Building the Band
The rebirth of Camden High’s Mighty Marching Panthers
By Kate Morgan

Photography By David Michael Howarth

Before the pandemic, Camden High’s march­ing band was big, loud and flashy. The Mighty Marching Panthers were a band with a long history and a reputation for excellence. Then the world – and the schools – shut down, rehearsals and performances stopped, and the Panthers fell silent.

As the 2021 school year began at the brand-new Camden High School campus, Jamal Dickerson, the newly appointed marching band director, took stock: There were 7 kids left in the once-great marching band. “It was 6 drummers and a tuba player,” he says. 

Dickerson is a native son of Camden, and a celebrated teacher who was honored with a Milken Educator Award – one of the highest profile awards in the country – in 2007. He started teaching at The Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, a public magnet school in Camden, in 2002. “We were fortunate enough to take that band and turn it into a state championship band,” he says. “We won 5 state championships from 2006 to 2018.” But the job he really wanted was at Camden High. He’d dreamed of being the marching band director there since his own days playing the trumpet with the Panthers.  

The new construction brought the Creative Arts school back onto the main campus of Camden High, which “put him in the building,” he says, and then he was finally handed his dream job – and his biggest challenge yet. The pandemic upended extra-curricular activities, and even when students returned to school in person, Dickerson says, there wasn’t much interest. “They had gotten this attitude like they don’t want to do anything,” he says. “They like being home, so most of them just wanted to go straight home after school.” 

Those who didn’t head straight for their couches, he adds, were going to work. “Especially the kids in the inner city in Camden, everybody wants to get a job,” he says. “But they’re going to spend the rest of their lives working. In high school, they should focus on career exploration and experiences.” 

It was up to Dickerson to convince students – a whole marching band’s worth – to devote hours every day to band practice. “At first I just scratched my head and said, you know, what in the world did I get myself into?” 

He got a helping hand from theatre teacher Desi P. Shelton, who sent all the students she could down to the band room. Dickerson also recruited his brother, a professional musician and middle school teacher, to help. 

“Kids were coming in and nobody could play an instrument,” Dickerson says. “So my brother starts telling them, alright, you grab this instrument, you grab that instrument. A kid took a trombone, turned it around, and started trying to blow in the bell. They had no clue what to do. Some of them didn’t know the names of the instruments, let alone how to play them.” 

Dickerson jumped in “teaching them how to make a sound, as we’re also teaching them to read music, as we’re also teaching them the notes.” They had neither experience nor time on their side. At the end of the first week there was a football game, and the marching band was expected to perform. 

“We made up a 3-note song, so they could just repeat those easy notes,” he says. “And then – this was the beautiful part – the students helped us teach.” 

As new students showed up, interested in joining the band, the “veterans” took them under their wing. “We’d be like, ‘Alright, we’ve been teaching you for about 3 days now, so you’re the section leader and we need you to help teach.’ I’m not exaggerating.” 

Things snowballed, and recruitment continued. “The first game, I think we might have known maybe 4 or 5 songs,” Dickerson says. “After about 2 weeks, we could maybe play about 15 songs. We’d play a song the kids know, and they’d get excited about it, and more kids would want to come.” 

Dickerson’s former bandmate from Morgan State University, where he performed for 4 years, advised that “nobody can build a band like the students.” Each member was encouraged to bring a friend, or 2, or 3. 

“The football team was so awesome – and the football coach,” says Dickerson. “He made a big deal about the band, how much he loved the band. And the team loved the band. So much so that they helped recruit for the band. The jocks – for lack of a better term – made it cool to be in band.”

The momentum carried into the current 2022-23 school year. “We went from 3 students at the beginning to our top number this year of 67,” Dickerson says. And for each of those students, he adds, marching band has been a transformative experience. 

“One student used to not come to school,” he says. “He’d make it like 1 or 2 times a week at best. Now he’s here almost every day. He’s here early! He was here at 7:30 this morning like, ‘Hi, Mr. D!’” 

Another player moved to Camden from the south to get away from a “troubled situation,” Dickerson says. “Because of the marching band, now he’s got some of the best grades in this entire school. His whole attitude is adjusted, and he’s starting to feel better about life in general.”

J’lynn Henry

When J’lynn Henry, 16, moved to Cam­den from a small town in upstate New York, Dickerson says, “she didn’t love herself.” 

Henry, better known to her bandmates by the nickname “New York,” says the marching band transformed her confidence. “When I first came here, I was bigger,” she says. “It helped me lose weight and be social. I moved here having no people, no friends. And it’s like, I can be myself through blasting on the trumpet. I was able to love myself more, and made this whole circle of friends who love me.”

In fact, Henry says, it goes beyond friendship: the Mighty Marching Panthers are a family. “And Mr. D’s role is being like a father to all of us,” she says. “He teaches us life lessons, like discipline and how to push ourselves when we want to stop or quit – lessons about families, our goals, how to be great.” 

Henry, a junior, plans to pursue march­ing band scholarships, and would like to play her trumpet at one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) famous for their bands. She’s not the only one: Dickerson says several band members are under scholarship consideration. But getting to that point in just over a year took more than love. It took hard work. 

“We rehearse from right after school to some days like 8 or 9 o’clock,” Henry says. “But we’ll always try to go later. The security guards have to kick us out. The band is known for staying later than the basketball players.”

It’s a stark difference for students who were once rushing straight to their houses after school, on the heels of a whole year spent inside. 

Nazih Johnson

“We have one student, Nazih Johnson – during Covid, he was under the covers,” says Dickerson, “Coming to class on Zoom with a wave cap on, under the covers in a bunk bed, not wanting to show his face on the screen. He’s gone from that to being the drum major this year. Band has helped to change so many of these children’s lives.” 

Last year, Dickerson took the band’s section leaders on a visit to Hampton University in Virginia to see an HBCU bandperform. “That was part of the inspiration for them to get better,” he says. “When those kids came back, they wanted to do everything they saw that band do.”

The future is bright for the Mighty Marching Panthers. The goal for year one, Dickerson says, was just to get the students to play. Now, in year 2, they’re work­ing on timing and reading music. The next step is to work in showmanship, and then take that show on the road. The Panthers will compete against local South Jersey marching bands, plus head south to compete with other high-stepping bands in the Carolinas.

For Henry and her bandmates, there’s a whole lot to look forward to. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of something big,” she says, “and the marching band was something big.” But Henry’s still helping it grow.

“I’ll be my extroverted self and go ask somebody like, hey, what do you do after school? They’ll be like, ‘Nothing.’ And I’ll say, I think you should come downstairs with me, and I think you should come play this instrument. They’ll say they don’t think they can play an instrument, and I’ll, say how do you know you can’t? You never know what you can do.” 

February 2023
Related Articles

Comments are closed.


Get SJ Mag in Your Inbox

Subscribe for the latest on South Jersey dining, weekend entertainment, the Shore and much more - sent directly to your inbox.

* indicates required
Email Format
WATCH NOW: Millennials looking for Mentors