A Brief History of African American Marching Bands

A Brief History of African American Marching Bands

A Brief History of African American Marching Bands 

Excerpted by Beverly Patterson from William Dukes Lewis, Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands. Thesis (M.A., Folklore) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003. Used with permission from the author. Thesis is available at UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries


The earliest marching bands in America were most likely the fifers, drummers, trumpeters, and pipers of Colonial-era militias. Like their European predecessors, these bands functioned to regulate daily life in military camps, give signals or pass orders in battle, and boost the morale of soldiers during wartime (White 1944: 9). Each company had at least one drummer and fifer (Southern 1983: 43). Historians Al Right and Stanley Newcomb maintain that when the Continental Congress drafted the bill forming the United States Marine Corps in 1775, the bill “also provided for a Marine Band consisting of one drum major, one fife major, and 32 drums and fifes” (1970: 65).

The Virginia legislature enacted a statute in 1738 requiring “free mulattos, blacks, and Native Americans to serve in the military” (Malone 1996: 130). Forbidden to bear arms due to colonial fears of uprising, they served exclusively “as drummers, fifers, trumpeters, or pioneers” (Southern 1983: 43). Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, military records seldom listed the race of servicemen; therefore, it is unclear exactly how many blacks participated in America’s earliest wars. Eileen Southern projects that the number of blacks who served in northern and southern integrated military units during the American Revolution exceeded 5,000 (1983: 64). By scouring public records and colonial-era newspapers, Southern discovered that “among the black soldiers who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775 was Barzillai Lew, a drummer and fifer of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Lew had also fought in the French and Indian War” (1983: 64). She also determined that a slave, Nero Benson, had served as a trumpeter in a company for Captain Isaac Clark in Framingham, Massachusetts, as early as 1723 (1983: 29).

Southern argues that the numerous black musicians who composed the military bands of the early nineteenth century “undoubtedly acquired their training—as well as access to instruments—during the War of 1812” (1983: 67). To bolster her assertion, she refers to the myriad all-black brass bands that emerged soon after the war ended, especially in the cities of New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York, and in sections of New England (1983: 67). One such band was led by Francis “Frank” Johnson, who Carolyn Bryant describes as “a talented Negro band leader and composer” whose band “performed as a military band, played concert engagements, and provided music at many fashionable balls” (1975: 10). Johnson was purportedly born in the West Indies around 1792 and migrated to the United States in 1809, where he settled in Philadelphia (Southern 1983: 108). As keyed and valved brass instruments were introduced into the United States in the 1820s, Frank Johnson incorporated them into his band, becoming one of the earliest, most popular black brass bands in the country (Southern 1983: 108; Bryant 1975: 10).

Begun as the Third Company of Washington Guards in 1815, Johnson’s military band was disbanded and reformed several times, employing other Philadelphian regiments. In 1821 Johnson began a long-standing association with the elite regiment, the Philadelphia State Fencibles (Southern 1983: 108). During the first half of the nineteenth century, military bands began deepening their connection with the civilian population by diversifying their repertoire and evolving into more versatile ensembles that could serve a variety of social functions beyond their military tasks. The Johnson military band, for instance, often substituted their wind instruments for stringed ones and played dance music, thus becoming the “Johnson’s Celebrated Cotillion Band” or “Johnson’s Fine Quadrille Band” (Southern 1983: 108-109). After Johnson’s death in 1844, fellow bandsman Joseph Anderson “took over the leadership of the Frank Johnson Brass and String Bands and maintained their excellence up to the time of the Civil War” (Southern 1983: 110).

By the time the Civil War had begun in 1861, new brass instruments were being used universally among the military bands that were beginning to thrive in America. Southern emphasizes that in the Union Army, “one of the first acts of the white commanding officers of Negro regiments was to procure instruments and music instructors for the formation of bands” (1983: 207). Through parades and other public performances, these bands helped recruit other black men to join the Union Army. According to Southern, by the war’s conclusion in 1865 “more than 185,000 black men had been inducted into the army as the ‘United States Colored Troops’” (1983: 205). Each of the black regiments had its own band (Southern 1983: 207).

Many black regimental bands were disbanded soon after the Civil War. Although some of these ex-bandsmen certainly stayed on to form the first black units to be organized into the United States Regular Army, others attached themselves to civilian bands or toured with road shows (Southern 1983: 255). By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, marching bands had become thoroughly integrated into American society. Music historian William Schaefer affirms that during this time bands of well-trained ex-military musicians were found in almost every town and village in America. These bands were playing for political rallies, circuses, minstrel and medicine shows, carnivals, picnics, dances, athletic contests, reunions, seasonal parades, serenade fairs, and holiday gatherings. Schaefer maintains, “every military troop, quasi military drill team, volunteer fire squad, lodge, or social club had its auxiliary band to swell holiday pageantry” (1977: 8).

