Art Bartner

It’s a sweltering Thursday in September and the USC Trojan Marching band is hustling around a practice field nestled on the school’s campus in South Los Angeles. It becomes entirely clear that the omnipresent sunglasses in photos of the band are no affectation. Art Bartner is largely in charge, yelling hoarsely from the top of the stands, or a raised platform on the sideline or the middle of a circle of section leaders. It’s like his voice is sunburned. He’s instigator and alchemist as he cycles the band through its paces. There’s gruffness and tenacity, an old school smoothness coupled with bombastic flair. This is a guy who stomps and yells with the ferocity of someone who life almost forgot. He was a skinny kid from the east coast who came out here in 1970 and transformed a house of mediocrity into a global entity. Ask about him.

The Spirit

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Directed by GL Askew II

The Whole Field Advantage

“Great bands have traditions,” says Bartner, sitting behind his desk in the basement before practice, surrounded by gatefolds and photos of celebrities and superstars, kids running in and out of his office like it’s no big thing. Bartner has been the catalyst for the accomplishments the students either take for granted or expect. Bartner is more ball coach than band nerd, and through eight U.S. presidents, from Marcus Allen to Reggie Bush, John McKay to Pete Carroll, he’s driven thousands of college kids to their better selves. He’d be the first to tell you that success came from communal acts. And that the true harvest of tradition is family.

Suburban New Jersey is Bartner’s foundation. It was there that as a young man lead by a determined mother, Bartner was pretty convinced he wouldn’t have to defer his dream of being a basketball star in favor of music — he thought he could do both. He made All-State Orchestra, All-State Band. At the University of Michigan he was under the tutelage of famed band director William Revelli, and in the company of some of the most esteemed musicians in the country, he had a revelation. “The dream of being a professional trumpet player — maybe that was a stretch,” he says. “Maybe I was the hot guy in New Jersey, but at the University of Michigan I was kinda down the line a bit.” And the demands of the band made basketball impossible.

But Bartner was still a dreamer. After college he directed high school bands and built a name for himself. The Mountaineers, of the University of West Virginia, wanted him, and that was a big fancy job, but there was another gig on the table. It sounded like an adventure. Bartner moved his young family out to Los Angeles, to a school known for its football program and white horse, with no idea what he was in for.

“I came out naïve,” he says. “When I initially came I had no idea how bad the situation was — that USC and the community wanted nothing to do with this band.” There were often occasions in those early days where for prominent games the band was filled out with ringers, musicians who were not enrolled at USC. The school was not invested in Bartner’s program. “They had $15,000 dollars,” he remembers. “Five went to the horse, five went to the spirit squad and five went to the band.”

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Bartner was in his early 30s; he calls himself back then a baby. He knew how to operate within east coast and midwest institutions, how to carry out the methods of those who came before him, but this band was loose chaos. Enter Marv Goux, USC player turned defensive line coach. Goux wanted to win. Goux wanted the whole field advantage. Goux wanted a real band.

“‘See how I’m teaching these defensive linemen? This is how you should be teaching your marching band. This should be their attitude, this should be their passion: They should bleed cardinal gold.’”

Daylight came New Year’s Day, 1973, at the Rose Bowl. On that sunny never-wintered Monday in front of live NBC cameras, helicopters deposited none other than Diana Ross, laden with emerald green mink and white boa, singing Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” on the 50-yard line. With notes in sync and lines straight, the Trojan Marching Band woke up a thing that people were talking about and went to bed it, The Thing, The Band.

Suddenly visible was what had been going on in the practice space, at band camp, in the early mornings and the late afternoons. “I just expect hard work,” says Bartner. “All the time.” It’s like something from Norman Vincent Peale, or a present-day Anthony Robbins. The traits that build corporations, armies, teams of every intent: discipline, the striving for excellence, camaraderie. The tune “Conquest” was played by the band and implemented in its ranks. The Spirit of Troy issues from the bedrock philosophy co-engineered by Marv Goux, and it arrives at a place where students are yelled at, and then they lead, and then they instruct. In its meritocracy, its identity-blindness, it becomes a microcosm of the American experiment.

