Marching Bands and the Art of Black Culture

Published: October 03, 2016

This story is featured in the Fall 2016 edition of CUNY Matters. Read the full PDF version of CUNY Matters

Cover image by Jules Allen for his book March Bands Jules Allen spent five years traveling the country photographing African-American marching bands. What he saw through his lens was “a precision art form,” as public spectacle and a culture that “breathes the soul and spirit of Africa within the modern world.” The result is the simply titled Marching Bands. It’s the fourth book by the long-time Queensborough Community College art and design professor, whose photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery.

One of your previous books was called Hats and Not Hats, and you’ve got some pretty tall hats in your new book, Marching Bands. Why marching bands? Were you always drawn to them for some reason?

No, I grew up in San Francisco. There were no marching bands. I had never seen a marching band until I moved to New York in 1978. In Harlem, I saw the African American Day parade , and it was the first time I had seen marching bands.

So how did you get to the point where you decided you’re going to spend five years photographing marching bands?

Well, the thing that attracted me first was that there were moments in looking at a band that I would get so emotionally suspended and charged while looking at the performance. I would be beside myself because the rhythm, the cadence, the performance, the precision, the commitment that I was look- ing at. ... It was never so much the music as much as it was the music being a facility of the band, not the music being primarily the thing that I like. And then in photograph- ing black culture and just rhythm in general it began to find a way into me to. One day I saw the band — Morgan State University in Harlem. And I said I want to start thinking about doing this.
So I contacted a friend of mine, Gail Reed, who was an extraor- dinary researcher and historian, who said, “Yeah, Jules, you can do this. We can get the money and the PSC CUNY grants.” I had numerous grants previous to this, but I applied for a grant to start the project outside of New York.

Marching Bands
By Jules Allen and Joe Lewis
QCC Art Gallery Press

So where did you go to capture the photos?

I went to historically black colleges like Morgan State. I was in Atlanta for a battle of the bands, in which Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina Central … they were all there. It was the crazi- est thing I had ever seen in my life.

What did you discover about the marching bands?

I didn’t understand it as ritual and ceremony. I just thought it was just the band playing for parades. Well that was the
furthest thing from understanding that this whole thing has a real historical context. I also didn’t understand the sequence of events of a marching band performance or a homecoming game. The students and the musicians hung out with their instruments before and after a performance. That’s where the most interesting photographs took place, before and after a performance, when people were gathering around and the intensity was building.

Do you have a favorite? Is there a photograph in this book that represents the five years you spent with the bands?

Maybe the cover photograph of all the instruments with the light glistening and reflecting off of these Sousaphones — all of these young brothers standing around on the street corner in Chicago. As somebody once said to me, “Man without those horns, they would look like criminals.” The person that said it was somebody that I’m down with and somebody who knows. I didn’t read it as a stereotypical kind of uninformed image and so we laughed about it.

Then there’s a photograph at Morgan State of the drum major wearing this tall top hat. The band comes [out onto the field] before him, and then everybody waits. And this drum major comes on and the whole goddamn stadium just went to pieces. I had tears in my eyes and my foot was broken at the time. I was just so undone by all of this pomp and circumstance and all of this activity around me.

These are students who practice and really commit themselves to learning and being a part of an activity — there is no way I could have fit into something like that. But to see young people celebrate themselves and celebrate one another — it was just like, whoa!

In a recent interview with The New York Times you said that you’re trying to describe the culture photographically, in a way that “disputes a lot of photography about the lack of culture.” What did you mean by that?
Look, it’s not only do I dispute it, I’m at war with it. I resent it. I think people just take the weakest component of our culture and exploit it because there’s an audience for it.

I think Bruce Davidson — I’ll just be very frank about it — I think that some of the work I’ve seen from him is very offensive to a lot of people I know, including me. I think that there are other photographers who have done work on cocaine.

There’s a book of photographs that are just awful, but on any given day you can pick up a newspaper or pick up a magazine and see a story on poverty, tragedy, helplessness, victimization, crime, drug. … And that’s just not the story. There’s a lot of different stories and there are other stories.

My motivation is that I get to celebrate the beauty. There’s no reason for me to need to look at that more than in passing. I don’t have to live it. They seem to be photographers who dwell on [another] vantage point. But what that has actually done is left the beauty to me. I do dispute a lot of that work that really misrepresents so much of the culture, so I’m at war with it.

How does this touch on your teaching?

People love hearing success stories. People love sharing in wealth and achievement. My students like hearing stories about places that they haven’t gone or been, that they can identify with through the victory of the circumstance.

It’s just I particularly work from photography through an Af- rican-American sensibility, but the information that I gather to use comes from everywhere. The food I eat is from all over the world, the places I travel, the images I look at. And so I use that to teach that through who I am, through where I come from, I visit the whole world and you can, too.

This story is featured in the Fall 2016 edition of CUNY Matters. Read the full PDF version of CUNY Matters

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