Notes on New Orleans Brass Bands

The history of brass bands is not unique to New Orleans, but this city certainly adds a special chapter to the story. Brass band music is one of the longest continuing instrumental music forms in music throughout the world. Bands past and present flourish in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, Africa, India, North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. In Mexico, the super bandas, including El Tigres del Norte, are the most commercially successful brass bands currently in existence, with record sales in the millions. Brass bands have musical roots as deep as ancient Egypt and Rome. During the 13th Century in Turkey, Sultan Orhan organized a drum and bugle corps that he used in battle to frighten his enemy. In various forms, brass bands have influenced the works of artists as diverse as Ludwig Van Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Frederic Chopin, Albert Ayler, Fats Domino, Giuseppe Verdi and literally thousands of others.

New Orleans Funeral Cortege

An Early 19th-Century New Orleans Funeral Cortege

Brass bands are the direct musical descendants of drum, drum and fife and drum and bugle corps. Brass bands historically are associated with martial and marching music. These bands were used in battle and for the entertainment of the troops as well as the general public. Through the development of new musical instruments in the 1830s the term brass band was coined. In America, chromatic horns had gained an equal footing with the woodwinds as principal instruments for bands, and in 1835 the first all-brass bands were established. This is the beginning of the brass band era. In the 1840s, the Frenchman Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was one of several inventors who developed a family of chromatic-valved bugles that became known as saxhorns. The saxhorns included an E-flat soprano, B-flat contralto, E-flat tenor, B-flat bass (baritone) and E-flat bass (tuba). From the 1840s through the 1860s these were the primary instruments, along with cornets, bass drums, snare drums (known then as the “little drum”) and cymbals used in brass bands.

 

EARLY NEW ORLEANS

The only two published books about brass bands in New Orleans are Brass Bands and New Orleans Jazz by William Allen and William Schaeffer and Fallen Heroes by Richard Knowles. Both of these works deal with 20th-Century New Orleans brass bands and their relationship to jazz. No work to date focuses on brass bands as a music of relevance in and of itself.

The early ancestors of the brass bands are evident in New Orleans from the very founding of the city by the French in 1718. I have, through French military records, identified over 100 Frenchmen in this city that performed on fife, drum or bugle prior to 1763. In 1787, then Spanish Governor Miro entertained 36 Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Chiefs with a parade in New Orleans that included eight marching bands. The most remembered musician from the War of 1812 was Noble Jordan. He was the young African-American drummer from Georgia who at the age of 12 joined the forces of Andrew Jackson in the legendary Battle of New Orleans. He continued to beat his drum for military actions, entertainment and civil rights activities in New Orleans through the 1880s. In 1838, the New Orleans Picayune reported that “a passion for horns and trumpets has reached a real mania.” The earliest image the author has found of a brass band in New Orleans is a painting of the Washington Artillery Brass Band dated to 1845, housed in the collection of the Louisiana State Museum. It shows the band standing in front of their Armory on Girod Street.

Certainly the influence of the French and Spanish made a huge impact on the tradition of brass bands in New Orleans. This was a musical tradition that dated back to medieval times in these two countries and the colonists simply brought them along when they migrated to New Orleans. By the time of American domination of Louisiana they had adapted these musical customs for their own purpose. Other peoples who immigrated later to Louisiana and also influenced this music include the Italians, Irish and German.

Following is one of the most obscure and esoteric mentions of a band in New Orleans. In 1850, a man named Oakley published a collection of “poetic literary” sketches he wrote in New Orleans in 1846 and 1847 under the title Manhattaner in New Orleans. One of these sketches, titled “Captain Ric’s Epithalamium a la Charivari,” includes poetic descriptions of the “Sheet Iron Band.”

“Who the Sheet Iron Band may be, as a public body, is a matter of question. Individually, they are ‘fellow citizens,’ musical doctors; they are perpetual advertisers and puffers of acoustic oil; they are strong and lusty; they are fond of horns; they are men of brass, they are given to irony; they appear ‘in the dim and dusky twilight’ like the Israelites around Jericho, or the beleaguering army about the walls of Prague, upon the summons of their captain through the daily prints.

“Their captain, however, is a notable. He is a Czar of music; and Autocrat of noise; and carries in his hand the wand of Prospero, with which by hook or crook, in some way unknown, he summons his Ariels to greet, with noise of horns and trumpets, tin pans and sheet iron, the unequally yoked brides and bridegrooms; make the latter to cry out like Ferdinand to his Ariel: ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.’”

Two non-military brass bands in New Orleans during the 1850s stand out as the most popular and active of this decade. They are Bothe’s Brass Band and Charley Jaeger’s (great-great grandfather of contemporary restaurateur Andrew Jaeger) Brass Band. Both were European immigrants who came to New Orleans during the 1840s. Jaeger was from Alsasce-Lorraine and Bothe was from Hanover, Germany. Their bands played for parades, dances and general entertainment.