From about 1830 until 1900 minstrelsy reigned as one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States. First-rate bands frequently toured with minstrel troupes and vaudeville companies (Southern 1983: 255). “Although troupes composed of black entertainers date back to the 1840s,” argues Southern, “it was not until 1865 that the first permanent black minstrel troupes were formed” (1983: 229). Three of the largest black owned and managed companies were “the Hicks and Sawyer Minstrels, the McCabe and Young Minstrels, and the Richards and Pringle Minstrels” (Malone 1996: 54). The minstrel stage offered blacks an economically viable profession and an opportunity to cultivate their musical talents. Among those that began their careers as minstrel performers were “‘Father of the Blues’ W.C. Handy, vaudevillian Tom Fletcher, musical comedy and ragtime composer Ernest Hogan, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bert Williams, and Bessie Smith” (Malone 1996: 54).

W.C. Handy joined the Mahara Minstrels as a cornetist in 1896, and in time he was appointed as the director of the troupe’s forty-two musicians. Minstrel shows were held in the evenings; therefore, troupes would bait the public’s interest in the afternoons by staging elaborate parades through the downtowns of the towns in which they were performing. The minstrel band strutted along and provided the procession with its spirited marching tunes (Handy 1947: 35-38). Handy describes one of these minstrel parades:

The parade itself was headed by the managers in their four-horse carriages. Doffing silk hats and smiling their jeweled smiles, they acknowledged with easy dignity the small flutter of polite applause their high-stepping horses provoked. After them came the carriage in which the stars rode. The ‘walking gents’ followed, that exciting company which included comedians, singers, and acrobats. They in turn were followed by the drum major—not an ordinary drum major beating time for a band, mind you, but a performer out of the books, an artist with the baton. His twirling stick suggested a bicycle wheel revolving in the sun. Occasionally he would give it a toss and then recover the glistening affair with the same flawless skill. The drum major in a minstrel show was a character to conjure with; not infrequently he stole the parade. Our company had two such virtuosi; in addition to twirling their batons, they added the new wrinkle of tossing them back and forth to each other as they marched. (Handy 1947: 37-38)

Whether being performed by all-black troupes or by whites in “blackface,” minstrelsy helped disseminate African American styles of music and dance all across the nation (Stearns and Stearns 1968: 43).

While minstrelsy had indeed captivated the attention of the American public during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, brass band music had also become a common source of entertainment. Former Union Army bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore is often credited as being the catalyst for the brass band movement in the United States. During the late 1800s, Gilmore toured the nation with a first-rate concert/marching band and staged numerous large-scale musical extravaganzas (Schafer 1977: 2). Band historian H.W. Schwartz reported that Gilmore used a brass band of approximately five hundred pieces to present his “Grand National Concert” in New Orleans, on March 4, 1864 (1957: 51). Gilmore’s World Peace Jubilee in Boston, first produced in 1872, provided many black entertainers an opportunity to perform for the American public (Southern 1983: 253). Among those who performed during Gilmore’s Jubilees were numerous all-black bands and professional jubilee troupes, such as the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Students (Southern 1983: 218). By the time Patrick S. Gilmore died in 1892, the former director of the United States Marine Band, John Philip Sousa, had formed his own concert band and was touring extensively around the country and world. William Schafer asserts that, building upon Gilmore’s legacy, Sousa’s international success as a bandleader confirmed “there was a burgeoning industry for touring bands as major entertainment vehicles” (1977: 15). According to Jacqui Malone, “by the last decade of the nineteenth century there were approximately ten thousand bands in the United States, many of them marching bands” (1996: 137). This time period—between 1880 and 1910—is considered by many to be the “golden age of the brass band in America” (Schafer 1977: 2).

Due to the general popularity of brass bands, the widespread availability of black military-trained musicians, and an overabundance of cheap military wind instruments in the post-Civil War period, the marching band tradition also flourished in African American communities. Many African American benevolent societies and organizations formed bands to help raise money for their own causes. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, the Jenkins Orphanage organized an all-black boy’s band. Rev. Daniel Joseph Jenkins formed the Orphanage’s first band in the 1890s, and soon had to add subsidiary units because of the band’s widespread popularity. At times the orphanage had as many as five groups on the road at once (Chilton 1980: 2-3).

