New Orleans brass band music is a particular style that originated out of the local tradition of jazz funerals and second line parades. Typically the brass band is made up of trumpets, trombones, clarinet or saxophone, tuba, bass drum, and snare 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 any context, the role of the brass band is to move audiences to march, dance, or otherwise join in the festivity.
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. 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 black 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 renowned black brass band tradition in the world.
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 profound sacred tradition, proceeds to the beat of the brass band, beginning with slow dirges and ending with up-tempo dance songs after the body is “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.
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 Joseph S. 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.