Black Collegiate Book Club: The Thrill Of The Black Marching Band

The Thrill of the Black Marching Band

By Salamishah Tillet – Salamishah Tillet is associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is working on a book on the civil rights icon Nina Simone.

In Jules Allen’s Marching Bands, a stunning collection of social documentary, portraiture, and panoramic photography, he takes us into this behind-the-scenes world of African-American marching bands all over the country.


Two months into my freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, I took a trip to Howard University’s homecoming by myself so I could catch a glimpse of their marching band. Because my friend forgot to pick up tickets, in those pre-YouTube days, I had to settle for hearing how exhilarating their performance was, how perfectly they timed their choreography to their song choice, by word of mouth.

During my next three years of college, I developed an even deeper longing: to attend the Bayou Classic and watch Grambling University’s “World Famed” Tiger Marching Band battle Southern University’s Human Jukebox, as they do every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and then again on that Saturday during the football halftime show.

The roots of this performance stretch much further back, to the post-Civil War period when newly freed African Americans began to experiment with sounds, styles, and what it meant to be an American citizen. In New Orleans, in particular, the fine brass bands drew on a number of traditions, including veteran military bandsmen who fought for the Union Army, first-rate musicians whose only source of income in the Jim Crow era was touring with minstrel troupes and on vaudeville circuits throughout the South, and sons of French creoles who were trained at the French Opera Company. And as more and more colleges were established for African Americans in the segregated South, these schools would hire many of these same military bandsmen or troupe players and enable a new generation to learn from these music masters.

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