This photograph shows Olympia Brass Band member Henry “Booker T” Glass. Learn more »
Images of brass bands marching through the streets, particularly in conjunction with jazz funerals and second line parades, have come to represent the distinctiveness of New Orleans. Typically the brass band is made up of a tuba, trombones, trumpets, clarinet and/or saxophone, snare drum, and bass drum. The portability of the ensemble has allowed the bands to travel beyond the streets and onto the stages of neighborhood barrooms, concert halls, and international festivals. In each context, the role of the brass band is to bring people together in an expression of collective pleasure.
Brass bands have a long history in New Orleans, drawing upon both European and African performance traditions. European military bands and Sousa-type marching bands were ubiquitous in New Orleans, as elsewhere, throughout the nineteenth century. Simultaneously, there were African traditions of playing music and dancing the ring shout during the Sunday gatherings of slaves in Congo Square. As There were also mixed-race Creoles and free people of color who were professional instrumentalists during the time of slavery. In the decades after Emancipation in 1865, the first black brass bands began performing in public events such as funerals, baseball games, and business openings. By the twentieth century, brass bands such as Excelsior and Onward had become an integral part of a black community made up of Creoles, urban blacks, and freed slaves who were now classified together under the segregationist laws of Jim Crow.
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.” The brass band was a formative influence on early jazz; Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and virtually every other early jazz musician performed in brass bands. In addition, most jazz bands, including those of Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory, doubled as brass bands with minor modifications (typically substituting the rhythm section of piano, bass, and banjo for tuba and drums). In turn, 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.
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.
Brass Band Renaissance
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.
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.
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. The 2005 CD Rebelution took the brass band even further into hip-hop territory, matching horns with drum machines and digital samplers.
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.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Sakakeeny, Matt. "Brass Bands of New Orleans." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published May 19, 2011. http://www.knowla.org/entry/556/.
Sakakeeny, Matt. "Brass Bands of New Orleans." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 19 May 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Berry, Jason. “Brass Forward.” New Orleans Magazine 34.7 (April 2000): 58-59.
Burns, Mick. Keeping the Beat on the Street: The New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Schafer, William J. Brass Bands and New Orleans Jazz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
White, Michael. “The New Orleans Brass Band: A Cultural Tradition.” In The Triumph of the Soul: Cultural and Psychological Aspects of African American Music, edited by Ferdinand Jones and Arthur C. Jones, 69-96. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.