Farmville’s Dr. Clarence Knight, Jr. – from H.B. Sugg School to jazz legend
May 23, 2024 / Donna Williams

Joined by his fellow H.B. Sugg classmates, Dr. Clarence Knight Jr.  was honored September 2, by the H.B. Sugg Charitable Organization for his renown musical talents, military history, and his commitment to education with a lifetime achievement award. 

Knight was the first African American musical director for a national football team jazz ensemble, orchestrated his own band – Clarence Knight Orchestra, – established 17 community schools, toured the country with Gladys Knight and played with many greats including Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin. 

Today, at the age of 86, Knight continues to pursue his love of the arts and has an album releasing soon. 

“I’m not done yet,” Knight joked. 

Knight is a Farmville native, who grew up on George St., and graduated from H.B. Sugg School in 1953. He credits his raising in Farmville for helping him grow in love and community. 

He remembers fondly of playing with friends and classmates and being forced to eat dinner at friend’s houses before he was able to return home to eat dinner at his house. 

“What I loved about growing up in Farmville is we were all family,” Knight said, adding neighbors and the community looked out for each other and often showed affection towards each other. 

He continued his education and pursued a degree in music education in 1959 from Howard University in Washington D.C. 

In 1980, he received his doctorate in administration and supervision with concentrations in higher education administration and personnel management from The George Washington University. 

Knight has led a successful music career and has played with many great well-known artists including Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, and Jackie Wilson. 

He is also the owner of Clarence Knight Productions, a musical contracting business that has contracted musicians throughout the United States backing up some of the leading Acts in the Country. His contracting also included Musical Theater at The Warner Theater in Washington D.C. and other theaters in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Boston.

Though playing music since age three, Knight’s love of music began when he was just eight years old and he learned to play the saxophone and clarinet while attending the segregated  H.B. Sugg School.

At the age of 16, Knight entered the School of Music at Howard University where he took his love of music to the next level while learning disciplines needed for his future advancement. 

Knight made a name for himself at Howard University and was the lead alto saxophonist at the famed Howard Theater from 1954-1958. During this time, he also performed for a number of social events on campus as well as other venues through Washington D.C. Appearances included the Apollo Theater In New York City, Baltimore’s The Royal Theater and The Regal Theater in Chicago.

Knight performed at these locations and more with many famous R&B stars of the 1950’s including Lou Rawls, Bill Doggett, Jackie Wilson, Sonny Till, The Orioles, Moms Mabley, Red Foxx, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne and more. 

After graduating from Howard University, Knight began teaching and began his teaching career at Falkland Elementary. He followed in both his mother’s and father’s footprints with each having taught at H.B. Sugg school. During his one-year teaching period at Falkland Elementary, Knight established the school’s very first instrumental music program. 

Knight also had an impressive military career. Upon graduating from Howard University, Knight was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army. 

His active duty service with the U.S. Army began in June 1960. In 1961, Knight graduated second in his class from the Army Fixed Wing Aviation School in Fort Rucker, Alabama. A year later, he graduated from Helicopter Transition School in Fort Wolters, Texas. 

After a tour at Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago, Knight was deployed to Fort Benning, Georgia where he was an integral part of a task force that developed the air assault concept using helicopters for the U.S. Army Command.

The Air Assault Division was later deployed to Vietnam as the 1st Cavalry Air Assault Division.

Knight received many awards and accommodations while in the Army including the Bronze Star, Air Medal and Vietnamese Medal of Honor. Before being honorably discharged from the Army in 1967 as a captain, Knight worked as a helicopter instructor at Fort Wolters in Texas. 

After his service was complete, Knight returned to his career in teaching and administration as well as continued his professional work as a musician and music contractor. He taught instrumental music at the elementary and secondary levels and was selected as a Mott Fellow. He attended the Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan and studied Community Education. 

When he completed his studies, he employed his newly learned method in Washington, D.C. schools. 

