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Not Your Typical Big Band

For a man who has spent his life as a musician, Jon Woods garners a lot of publicity from football coaches.

Jon Woods

Jon Woods directs the Ohio State University Marching Band

Legendary (and legendarily profane) Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once called the Ohio State Marching Band, which Woods directs, “the best damn band in the land.” Hayes’s assessment stuck, and the band’s shorthand nickname became TBDBITL.

Enter Jim Tressel, who early this year coached the Buckeyes to their first national championship since the Hayes days. The whole world was watching when Tressel, whose team had just upset the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, said, “We’ve always had the best damn band in the land.  Now we’ve got the best damn team in the land.”

Woods graduated from IUP in 1960 and for nearly thirty years has been associated with the 225-member Ohio State Marching Band; for two-thirds of that time, he has been its director. His route to Columbus was circuitous, though, winding through the Big Ten towns of State College and Ann Arbor and including a stint with the Tommy Dorsey Band.

Born and reared in Spangler, Pa. (now called Northern Cambria), Woods played trombone from an early age under the tutelage of the late George Pollock ‘41 and Daniel DiCicco ’54 in the Northern Cambria schools. He also studied with Clarence Hurrell of Johnstown, a former trombone soloist with the U.S. Army Band, and sang in several high school choral groups and the symphonic choir. 

DiCicco regularly shuttled his student musicians to Indiana State Teachers College for performances by such groups as the Wind Ensemble and the Mellowmen. The latter sparked Woods’s love of the big band sound. “It was at the tail end of the era,” he said, “but what I wanted most at the time was to be traveling in a big band.”

From 1956 to 1960, most of his traveling was between Spangler and Indiana, as he commuted for all but a year of his undergraduate studies in Music Education. Student teaching took him to Altoona (“It was an eye-opening experience. They had a great program there.”), and he worked in the summers with Northern Cambria’s Spangler unit marching band. By his senior year at Indiana, he was running the Spangler band full-time while he finished his undergraduate education.

Woods was—and is—a versatile musician. He played in all the college’s ensembles and sang in the men’s glee club and the symphonic choir. A tenor, he presented his senior recital in voice and a few weeks later played a trombone solo at his class’s commencement ceremonies.

In the early sixties, Woods saw his band expand with the merger of the Barnesboro and Spangler units into Northern Cambria High School, and his musicians repeatedly took home honors in VFW and American Legion state parade competitions. In the mid-sixties, he took a vacation from teaching to seek a master’s degree at Penn State. He spent a summer as a graduate assistant with the university’s Blue Band and subsequently taught a year at Cambria Heights High School in Patton.

A move to Newark (Del.) High School meant that the bands he oversaw were twice as large as those to which he had been accustomed. His groups in Delaware won many awards, and Woods himself started playing with the Tommy Dorsey Band up and down the East Coast, as well as with what is now the Delaware Symphony Orchestra.

In the Philadelphia-Wilmington area, Woods encountered a number of impressively talented musicians who were products of the University of Michigan. Inspired, he began going to Michigan every summer to pursue doctoral studies. In 1973-74, he did a residency there and obtained his doctorate in Music Education. Although he “loved the school in Delaware,” he applied for a job at Ohio State and became associate director of the marching band and assistant professor of music education.

Woods continually emphasizes the importance of vocal music—even for marching bands. 

“My bands sing a lot,” he said. “The Ohio State Marching Band is a very good choir. They sing in performances. They sing during Script Ohio [the band’s signature showpiece].” According to Woods, his own background in voice has “helped with the teaching of musical concepts.”

Woods and his wife, Donna, an Ohio State alumna, have three children, ages eleven to eighteen. All are musicians, and the eldest, Catherine, is already a professional dancer in New York City.

A nationally recognized clinician and adjudicator for both marching and concert band festivals, Woods has been involved with any number of district and all-state honors bands. In February, for example, he will be guest conductor of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 5 Band in Aliquippa.

He has, essentially, become the famous director of a famous band. “It all started,” he said, “in Indiana.”