More than a building: Million Dollar Band members reflect on home away from home

Firefighters+work+to+contain+the+blaze.+CW+%2F+Kelby+Hutchison

Firefighters work to contain the blaze. CW / Kelby Hutchison

Rebecca Griesbach | @rebach97 and Kelby Hutchison | @thetallcwrepor1

For the first 27 years of Ken Ozello’s 30-year career as a UA band director, uniforms and instruments for the Million Dollar Band (MDB) were usually stored in a band trailer or the back of members’ cars, or even the top floor of Reese Phifer. So, it was a high point for him when the band finally found a home in the south wing of Moody Music Building three years ago. 

But when the roof of the western side of the building’s south wing caught fire Sunday afternoon, that dream withered away in front of his very eyes. 

“It was almost like a nightmare,” he said. “We waited so long, and then they built this beautiful facility … It’s very, very disheartening to see that that’s where most of the damage occurred.”

The damage was concentrated in the band section of the building and didn’t spread to other areas of the building such as the music auditorium, according to Ozello.

Amid the devastation, though, he described an uplifting scene.

“As soon as I got there, I saw the entire team of University folks,” he said, noting construction workers, maintenance crew and firefighters, along with administrators like President Stuart Bell and Joseph Messina, dean of the college of arts and sciences. “There’s an incredible sort of silent team that looks out for this university, and they were all here.”

Smoke billowed from the roof on the south side of the building Sunday evening as firefighters waded through heavy rain to put out the blaze. The University of Alabama Police Department as well as the Tuscaloosa Fire Department attempted to keep countless onlookers at a safe distance from the smoke as the crowd continued to grow despite the downpour of rain. Lights flashed through the smoke as the firefighters disappeared through the haze.

Then came the good news: The building was unoccupied, there were no reported injuries, and the uniforms were fine.

When he arrived, Ozello was also able to move all 400 uniforms, which he said were not burnt or wet, to another side of the building. The move was crucial for him; if fall football resumes as scheduled, it would have been extremely difficult to get new ones made and tailored on time. 

Then came the bad news: Several instruments, which were exposed to smoke and water, will not be salvageable. The total worth of all MDB instruments, Ozello said, is about $1 million. 

“Sousaphones are close to $3,000 a piece,” he said, noting that they have to be custom-made. “We’ve got 25 of those.” 

The University is waiting on a full damage assessment from the state fire marshal, but Ozello told The Crimson White that homeowners insurance should cover personal instruments that aren’t typically covered by the University. He also said scholarships will not be affected by any expenditures related to the fire.

YOUR MEMORIES

Moody has had a profound effect on the lives of the band members in a capacity other than just their band membership.

Trombone player Charles Hoekenga, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering, shared fond flashbacks of band rehearsals and playing in the Spectrum concert in the concert hall. Among his most memorable moments, though, would be playing for head football coach Nick Saban in the band room when he came to talk to them in the MDB rehearsal room. 

Eric Wyatt, a Tuscaloosa resident and an MDB member from 1983-84, remembers toting his bass drum down the freight elevator in Reese Phifer before the band had a designated wing in Moody Music Building. For him, Moody represents family traditions and a shared love for music: Its auditorium is where all three of his daughters had choir concerts. 

For Cierra Loomis, a junior clarinet player majoring in news media and communication studies, the memories of Moody are endless. It was where she put her freshly cleaned uniform on for the first home football game, where she made new friends, and where she pledged to a fraternity.

Another alumnus, trombone player Leon Scobey, III, described his first time visiting campus as an out-of-state student auditioning for the band.

“Moody was literally the first UA building I ever went inside,” he said. “Some of the best memories were indoor rehearsals during band camp in the recital hall as well as the annual Spectrum concert in the fall and spring.”

PICKING UP THE PIECES

On Monday, Servpro trucks and other vehicles lined 2nd Avenue as workers entered and exited the western side of Moody. In a large auditorium in Bryant Conference Center across the street, the salvaged band equipment lay on the floor, showing some hope that the show will go on for the Million Dollar Band.

Ozello was confident that the band would roll with the punches. This is a group, after all, that has earned top honors and continues to hone their craft during a global pandemic. 

“If you spend any time around band students, they’re sort of a group that’s like, two plus two is where you need to be,” Ozello said. “That’s the way band students are. That’s especially true with members of the Million Dollar Band. [If] we’re not having classes this fall. Our building is on fire. What’s that gonna mean? That means whenever football does kick off, the Million Dollar Band will be there. That’s the way band kids are – they’re very resourceful people.” 

Skip Snead, the director of the school of music, said he was “shocked” when he heard the news. He said he was in his car heading to Moody “within 60 seconds.” Later that night, Snead issued a statement Sunday night to the music community. 

Snead said the University has already stepped forward with plans to begin reconstruction and all necessary repairs. He noted that while substantial smoke and water damage occurred throughout that wing of the building, he was hopeful for the future of the music department. 

“The University of Alabama School of Music is not a building – it is the people,” he said. “This structure will be rebuilt, regenerated, revived as is necessary. It will return as good or better than it was before.”