Knight remained busy and served as the State Director of Community Education and established 17 community schools throughout D.C. before he retired. 

He remained active after retirement, by continuing his service to the arts and to education. He toured the country with famous musician Gladys Knight all while developing and directing the Neighborhood Arts Academy for the D.C. Department of Recreation. 

Knight also established his own orchestra – Clarence Knight Orchestra – and has provided musical support for a number of events. With his orchestra he has played at THe Congressional Black Caucus in Phoenix Awards Dinner for more than 20 years, The Black Engineers Award Ceremony for five years, five Presidential Inaugural Balls as well as many dances, weddings, and social events. 

In 1985, Knight joined the faculty at Bowie State University and became the first African American musical director for a national football team jazz ensemble – The Washington Redskins. He held this position for 15 years. Knight was also a chair and professor of music with the Department of Fine and Performing Arts. His tenure at Bowie State is highlighted by many major  contributions such as: The father of the now “Symphony of Soul” Band Program; Development of the Music Technology program through a Title III Grant; Providing the vision and direction for the “new” Fine and Performing Arts Center that was completed in January 2012 and the redesigning of the Fine and Performing Arts Department into its present configuration. 

His accomplishments were recognized by more than 100 attendees of the awards Gala held September 2 at the Paramount THeater including Farmville Commissioner and H.B. Sugg Charitable Organization organizational advisor Alma Hobbs. 

“Dr. Knight entered this earth on the wings of humility. He touched many lives with his music and changed circumstances making things better than he found them. When he entered earth at a time of segregation, he spent his life in the pursuit of equality, justice, and respect for all,” Hobbs said. 

“His spirit was filled with the demonstration of love for family, faith, and friends. Over his lifetime, he did so much for so many without expectations in return.” 

H.B. Sugg Charitable Organization president David Dupree added, “I always thought of him as an admirable person. He never met a stranger … His music career is something to be looked upon to be desired. He has had the opportunity to achieve great things in the music field. It’s encouraging.”

Other H.B. Sugg graduates were also in attendance to celebrate the achievements of one of their own. 

“Dr. Knight is a great musician. He has a lot of experience and has worked with other great artists. He is a great saxophone player. I’m excited. He came from little ole Farmville and had the chance to explore the world. We’re proud of all he has achieved,” said H.B. Sugg Charitable Organization executive secretary Veronica Hicks.

H.B, Suggs graduate of 1959 Rudy Cobb added, “His father (and mother) taught at the school. We are proud to have him back and celebrate his accomplishments.”

Farmville Mayor John Moore stated that Knight’s accomplishments were remarkable and he was proud of Knight. 

Knight’s son, Clarence Knight III and his wife Phyllis were both present at the awards gala to celebrate Knight’s accomplishment.

Knight has passed on his love of music to his son, who plays multiple instruments including the piano, saxophone, and violin. He has in turn passed his knowledge down to his daughter Ayanna. 

Knight, who now lives in Maryland,  was very humbled to return to his hometown and celebrate his achievements. He shared he was most proud of his teaching career and seeing his students progress and grow in their journeys. 

“When I look back on everything I’ve done … what I am proudest of is the students I taught over the years. They are the ones that have benefitted me the most. I look back at the students I have taught and their accomplishments that have come because of my teachings,” Knight said. 

“When I go to a show or the theater to see people I have trained – that to me is more important than anything. They are happy.”

Knight said he knows that his teachings and passion for music and teaching will continue throughout the years because he sees it within his students. 

Knight shared that he has been asked several times over the years how he has been able to accomplish so much in his 86 years of life. He explained he simply did it and that he believed God grants each individual a purpose and helps that individual fulfill his purpose for them. 

“All the things I’ve done – we call them accomplishments – but I think it was all in the line of duty,” Knight said 

Currently, Knight is working on a documentary detailing his life’s work and accomplishments. 

Scott Laumann