Charles Bothe's Brass Band, 1863

Charles Bothe came to America in 1842 when he landed at Galveston, Texas. Prior to his move at the age of 17, he had been lead trumpeter of the Prince of Bismarck’s Band in Hanover, Germany, for which he was given an honorable discharge. After arriving in Texas, he soon joined General Winfield Scott’s forces as bandleader and participated under Scott’s leadership in the Mexican-American War. In 1845, he moved to New Orleans. He was active in New Orleans with his band until his death in 1899. He was also an accomplished music teacher and the first organist of St. Mary’s Church. The photograph of Charles Bothe’s brass band that accompanies this article is from 1863 and is the earliest known photo of a New Orleans brass band.

While researching Bothe, his family shared a letter that he had written in 1842 back to his family in Hanover. It detailed the reason he fled his home so suddenly was due to the fact that the Prince of Bismarck had discovered that Bothe was having an affair with the Prince’s daughter. Hence, he was given the ultimatum to either leave immediately or lose his head.

 

THE MUSIC

Brass bands in the 19th Century up to today have always played the popular music of the time. In 19th-Century New Orleans, both military and civilian bands played music categorized as Quicksteps, Slow Marches, Polkas, Galops, Schottisches, Quadrilles, Lances, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Hymns.

The Quickstep was the most common style of composition in band music. It was used for marching and general entertainment, indoors and out. Quicksteps were performed with two beats to the bar, intending to regulate the steps of marching on the street—the first and strongest beat corresponding with the left foot moving forward, and the second beat with the right foot. It was a very popular practice to create medleys of popular songs in the style of the Quickstep.

Slow Marches were generally reserved for military parades or for funerals. A slow grandeur performance of the popular “Hail Columbia” or “La Marsaillaise” was common in military parades. On the occasion of a funeral, it was always the practice to muffle the small (snare) drum by placing a cloth under its snares or in some cases leaving this drum out completely

In general, Polkas, Galops, Schottisches, Quadrilles, Lances, Waltzes and Mazurkas were designed for dancing but were sometimes transformed into marches. For entertainment purposes these styles were performed for round dances. The Galop was the most frenzied and wild of the bunch. It is distinguished from the others by a cornet intro that combines blasts of long notes with short staccato notes.

Hymns in general were reserved for funerals. Even prior to the Civil War it was the custom to play slow hymns from the starting place to the cemetery. A common hymn was “Nearer My God to Thee.” Sometimes, as the body of the deceased was being lowered into the grave, it was considered respectable for two or three cornets to play in slow harmony a few strains of a hymn. On return from the cemetery, the bands would play strictly Quicksteps of a dignified nature not associated with popular dance tunes.

 

CIVIL WAR

If there were a chance that the popularity of brass bands in New Orleans might diminish, the Civil War charged a new energy and importance to this music. In the book titled A Soldier’s Story of the War by Napier, he describes the very beginnings of New Orleans’ involvement in the Confederacy. Describing events of May 26, 1861, he wrote, “The Washington Artillery were out in full dress uniform yesterday with fine band. After delighting the spectators who lined the streets with a display of their accurate maneuvering, they were drawn up at Mr. T.C. Twichell’s, St. Charles street, and presented with a beautiful Camp flag of the Confederate States.” Through military records we know the band mentioned above included J.V. Gessener as leader, T. Gutzler, Charles W. Struve, J. Arnold, Jeuno Deutsch, Jeuno Geches, Peter Trum, Jeuno Lorbs, Thomas Kostmel, J.H. Sporer and Charles Meir.

It was very common for complete bands to be mustered into service for the Confederacy and Union. The Civil War was certainly a strange time for many Europeans and their descendants in New Orleans who really didn’t have strong feelings pro or con. Geographic location had more to do with whose side you were on than your philosophy or feelings. To date, Civil War historians have identified one band that performed in service for both the Confederacy and the Union. In fact, three brass bands from New Orleans, including Bothe’s, Jaeger’s and James Maurepas’ were at different times in service for both sides.

The first known African-American funeral, which featured an African-American brass band in New Orleans, was in 1863 for Captain Andre Caillou, who was killed during the Battle of Port Hudson. Over 10,000 African-Americans turned out for his funeral. Numerous African-American Civic and Benevolent Associations participated in this event.

 

PATRICK SARSFIELD GILMORE

The largest and most significant brass band event that occurred during the Civil War was in New Orleans during 1864. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was born in Ireland. His parents immigrated to America, and a young Gilmore became the leader of the prestigious Boston Brass Band prior to the War. During the War, he led the 24th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Band and then became in charge of organizing bands for the Union Army. He organized over 300 bands for Union forces during this time. Patrick Gilmore is unquestionably the father of brass band music in America.

It is well documented that New Orleans fell to Union forces in the early part of 1862. What is not well known is that Patrick Gilmore brought a brass band of 32 African-Americans to New Orleans from Boston in 1864. This band was used for the political campaign of Michael Hahn for governor of the state of Louisiana. For two months, this band, identified in the press as Gilmore’s Famous Band, performed almost on a daily basis. This had tremendous significance for the many African-Americans who lived here, and to the recently freed Africans who were coming into the city. Essentially, New Orleans was the testing ground for Lincoln to figure out how to return a Confederate state back to the Union. Michael Hahn, a German banker in New Orleans, was Lincoln’s handpicked man to become the first governor following the War.

