The Legacy of Brass Bands in New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras Week to one and all!  If any of you have ever been to New Orleans, I'm sure you would agree that there ain't nothin' like catching the sounds of a New Orleans brass band.  When these bands begin to play magical sounds fill the air.

The history of the marching band in New Orleans is a rich one, with the various bands performing at virtually every major social event the city has to offer. They perform at funerals, picnics, carnivals and parades. The relationship between jazz bands and brass bands is one of co-influence...Jazz bands of this era began to go beyond the confines of the 6/8 time signature the marching bands utilized. Instead, New Orleans jazz bands began incorporating a style known as ragging; this technique implemented the influence of ragtime 2/4 meter and eventually led to improvisation. In turn, the early jazz bands of New Orleans influenced the playing of the marching bands, who in turn began to improvise themselves more often.

"The development of the New Orleans brass band was entwined with a new musical form that emerged around 1900. Jazz synthesized ragtime, blues, spirituals, marches, European dances, Latin American rhythms, and American popular songs into a specifically African American musical style. It emphasized collective improvisation, audience participation, rhythmic syncopation and repetition, and the use of pentatonic scales and blue notes.  Jazz performance styles influenced the New Orleans brass band, allowing it to develop as the most significant black brass band tradition in the United States.  While jazz developed into an American art form, brass band music remained closely tied to the rhythms of everyday life in New Orleans. The jazz funeral, the city’s most emblematic sacred tradition, revolves around the beat of the brass band, beginning with slow dirges and ending with up-tempo dance songs as the spirit was “cut loose.” In second line parades, community organizations called Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs hire brass bands and parade through their neighborhoods for miles each Sunday afternoon. Over the years, the music and dancing at funerals and parades have been continuously updated in terms of tempo, style, and repertoire, allowing these traditions to remain vital to each new generation of New Orleanians." (96Parishes.org)

 

It should be noted that the use of brass marching bands came long before jazz music through their use in the military, though in New Orleans many of the best-known musicians had their start in brass marching bands performing dirges as well as celebratory and upbeat tunes for New Orleans jazz funeral processions from the 1890s onward. The tradition drove onward with musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Henry Red Allen and King Oliver. The presence of marching bands lives on today in New Orleans...Much of New Orleans music today owes its debt to the early marching bands, even those marching bands which predate the birth of jazz music. In the late 19th century marching bands would often march through the streets of the city in second line parades. Some of the earliest bands originated from the Tremé neighborhood, and the city gave birth to such bands as the Excelsior, Onward and Olympia brass bands. The Onward and Olympia bands each have sustained incarnations that continue performing to this day. Modern examples of the brass band tradition can be heard in the playing of groups like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or the Rebirth Brass Band.

 

Danny Barker

Awhile back I came across a book by the one and only Danny Barker that provided a wealth of information about the birth and subsequent development of the traditions of New Orleans Brass Bands. 

"Danny Barker was a third-generation jazz musician born in New Orleans in 1909. His grandfather Isidore Barbarin, a locally famous musician, was born in 1871, just six years after the Civil War and the formal end of slavery. Barker, a guitarist and banjo player who began playing music early in life under the eye of Isidore and other musicians in the Barbarin clan, would go on to play with Cab Calloway, Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, Jelly Roll Morton, and many more jazz legends. Barker also became one of New Orleans’ greatest historians and champions of brass bands. His book A Life in Jazz recounts the earliest days of black marching bands, the birth of jazz, and the many permutations the music took between his grandfather’s heyday and 1986, when the book was first published.  With a perhaps apocryphal story, Barker shares what he and others say was the first music-filled procession, which took place at the turn of the 17th century.  Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his younger brother Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, (now remembered as Iberville and Bienville) explored the area around the mouth of the Mississippi River, looking for good areas to claim for King Louis XIV. Iberville would found the first permanent French settlement in the Louisiana Territory in 1699, while Bienville established New Orleans in 1718.  Barker writes, 'One old writer relates that, with the founding of New Orleans by the brothers Bienville and Iberville, there was a body of soldiers with the explorers and that a trumpet player with the military band died and was buried in the military fashion with music in the funeral procession and at the grave site.'  While Barker says that other writers recall celebratory funerals by the city’s black population even during slavery, it wasn’t until emancipation in 1865 and the resulting freedoms afforded to black musicians that brass bands really took off. 