The city of New Orleans became a hotbed of fine black brass bands during the post-Civil War period. Part of the reason these bands (among other African American art forms) proliferated in New Orleans is because of the city’s African American leadership. For instance, black Reconstruction leader P.B.S. Pinchback was an avid supporter of several benevolent societies in New Orleans in the 1880s. By advocating for the development of these societies, he indirectly promoted the bands (Schaefer 1977: 10; Malone 1996: 180). More than 226 African American societies were active in New Orleans, including “racial improvement societies; lodges of the Odd Fellows, Masons, Knights Templar, and Eastern Star; social and literary clubs; baseball clubs; rowing clubs; militia companies; religious societies; orphan aid societies; and benevolent societies” (Malone 1996: 180). These societies helped galvanize the marching band tradition in New Orleans by hiring black bands to perform at outdoor social events, including picnics, parades, dances, funerals, weddings, and political rallies (Malone 1996: 180). Other organizations also hosted marching bands. New Orleans jazzmen Lester Young and Sidney Bechet, for example, found employment in carnival bands playing for sideshows early in their musical careers. “Eubie Blake performed briefly in 1901 as a buck dancer, musician, and singer on the portable wagon of Dr. Frazier’s Medicine Show,” writes Jacqui Malone (1996: 68). The incomparable Louis Armstrong played many mournful hymns while marching in New Orleans funeral parades in his youth (Burns and Ward: 2000: 46).

The black brass bands of New Orleans were not permanently organized groups but were rather a mix of African American musicians from a variety of geographic, occupational, ethnic and economic backgrounds. According to Malone, many “Creoles of color, who lived primarily in the downtown French-oriented section of the city, absorbed a rich mix of Franco-American cultural elements.” Consequently, “sons of Creoles often studied with musicians from the French Opera Company and also played in the string trios, brass bands, and dance orchestras of the downtown district” (Malone 1996: 138). While some of the earliest municipal bands in New Orleans consisted of such formally trained Creoles of color and freedman who could read music and play sophisticated techniques, by the turn of the twentieth-century, smaller, self-taught provincial bands emerged from rural areas with a unique sound, style, and repertoire that provided the stylistic fodder for the eventual growth of jazz (Malone 1996: 138-139).

While documenting several rural brass bands in Alabama in the 1950s, Frederic Ramsey, Jr., discovered that most rural bands played music by ear and patterned their style and repertoire after their surroundings. In the liner notes to his recordings for Folkways records, Ramsey explains:

The music played by members of these early plantation brass bands was based on song—they blew singing horns. Their repertoire came, not from the white man’s stock of patriotic sheet music, but from church and secular songs. From the church side, they played spirituals, jubilees, and possibly, some early chants. They had probably sung them in their churches and homes before blowing them through their horns. From the every-day, or secular life, they adapted rags, reels, blues, and ballads. (Ramsey 1961; quoted in Schafer 1977: 14)

The style of these self-taught rural bandsmen was highly improvisatory and strongly influenced by the vocal music of the black churches, work songs, field hollers, and reels (Malone 1996: 138). They replaced the voice using their instruments—recreating the tonal allusion to song by “scooping, sliding, whining, growling, and falsetto effects” (Southern 1983: 364). Other characteristics included offbeat phrasing, polyrhythms, melodies and countermelodies, syncopation, and call-and-response patterns—all of which are hallmarks of other forms of African American vernacular music (Schafer 1977: 13-14). Prior to 1900, the traditions of self-trained provincial bands and formally trained municipal bands were firmly established in the New Orleans musical milieu (Malone 1996: 140).

In the first decade of the twentieth century, black bandsmen from New Orleans and other areas of the South began a mass exodus to the North. Dance hall venues in Northern cities, like New York’s famous Cotton Club, Clef Club, Tempo Club, and Savoy Ballroom, were attracting scores of these talented former brass band musicians. However, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, many of these dance bandleaders joined the service, with the result of some of them leading military bands (Malone 1996: 141).

In June 1916, Colonel William Hayward organized an all-black National Guard unit in New York. Hayward was serving as public service commissioner for New York City at the time and was familiar with the black leaders and communities of the city, especially the ever-growing Harlem district. Thus, the 15th Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard came into existence. Having “no rifles, ammunition, uniforms, armory to drill in, headquarters for recruitments, or troops,” Hayward began pursuing ways to recruit and raise funds to support his regiment (Badger 1995: 141). Biographer Reid Badger writes, “Colonel Hayward understood from the first that successful recruiting depended in large part on showmanship, and that meant parades and uniforms, and the stirring music of a military brass band” (1995: 142). Consequently, Hayward charged Lieutenant James Reese Europe, whom he knew had a reputation as one of the most talented dance orchestra leaders in New York, with the task of organizing an army band of the same caliber as his famed Clef Club and Temp Club groups (Badger 1995: 143; Southern 1983: 350).

