957. It was the 20th anniversary of his arrival at Central High, and his wife had developed health issues that affected the family finances. Several alumni wished to provide some assistance, including Sam Beaty, owner of a local Chevrolet dealership. The photo shows Mr. Willis and his wife at a football game in 1957 being presented with a brand new Chevrolet station wagon.

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The uniforms featured red jackets with optional crossbelts, red hats, and gray pants.

The band purchased new uniforms in time for another major event. Here they are in 1958 on Michigan Avenue in Chicago at the Lions Club International Conference parade.

During the 1960s, the band built on its success. The feeder program began to expand, with more teachers available to train students prior to high school. A second band director position was added at the high school, enabling an expansion to two full performance ensembles. The late 1960s also saw the end of the long-standing tradition of having only male instrumentalists perform in the marching band. This photo is from another Washington, D.C. trip—this time to attend the Cherry Blossom Festival.

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The 1970-1971 academic year marked the last year that CHS was housed at the old campus. A new high school opened in Fall 1971, with the old site renovated as a grade 7-9 junior high school. Renamed in honor of Hassie Gresham, the same building today houses the grades 6-8 Gresham Middle School.

1970-1971 was also the last year of O'Dell Willis's long career at Central. The community celebrated his work with many events, including a parade and a scholarship concert at the University of Tennessee.

Mr. Willis passed away in 1984, and he is still remembered with fondness and respect in Fountain City. A fellow band director called Mr. Willis the “Dean of Tennessee band directors” and praised him for long maintaining a band "with which very few could compare.”

Norman Woodall

Norman Woodall was recruited to succeed Mr. Willis, first spending a semester as his assistant in spring 1971. Mr. Woodall was a Lebanon, Tennessee native who had spent ten years successfully developing the band program at Hixson High School in the Chattanooga area. He was also an accomplished musician, playing French horn in the Chattanooga and Knoxville Symphony Orchestras, and bass guitar in numerous small groups and dance bands.

The band continued to flourish under Mr. Woodall's direction. Here are two photos from 1971-1972: the marching band in the new uniforms (note Mr. Woodall in the front in the dark director's uniform), and the concert band in Mexico during one of the first international trips taken by a band from the Knoxville area.

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In 1975 the group was featured once again at the state conference of the Tennessee Music Educators Association. The band was also selected to perform at a prestigious regional event—the Southern Division meeting of the Music Educators National Conference in New Orleans. This is the article from Tennessee Musician, the state music educators journal, announcing both performances. It mentions the band's 123 members, the program's long tradition, and the recent Mexico City trip.

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By the early 1980s it was time again for new uniforms. Here’s the 1984 band, posed at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium just before a Veterans Day Parade. The uniforms reflected a more casual, less military style that was popular at the time.

Mr. Woodall received national recognition in the early 1980s with his election as 2nd Vice President of the National Band Association. He served as the official host of the association's national conference held in Knoxville in 1984. Like Mr. Willis before him, Mr. Woodall served multiple terms as ETSBOA president during his career. Above is the 1986-87 band on a festival trip to Florida.

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In 1997 a third position was added to the band staff. In addition to Mr. Woodall at CHS and David Dixon at Gresham, the third instructor assisted at both schools. This arrangement was the standard for many years.

Norman Woodall retired in 1999 at age 62 and, sadly, passed away only three years later. Under his tenure, the band extended its tradition of excellence and continued to be a great source of pride for the community. It is quite unique that the band had such long-term directors. O’Dell Willis and Norman Woodall led the band for almost six decades—1937 to 1999 with only a three year break. Continuity also extended to Gresham Middle School, with David Dixon directing the feeder program for 25 years—1982 to 2007. These photos are from Mr. Woodall’s final year, 1998-1999. Interestingly, these are not new uniforms—the students preferred the more traditional look of the old 1971 uniforms and begged to wear them again.

Recent Years...

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Gregory Basham (1999-2002) took over the program after Norman Woodall's retirement, followed by Laura Borchert (2002-2003), Joshua Jackson (2004-2009), Lisa Burden (2009-2017), and Chase Ramsey (2017-2018). Several of these directors also served as assistants before becoming the head band director, and each brought their individual style and talents to shaping the band. Through their efforts, the marching aspect of the program was reinvigorated by renewed participation in regional marching contests, and the concert band received acclaim for performances of music at the highest difficulty levels.

 

Above is the fall 2002 marching band at a Bands of America regional competition. New uniforms were bought in 2000, with a jacket design that subtly echoed the 1958 uniforms.

2005-2006 was another high point for the band. Just as in the 1940s and the 1970s, the band was selected as one of only two in the state to perform for the Tennessee Music Educators Association conference. That same year, the group was also selected to perform for a prestigious national conference: a joint meeting of the National Band Association and the College Band Directors National Association. At right are images from the program for that CBDNA performance.

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As the Central High School Band begins its tenth decade of existence, we wish to thank the community for its continued support of the program. We look forward to a long, successful, and distinguished future!

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