By the time Barker was born in 1909, Isadore, his grandfather, was playing cornet and alto horn with the Onward Brass Band, one of the city’s best organized groups. As a child living with his grandparents, Barker remembered that all the talk around the house was about music—which players could play, which players couldn’t, and which gigs Onward had won or lost to some of its fierce competitors like the Excelsior Brass Band.  Then as now, benevolent societies in the city’s black wards would pool the money of their members in order to throw big funerals for the recently departed. Onward, Excelsior, and countless other professional and family bands would compete for the funeral gigs, just as they’d maneuver to play any other social occasion. While playing in Onward alongside musicians like Manuel Perez and Joe King Oliver, Barker's grandfather also worked as a carriage driver for one of the busiest undertakers. The arrangement gave him early intel on when a society’s member was deathly ill or when a funeral was being planned, and he’d angle with the club or the grieving family for Onward to be hired.  In his book Barker describes the  the scene from the funeral after the crowd had let the hearse pass, 'In a few minutes the big bass drum strikes three extra-loud booms and the band starts swinging ‘The Saints,’ or ‘Didn’t He Ramble,’ or ‘Bourbon Street Parade,’ and the wild, mad, frantic dancing starts, and the hundreds of all-colored umbrellas are seen bouncing high above heads to the rhythm of the great crowd of second liners.  The revelers—and especially children with a budding interest in music—were enthralled by the musicians and the scene they seemed to conjure from their horns. Barker recalls how sad it was to be stuck in a classroom and hear a band strike up down the street, and what a joy it was to cut class to join the parade." (Reverb.com site)

 

Buddy Bolden

Along with the music scene at the funerals, there was another new time of music that came to be known as jazz. This new music was led by musician named Buddy Bolden who came to known as one of the first hot jazz players as he and his band performed at social clubs, bars and dance halls in New Orleans.  Bolden and his band were active from 1895 to 1907.  Bolden was a loud and brash cornetist who was one of the first to play so freely—reciting a melody from memory and brazenly riffing on it as he pleased—that he came to be regarded as one of the first true jazz players. Bolden’s band, which was popular from around 1895 to 1907, and others like them would play at the many social clubs, street corner bars, and dance halls in the black wards of New Orleans. As time rolled on both jazz and brass bands became popular elements of the music one would discover in New Orleans.  

 

Bunk Johnson

"In 1945, trumpeter Bunk Johnson assembled a brass band of pickup musicians to make a record for Bill Russell’s American Music label. The album New Orleans Parade was the first thorough audio documentation of a New Orleans brass band and was followed by landmark recordings by the Eureka Brass Band in 1951 and the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1957. These and other records attempted to faithfully capture the most traditional ensembles playing established repertoire, such as the dirge Just a Closer Walk with Thee and the upbeat spiritual Sing On, but the Eureka’s performance of the jazz standard Lady Be Good demonstrates that brass band music had always been a form of popular music that accommodated emerging songs and styles. By the early 1960s, rhythm & blues songs had become commonplace in brass band performances. During the 1960s and 1970s, Olympia Brass Band was renowned for its enormous range and flexibility. Saxophonist Harold Dejan and trumpeter Milton Batiste would lead the band in a modest style for traditional funerals and concerts for tourists while adding the more progressive sound of Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for second line parades in the community.

By the late 1960s, worry arose among musicians about the future of the brass band tradition. Many young instrumentalists attuned to the politics and aesthetics of the black power movement were playing funk and soul music exclusively. As result, musician and scholar Danny Barker formed the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band specifically to recruit young players and indoctrinate them into the tradition. The Fairview band (and its later incarnation as the Hurricane Brass Band) sparked a revival of traditional brass band music and became a training ground for numerous musicians. Clarinetist Michael White’s Liberty Jazz Band and trumpeter Gregg Stafford’s Original Tuxedo Brass Band are but two examples of Fairview alumni maintaining successful careers as traditionalists. 