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“I just expect hard work,” says Bartner. “All the time.” It’s like something from Norman Vincent Peale, or a present-day Anthony Robbins. The traits that build corporations, armies, teams of every intent: discipline, the striving for excellence, camaraderie.

But no burgeoning society is without its growing pains and inner perplexities. In the mid-‘70s the band grew from 80 to 220 members, and Bartner still considered himself a kid. He was preoccupied with reigning in these maniacs when Mick Fleetwood called. Some tall guy from Britain with drums and rock band love feuds. They have a date at Dodger Stadium. One double platinum song later, a music video and Bartner is the man. “All of a sudden: ‘This Trojan Marching Band — they must be really good!’”

“Tusk” was proof that Barnter’s diligent shaping of habits, his barked incantations and the discipline of the march itself could culture something to believe in. From here there was no going back. Appearances at poignant social ceremonies become the norm for the Trojan Marching Band: Olympics, Ascademy Awards, Super Bowls, the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall, Popes, Presidents, so many parades, a vast array of movie and television shows. The dream of showmanship exceeding the vision of its pioneering author.

For those moments, emotional moments deluged in hope and victory — oohs and whoas —the fervor of clarinets, French horns and snares makes those transportive feelings greater than the sum of their parts. And we don’t get that without the fraternal order of the band, united in daily inquiry and pursuit. The group is forged by Bartner, but it persists well beyond the range of his bullhorn. Out into the petite emotions of dorm rooms and buses and the line at Chick-fil-A. After graduation, the students come back. Back to that feeling of cool brass against the inners of a felt case. Back to the smell of the grass beneath the cadent march. They meet at each other’s junctures, their weddings and celebrations and baby showers. This is really what Bartner has wrought.

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“I can yell at a kid for two hours and they still love me. They get it, they understand the reason why,” he says. “All I’m after is perfection. All I want is the best band in the country.”

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“I can yell at a kid for two hours and they still love me. They get it, they understand the reason why,” he says. “All I’m after is perfection. All I want is the best band in the country.”

A marching band engaged with contemporary, popular culture, that resides in a place of exchange: For your work I’ll give you wisdom. For my Brahms, I’ll trade you Bruno Mars. Those kids sticking their heads in his office? Teasing him a little bit? Why you think there’s a CD-R with Kanye’s greatest hits burnt onto it front and center on his desk?

This is how the band plays on. Many minutes on the scoreboard clock have ticked by. Those many faces, faces from places as far as Saginaw, Saigon, or as close as Torrance. That saxophonist who goes on to become a doctor. The trombonist who’s now a certified CPA. Those glide steps they remember every time they walk into a PTA conference. They’ll all move further into their own separate lives.

Arthur C. Bartner will eventually move forward, too. Away from this life, and into a different one. Removed from the mid-week grind and the Saturday crescendo. Perhaps you’ll run into him on one of his planned global jaunts, on a quiet afternoon. Perhaps a Wednesday, in some city’s institution of great arts. He’s keen on these things, you know. Perhaps you’ll share a brief moment and he’ll talk to you of Seurat and pointillism or Cezanne and the highlights of Post Impressionism, or maybe they’ll be unexpected spurts of “Maria” from West Side Story. He’s into that sort of thing too, you know. And maybe from there you’ll establish a slight casual rapport and you’ll begin to ask those things that people tend to ask when in the company of somebody new. And you’ll say, “Tell me about you.” To which he may very well answer, “It’s not about me. But maybe, more, about what I’ve created.”

Bartner has been an architect of communal acts. His focus lead to a spirited, widely held belief, one that put excellence in our reach. In the subconsciousness of so many of us there is a brassy peal, a thump, that tells us our moment is here, that it’s time to do what we do. That we fight to win, but that in the fight itself is grace and dignity and health. Even up on the ladder, on any given Saturday, Barnter can’t see the edges of what he’s making. The whole field advantage is bigger than all of us.

Bartner has been an architect of communal acts. His focus lead to a spirited, widely held belief, one that put excellence in our reach.