Since the Ole Miss admitted its first African-American student in 1962, the university has been home to many firsts. Today, the Pride of the South band is being led by its first female African-American and Korean drum majors.
Following the precedent set by African-American drum majors Charles Brewer in 1980 and Chris Presley in 2010, Tracee Brooks is the first female African-American drum major. Jiwon Lee is the first-ever Korean drum major.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘They look like America.’ All three of them bring different strengths to the table, ultimately benefiting the band,” Bill DeJournett, associate director of bands, said.
DeJournett and his department actively recruited both Lee and Brooks to apply to Ole Miss and join the band. David Wilson is the director of bands and personally connected with these two drum majors in the recruitment process.
“He creates a really good bond with students and gets to know them on a personal level, and it’s not ‘I’m the band director and you’re the student,’” Brooks said. “It’s a really good relationship to have with a band director.”
Tracee Brooks is a senior music education major from Ripley. She hopes to live and teach outside of Mississippi and is undecided on whether to become a band director or elementary school teacher.
Jiwon Lee is a junior music performance major with an emphasis in flute and violin performance. Lee was born in South Korea, but her parents moved to Oxford to study at Ole Miss when she was a baby.
Senior drum major Jesse Louwerens said, “Working with Tracee and Jiwon is great. We’re all new, so we came in equal as new drum majors. We had a connection there. We do what we can for band. I’m proud to be able to work with the two of them.”
Brooks said she became involved with beginner band in sixth grade at her middle school.
“At the time, we had just got a new band director, so everybody in the sixth grade auditioned for band,” she said. “That was really my first experience with music. I had never taken lessons when I was little. I wasn’t big into choir or anything beforehand.”
Brooks said seeing others play instruments on television and at church inspired her to give band a chance.
From sixth grade through high school, she stuck with band because of how fun it was and because of her motivating band directors who inspired her to stay active in music. Brooks knows the basics of all instruments, but she plays the French horn.
Before coming to Ole Miss, Brooks attended Itawamba Community College because it was neither too close nor too far away from home, she said.
“I didn’t feel like I was ready to go straight to a senior college,” she said.
Attending ICC first, Brooks said she was able to figure out what she wanted to do.
“At the time, I was kind of on the fence about being a music education major,” Brooks said. “Being able to be there and be sure of what I wanted to do before I came to Ole Miss was good for me.”
When she came to Ole Miss and started her education classes, Brooks said she knew for sure she wanted to teach music.
She said she knew Ole Miss had a good education program for music students, liked how the classes were set up and personally knew some of the music professors and band directors under whom she wanted to study.
Initially, Brooks said being the first female African-American drum major did not register in her mind. Her first thoughts were simply, “Yay, I made it! I did it!”
She said she realized the longevity of what she had accomplished once the nervous time between her audition and the results was over.
“It makes me really proud to be able to say I’ve done that,” Brooks said. “Now that barrier is broken, and more people can feel like they can do it. To be able to be in this position is an honor and a blessing.”
Brooks said she hopes to be a role model by demonstrating her work ethic toward her service position in the band.
“Hopefully people see that no matter what kind of background you come from, this is something you definitely do if you put your mind to it,” Brooks said.
Senior trumpet section leader Raven Gordon said Brooks is a leader who will help anyone with anything.
“She’s a great person to be around because she’s laughing and being silly, but she’s also serious enough to get her job done,” Gordon said. “Every time we hang out, she’s always making jokes. It’s hard to not have a good time around her.”
After Jiwon Lee’s father graduated from Ole Miss, her mom fell ill and was unable to finish her own studies.
The Lee family moved back to their hometown of Dajeon, South Korea, where her father settled into a job with his new degree. Lee spent elementary and middle school in Dajeon and returned to the United States as a freshman at Oxford High School.
Lee said she plans to graduate with a doctorate in the music field and be a professor at college or university level. Overall, she wants to be herself.
“I’m representing my country in everything I do,” Lee said.
She said she was surprised language was not the most difficult part of her transition back to life in America.
“The most different thing was finishing middle school in Korea and then coming to high school. Being around all those American students and being one of the few foreign students was not easy,” Lee said. “There is always a little culture shock here and there, but I enjoy being here.”
Lee joined her first band as a high school freshman. Her counselor suggested joining band after Lee told her she played flute and violin.
“I was so excited,” Lee said. “There is something I can really do. From being sick, I didn’t speak much during school, but then in band and orchestra, you just play.”
Because she enrolled at Oxford High School mid-semester, the band director placed her in the last chair of concert band.
Lee had been playing flute for nine years. The following year, out of almost 30 flutists, she earned first chair of symphonic band, a state-rated concert band for competition.
At Oxford High School, David Wilson visited band practice every Friday morning, suggesting how Lee could improve. When she became a junior, he began recruiting Lee.
Lee said she always thought she would go to a Northern school to study medicine. Her mom was sick, and Lee said she wanted to help those in need. She said she is also considering English education, as her family typically follows this traditional path.
“I never thought I would do a music major, even though I’ve done it since I was little. It just came to me as a hobby, like my best friend because I never had any siblings,” Lee said.
Lee said she never even considered being in the marching band until her former high school band director, Lynn Killough, persistently approached her during sophomore year and convinced her to do so.
Former Chancellor Jones’ words of, “You start with Ole Miss; you end with Ole Miss” lingered in Lee’s head during her senior year as she thought about her future. She said she considered her family heritage there as well as the positive impression of the band Wilson gave her.
“Without the Ole Miss band directors, I would never even think about being in the band. It’s just a life-changer now because I’ve gotten all of these opportunities,” Lee said. “Band is family.”
Lee also said she never thought about herself as the first Korean drum major until someone told her.
“It feels special,” Lee said. “It’s something that not everybody can feel. It’s something that I cannot thank everybody enough for. Even when I feel like am I not doing my job right, there is always someone supporting me.”
Lee said she represents her part of the world as drum major. She said her parents constantly remind her she is representing her country as well as her school.
“It’s all about representing. I even think by foreign students gaining these opportunities, our university is becoming more global, culturally inclusive and open,” Lee said.
With the responsibility comes pressure. Lee said there is pressure when standing on a ladder surrounded by more than 67,000 people, but to her it’s all about small moments, momentum and friendship.
“Jiwon has probably never met a stranger,” Gordon said. “Doesn’t matter if she knows you or not, she will walk up to you and talk to you. I honestly can’t think of anyone that can talk to people the way Jiwon does.”