 

Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Also out of the Fairview band came new musical approaches that redefined the brass band tradition and greatly expanded its audience. Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen helped establish the tuba as the defining instrument, performing for tips in Jackson Square and in community parades with the Chosen Few Brass Band. Most significantly, four musicians who had played in the Fairview and Hurricane bands—Gregory Davis, Charles Joseph, Kirk Joseph, and Kevin Harris—joined with Roger Lewis, Ephram Townes, Benny Jones, and others to form the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. 

"Beginning on the streets and in local nightclubs such as the Glass House in the early 1980s, and eventually on record and on tour, the Dirty Dozen blazed a trail that the majority of younger bands have followed. The Dirty Dozen made the back row (tuba and drums) more prominent, especially with Kirk Joseph’s virtuosic tuba parts, and also revamped the “front line” (trumpets, trombones, and saxophone), modeling their style after modern bebop jazz. The music was funkier and faster than that of their predecessors, as heard on the landmark 1984 recording My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, which brought the group international acclaim and sparked what became known as the brass band renaissance. 

 

This video of Rebirth Brass Band marching through the French Quarter

will give you an idea of the magic energy of a Brass Band in action

 

While dozens of popular bands have followed in the footsteps of the Dirty Dozen, none have been as effective as the Rebirth Brass Band in building a dedicated audience by making tradition their own. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, tuba player Philip Frazier, and bass drummer Keith Frazier founded the band in the early 1980s while students at Clark High School and eventually established themselves as the leaders of the local scene. The primary innovator of the brass band tradition at the turn of the twenty-first century, Rebirth composed signature songs such as Do What’cha Wanna and Feel Like Funkin’ It Up, both built around Philip Frazier’s memorable tuba melodies. Their performance schedule balances second line parades, weekly shows at the Maple Leaf Bar, and frequent performances throughout the United States.

Beginning in the 1990s, hip-hop has shaped the sound of contemporary brass bands, most notably in the original songs of the Soul Rebels. Beginning as the Young Olympians, a traditional band mentored by the mighty Olympia Brass Band, the members broke off to form the Soul Rebels and made waves with their debut album Let Your Mind Be Free in 1994. The title track is a showpiece of the modern sound, flowing in and out of spoken-word raps, group chants, and Calypso-inflected horn parts. Like the most popular songs of Rebirth, “Let Your Mind Be Free” has become a local standard that every brass band must be able to perform.  

 

 

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans brass band has only grown in stature. In the space of a few years, the Hot 8 Brass Band has gone from playing strictly parties, parades, and club gigs to performing regularly in Europe and across America. New bands made up of students, such as the Baby Boyz Brass Band, whose members attend McDonogh 35 High School, now point to Rebirth and the Hot 8 as their mentors. The tradition has thrived, in part, because it continues to express the experiences of new generations without ever losing its identity as a distinctive and durable form of local music." (64 Parishes site, Matt Sakakeeny, Brass Bands of New Orleans)

"Brass bands survived and flourished by incorporating popular music. Contemporary brass bands are no exception to this tradition. The brass band repertoire since the turn of the twentieth century reveals how the band members adapted popular music into their own style to fit the band’s instrumentation, technique, and aesthetic. Early brass bands built their repertoire both from the music played at funeral processions and that of immediate appeal.  Often bands were hired to play for public events where the audiences may not have been familiar with hymns and spirituals. To make the audiences comfortable, the brass bands performed familiar pieces, such as marches that were also played by military and town bands at the time. Popular dance music — such as the foxtrot, cakewalk, two-step, and eventually ragtime, a jazz precursor — were also incorporated into brass band literature. This practice of developing repertoire became part of the present day tradition that attracts an audience through well known melodies. Adding syncopation through the second line beat and improvisational techniques into unique arrangements allowed brass bands to unite popular music with the spiritual roots of their heritage." (University of Iowa, New Orleans Brass Bands Traditions and Popular Music)

 

 

 

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