Having recruited a large group of talented black bandsmen, including drum major/famed songwriter Noble Sissle, Lieutenant Europe and his 369th Infantry “Hellfighters” band gained tremendous fame throughout France for their syncopated rhythms and jazz-spirited versions of written standards; they were even invited to play in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1918 (Malone 1996: 143). Jacqui Malone writes, “While white-American soldiers of World War I ardently strove to march like well-oiled war machines, like battle-ready robots, James Reese Europe’s black bandsmen of the 369th Regiment stepped to the beat of a different drummer” (1990: 59). Dance historians John Szwed and Morton Marks assert that the African American drill sergeants of World War I, such as Lt. Europe, introduced melody and foot-stomping syncopation into military cadence-counting, which permanently altered the standard European marching call that had existed for centuries (1988: 32).

Europe’s “Harlem Hellfighters” band won critical acclaim in the United States when it returned home and marched for the first time down Fifth Avenue in New York during a parade on May 12, 1919. A reporter for the New York Times wrote in an editorial that Lt. Europe had assembled a group that “all Americans swore, and some Frenchmen admitted, was the best military band in the world” (Southern 1983: 352). Returning home from the war, many of these military trained bandsmen were solicited to join the faculty of the budding music departments of black colleges and universities.

Since Emancipation, newly freed blacks across the South were exploring their options for social and economic advancement, one of which was attending schools established exclusively for blacks by religious and non-sectarian organizations largely from the north. In 1862, during the Civil War, Congress passed the first Land-Grant Act (Morrill Act). According to historian Bill LaVeist, this act provided each state 30,000 acres of federal lands that could be sold in order to finance schools to teach primarily agriculture and mechanical arts. However, the majority of historically black colleges were founded after the Civil War. The passage of the second Land Grant Act in 1890 specifically stated that funds for higher education be granted on a just and equitable basis. Consequently, between 1880 and 1899, seventeen black land-grant colleges were established in Southern and border states and emphasized agricultural, mechanical and industrial education (LaVeist 2001: 1-3).

“For the most part these institutions maintained excellent music programs,” affirms Southern (1983: 221). Like the professional jubilee troupes, small bands were formed in the burgeoning black colleges and universities to help recruit students and raise money for programs. Some of these early black collegiate bands included the Alabama State Collegians, the Florida A&M State Collegians, and the Kentucky State Collegians. Perhaps the earliest black college marching band existed at Tuskegee Normal School circa 1890—the Tuskegee Normal School Brass Band (Harland, Kaufman, and Smock 1974: 49). While many of these early bands were student-led and informal, they became more professional as the years progressed.

Author Ralph Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute during the 1930s, where he majored in music and played trumpet in the band. He recalls how the band at another Alabama school for blacks, Alabama State University in Montgomery, had become so popular that it caused a rift between the band program and the college’s administration. He explains, “the state of Alabama didn’t support the college adequately, so the orchestra would go out and raise money. . . . The band was so successful in the North that they decided to go professional, which led to real contention between them and the President of Alabama State. He forced them to give up the name ‘Alabama State Collegians’ and they took the name of their leader, Erskine Hawkins” (Welburn 1995: 312).

Many of America’s predominately white colleges and universities had some form of a band that performed for school ceremonies and social and athletic events. Music historian Kenneth Berger writes that as these collegiate bands developed they “became attached to the military or R.O.T.C. departments, or in a few instances, unofficially sponsored by the athletic department” (Berger 1960: 445). Outdoor ceremonies and sporting events were conducive to wind-band performances. As American football evolved into a major spectator sport in many colleges and universities around the turn of the twentieth century, the playing field provided a perfect stage for marching band performances. The bands’ volume and coordinated mass movement created a spectacle with both visual and aural appeal. Being led by veterans, these early marching band performances were primarily extensions of military drilling exercises, featuring block formations and corps style marching. According to Robert Foster, author of Multiple-Option Marching Band Techniques, the first marching band to deviate from the standard military block formation was the University of Illinois band, who formed letters, words, and intricate patterns on the field while playing in 1905. The band director, Albert Austin Harding, is recognized as “a pioneer in the movement which has made the appearance of bands an important part of the fall football spectacles” (1991: 20).

