Following 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. Perhaps the earliest black college marching band existed at Tuskegee Normal School circa 1890—the Tuskegee Normal School Brass Band. Author Ralph Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute during the 1930s, where he majored in music and played trumpet in the band.
Bands were formed in the burgeoning black colleges and universities to help recruit students and raise money for programs, including the Alabama State Collegians, the Florida A&M State Collegians, the Kentucky State Collegians, and the Tennessee A&I Collegians. Many of these early bands were student-led and informal, but they became more professional as the years progressed.
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.
Early marching band performances were primarily extensions of military drilling exercises, featuring block formations and corps style marching.
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. In 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 explains: “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. Leading units such as the Tennessee State University Aristocrat of Bands, the FAMU Marching 100, and the Southern University Human Jukebox, among dozens more, raised the level of excellence throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.
At TSU, legendary band director Frank T. Greer led the Aristocrat of Bands to Washington, DC in 1961 as the first marching band from an historically black college to march in a Presidential Parade. One of the band members, Edward L. Graves, became the TSU band director in 1979, and took the Aristocrats back to two more Inaugurals before retiring last year.