Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

U.S. Army Black Regimental Bands and the Appointments of Their First Black Bandmasters

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

U.S. Army Black Regimental Bands and the Appointments of Their First Black Bandmasters

Article excerpt

The black regimental bands and their bandmasters in U.S. Army service between the Civil War and World War I comprised a fluid yet tight little community of soldier-musicians. Conspicuous in their own day, these units and their leadership teams are by no means familiar to modern readers. Replacement of white by black bandmasters in this community in the first decade of the twentieth century represented in its day an important public battle in the struggle for civil rights and racial fairness in the military. The following narrative offers a fuller account of this battle than has previously been available, but--full warning--the story is going to get a little dense. A bit of necessary background will begin to set the stage.

Some Necessary Background

There were only four regular regiments of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army from 1870 to 1917. These were the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments (the men of the Tenth were the original Buffalo Soldiers) and the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry Regiments. (1) They were primarily stationed far from major white centers of population in the American South and West for most of their history before 1920, and they were mainly deployed against those perceived to be people of color: Native Americans, Mexicans, the Spanish in Cuba, and the Spanish and natives in the Philippines.

These regiments had white officers, and each had a regimental band under an enlisted man--a sergeant, who was appointed chief musician. From the bands' inception, the latter was a position held by a white man. He was the lowest-ranking white soldier in the unit and the only white soldier who was not a commissioned officer. (2) Before 1907, the highest rank to which a black bandsman in the regular army could aspire was the number two spot--principal musician in the infantry and chief trumpeter in the cavalry (a terminological distinction that began to fade in the records after the turn of the century in favor of principal musician or assistant band leader). Other secondary musical leadership roles for black sergeants were as chief trumpeter in the infantry and drum major. (The bandmasters of the four regular black regiments over the entire history of each unit are listed in Appendix I.)

The post of chief musician was a particularly desirable one simply in financial terms, and thus the injustice of reserving the position for whites was economic as well as racial. The key point here is that monthly base pay and total monthly earnings could be substantially different amounts for an army musician. To begin with, remuneration could be significantly increased by private income from the band's outside engagements, which could sometimes equal the amount earned in base pay. And, in addition, bandsmen also had sufficient free time to work at a second trade if they had skills that were in demand, such as barber, baker, carpenter, or mason, earning extra-duty pay directly from the army that could also equal or exceed their base pay. (The two newspaper articles in Appendix II, Documents A and B, provide contemporary elaboration on the situation of, and financial opportunities for, army bandsmen. (3)) Clearly, a skilled bandsman's position in a popular outfit with an effective bandmaster and an accommodating regimental adjutant could be significantly rewarding. Advance in rank multiplied the effect. Following a rough rule of two, army sergeants, including band sergeants, earned about twice the base pay of privates, while the chief musician earned about twice as much again, and the base pay of a commissioned second lieutenant was about double that of a chief musician. On this basis, a chief musician was already the highest paid noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army. The possibilities for additional income only enhanced the attraction of the job.

The army's four black regimental bands were well-known to the African-American civilian population, as was therefore the fact of the whiteness of their bandmasters, even though it was not often that opportunities arose for the bands to be seen and heard by black civilians in concert. …

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