In 1907, Maj. Nathaniel Clark Smith “was commissioned a captain in the United States Army and joined the military faculty at Tuskegee Institute, where he organized bands, ensembles, choral groups, and instrumental ensembles, and toured widely with the groups” (Southern 1983: 301). Smith is considered to be one of the first African Americans to hold the band director’s position with faculty status at a historically black school. “Before starting his teaching career,” writes Malone, “Smith traveled internationally with minstrel companies and also directed several military bands” (1996: 145). After leaving Tuskegee, Smith joined the faculty at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago, “where he taught many future jazz musicians, including Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, Nat Cole, and Eddie South” (Malone 1996: 145).

In 1918, Captain Frank Drye took over the reins at Tuskegee. He was a veteran of Lieutenant James Reese Europe’s famous “Harlem Hellfighters” band during World War I and became the “best known, black, college-band director in the country during the years 1918-30” (Malone 1990: 64). Captain Drye trained scores of students who later became successful bandmasters at a variety of other institutions. Among the students Captain Drye mentored while on faculty at Tuskegee was Phillmore Mallard “Shorty” Hall, who eventually taught Dizzy Gillespie in North Carolina (Malone 1996: 145). So begins the cultivation of a formal process for training young musicians in America’s predominately black educational institutions.

While some historically black colleges and universities hired veteran military bandsmen to lead their music programs, others dipped into the pool of top-notch musicians traveling with minstrel troupes and on vaudeville circuits. On June 29, 1900, W.C. Handy was playing the cornet in the Mahara’s Minstrels band when the chancellor for the Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, recruited him to join the faculty and direct the band, orchestra and vocal music programs (Handy 1947: 57-58). In the early years, most predominately black educational institutions were run by Northern whites who often preferred the European classics to American contemporary music. W.C. Handy, however, felt that contemporary forms, such as minstrel music, had a significant musical contribution to make. Therefore, Handy went out of his way to help others, especially whites, appreciate this and other forms of American and African American contemporary music. Handy explains:

I rendered a program one evening in the chapel, but I had a secret plan to include a stirring ragtime number, My Ragtime Baby, which our minstrel band had featured. It was written by a Detroit Negro, Fred Stone. I rewrote this high stepper and programmed it “Greetings to Toussaint L’ Overture,” so as the manuscript would create the impression of classical music without changing a note of the original. It did the trick. The students couldn’t sit still, nor could the teachers. The president himself patted his feet. At the conclusion, he remarked, ‘My, my, what a delightful program. Mr. Handy is the best band teacher we’ve had since the days of Mr. Still (referring to the father of William Grant Still). Let’s have Greetings to Toussaint L’Overture once more.’ I was only too happy to comply with his request, but explained how I had tricked them and made them appreciate the potentialities of ragtime by giving it a high-sounding name. (1947: 64)

In her interviews with members of Florida A&M’s first marching band, Jacqui Malone discovered that many black college bands during the early 1900s were adopting the performance style of the popular black minstrel bands (1990: 63). Nathan B. Young, Jr., one of the original members of Florida A&M’s first, sixteen-piece marching band (1910 to 1915), elaborated on this relationship for Malone:

The minstrel bands were supermusicians and the amateurs would follow behind them and watch them. And they began to learn and imitate what the minstrel bands did. . . . In the last three years we were beginning to use syncopation. But in the early days we played straight band music from the books put out by the Germans. Of course the black musicians put on curls and did things, especially with the trombone. So the moment they started to play, they put in personal touches. You could tell whether it was a black band or a white band in the early days. . . . The minstrel shows came in and they influenced us. The black school bands were playing more like minstrel bands as the time went on. (Young 1988; in Malone 1990: 64)

The commingling of band traditions helped raise the bar on musicianship. “Many minstrel men joined army bands and the army bands in turn gave the minstrels better musicians,” says W.C. Handy. “Everything was on the upgrade musically speaking” (Handy 1947: 65).

Predominately black educational institutions continued to see slow but steady growth in their music programs over the next half century. These programs included concert, symphonic and marching bands; choirs; and jazz ensembles. The highly syncopated, foot-stomping, body-moving rhythms that had defined the music of black military bands, provincial and municipal brass bands, minstrel bands, and concert bands over the past century were slowly morphing into a new band tradition on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the South. By the 1960s, the collective style of black college marching bands had firmly taken root as a distinctive performance tradition that was unlike their predominately white college band counterparts.