Live Music Brings AFAR Different Feel To Philips Arena

y Micah Hart

When Peter Sorckoff took over the Hawks game operations after Atlanta Spirit purchased the Hawks and Thrashers, he set about trying to figure out ways to make the experience at Philips Arena unique. He gathered his staff members for a summertime brainstorming session, and as ideas were tossed back and forth, one stood out as a potential winner: adding a live music component to game nights.

"I looked around at some of the other teams in the league," said Sorckoff, known for his award-winning game operations work with the Atlanta Thrashers. "We went to Sacramento, L.A., Miami, and they all had sort of the same standard music. But when I was in L.A., I visited with their organist, who played live during parts of the action. And it occurred to me that a live music component would play really well for basketball."

With that in mind, Sorckoff and his staffers set about to find a band to create the kind of musical experience they were looking for. After extensive auditions, one band came to the forefront: AFAR, a five-piece jazz and hip hop group formed two years ago by keyboard player Richard Johnson, a veteran jazz musician who has performed all over the world with such acts as Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.

"During their audition, they just had an energy that set them apart," said Sorckoff. "They were really organized when they came in, they had a pretty diverse playlist, and musically, they all played really tight. We liked them immediately."

Now a staple of the Philips Arena game-night experience, AFAR can be heard throughout the game: during timeouts, dead balls, and in the course of the action.

"What makes live music great is the flexibility it gives us during games," says Sorckoff. "If something isn't working, the guys can change out of it into something else at a moment's notice, unlike with canned music. There is a much richer, fuller sound as well. Live music just brings something to the table that canned music can't provide."

The group is the first band to ever play live during a professional sporting event, and they know that with that honor comes responsibility.

"It's great to be the first," said Johnson. "We are in uncharted territory, and there is pressure in that to be successful. But I think lots of other teams are going to take to this idea, so its cool that we have the chance to be sort of pioneers."

As the house band for the Arena, AFAR is responsible for getting the crowd into the game in much the same fashion as the sound system used to. For them, this means being able to reproduce many of the popular songs currently getting airplay on local radio stations.

"We get requests all the time from people who come up to us during the games, so we know what kinds of music fans want to hear. We don't try to imitate what's on the radio, but we can cover about 100 songs, so we pretty much keep up with what's hot at the time."

It's a good thing too, because as Johnson says, keeping the crowd involved is the most important part of their jobs.

"It's different than when we play in clubs. We feed off the crowd when we perform in general, but it's a different type of energy during games. When the team is doing well, the arena gets hyped, and we have to respond to that and keep the fans in it. And if the team is struggling, then we want to play something that brings the energy back up."

Each game is a different story, depending on the mood of the crowd, the dynamics of the game, and the opponent as well.

"We have to be on our toes. If we are playing a fast-paced team like the Magic, we have to adapt to that style of play (just wait until the Hawks play the Suns on March 22) and play faster-paced music. On the other hand, when we had the Spurs here, who play a much slower game, we had to slow it down some. But that is all part of the fun and the challenge of performing during games."

Basketball and music is nothing new for Johnson, who got to play a little ball in his days touring with Marsalis.

"Wynton loves basketball, and he had friends in the Bulls organization. So when we would go to Chicago, we actually got to play on their practice court. It was awesome."

Though the band may be most recognizable to Hawks fans from their work during games, there is much more to the group than that. A visit to their website ( shows the band's education initiative, a program called "From Jazz to Hip Hop: AFAR out education". Designed to teach children about music and to bridge the generational gap between jazz and hip hop, the band members put on workshops at local schools to encourage students to take up an instrument and become musicians.

"Music is so important to us," said Johnson. "We want to give back what it has given us, and in addition it gives us a good chance to interact with and get feedback from the fans."

Though Johnson formed the band, each member has an important role in making it work. Che Marshall, the drummer, is in charge of putting together the educational pieces for the school workshops. Marc Baldwin, on lead guitar, handles all of the promotional work for the group. Bassist Double D maintains the band's website.

Sorckoff says the new experiment is going as well if not better than they could possibly have hoped.

"They have done a great job for us so far," he says. "As the year has progressed, they have really taken off. The bottom line is, having live music on hand at the games provides us with a home court advantage that is different from anyone else's right now."

Micah Hart is the Assistant Web Editor for the Atlanta Hawks. To contact AFAR, log onto their website at