Gilmore’s Famous Band performed throughout the city in Jackson, Washington, Congo, Coliseum and Lafayette Squares and down St. Charles Avenue. On January 26, 1864, they performed a “Promenade Concert” at the French Opera House. This was the first time that all classes and races of people in New Orleans were invited to a party. It was at this concert that Gilmore premiered his composition “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during the Grand Finale of the “Soldier’s Return March.” Essentially, the song and the band were used as political propaganda to encourage people to mend fences.

On March 4, 1864, for the inauguration of Michael Hahn as the governor of Louisiana, Gilmore performed his first extravaganza concert. This event took place in Lafayette Square and was described by the press as “possibly the greatest musical event in the history of the world.” For this concert, Gilmore utilized both citizens and military personnel to form a brass band of 500 musicians, a choir of 10,000 voices, a drum and bugle corps of 5,000, 50 pieces of artillery (cannons), and four regiments of infantry who accompanied the music with the firing of their rifles. He had all the public churches ring their bells upon his direction, which was accomplished by connecting them to a telegraph service from his podium in the square. Twelve pieces of music were performed, including mostly patriotic tunes such as “Hail Columbia,” “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” He incorporated 40 local blacksmiths to beat their anvils during Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from his opera Il Trovatore. A review of this event stated, “A concert of this magnitude will be embedded into the minds of those who witnessed it for many years to come.”

One obvious influence that Gilmore had on other local brass bands was the practice of using 32 pieces instead of 16. Groups began to advertise they were performing with a double band.

 

RIOT OF 1866

On July 30, 1866, radical Republicans in New Orleans attempted to hold a Constitutional Convention to rid the state of the Black Code laws. Earlier that day, New Orleans Sheriff Harry Hayes (an ex-Confederate general) deputized approximately 200 Irishmen. They met at Congo Square and marched to the Mechanics Institute on Baronne Street. As the Republican procession reached the Institute, Hayes and his deputies opened fire on the marchers, slaughtering all of them. For ten days, Hayes and his associates rampaged the city in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. In 1867, Congress published its inquiry into the Riot of 1866. The reason given by the sheriff for opening fire on the Republicans was because they had a marching band. The murderers went unpunished.

 

RECONSTRUCTION

During the 1870s and 1880s, many Euro and Afro-centric organizations in the city employed bands for their annual parades, picnics and dances. Ward Clubs, Benevolent Societies, Masonic Lodges and Social Clubs used parades to express political and social beliefs, as well as pride in themselves and their community. As the number of these organizations grew, the demand for brass bands also grew. Papa Jack Laine’s Reliance Brass Band, Allen’s Brass Band, the Onward Brass Band, the Excelsior, Olympia, Superior, Diamond, Columbia, Pacific, Camelia and Tuxedo Brass Band were some of the groups that prospered during this time. These groups laid the groundwork for the development of jazz in New Orleans. The famous Eureka Brass Band originally was the lodge band of the Hobgoblin Club. When they started getting outside bookings they changed their name to Eureka.

 

THE YOUNG AND TRUE FRIENDS

The Young and True Friends Benevolent Association of Carrollton, Louisiana, 7th District, was organized on February 7, 1880. The Weekly Louisianian reported on February 12, 1881 about the first anniversary celebration of this organization. “The True Friends assembled at Wesleyan Hall, on Liberty street, where the procession was formed, preceded by the Excelsior Cornet Band under the leadership of Prof. S.S. Dexter. It marched to No. 124 Franklin street, where Miss Filamen Delpit, a comely young creole lady, presented on behalf of the Ladies True Friend Circle, a very pretty silk banner…”

In the Constitution and By-Laws of the Young and True Friends, published in 1888, Article X explains the formation of a funeral. First is the Grand Marshal, followed by (in this order) hearse, six pall bearers, the band, chaplain or minister, family of the deceased, officers of the association, banner, members of the association (2) abreast. “The assistant marshall shall be on right of the parade from front to rear, the flag shall be in the center of the Association proper.”

The Young and True Friends were the oldest active parade organization in the New Orleans area, but stopped having their parade in the mid-1990s. Now the oldest active parade organization is the Young Men Olympia Benevolent Association. They have paraded every year on the third Sunday in September for over 120 years. It was through these and other similar organizations that the tradition of jazz funerals was born.

 

BLACK BENNY

From out of the New Orleans parade and second line culture many legendary characters have emerged. No one is more legendary than Black Benny Williams, a mentor of Louis Armstrong. Danny Barker described him as a fighter, womanizer, gambler, and one of the best and most respected bass drummers New Orleans ever produced.

Black Benny at Zulu Parade, Mardi Gras, 1923

The only known photograph of Black Benny Williams, standing in front of a float from the Zulu parade, Mardi Gras 1923

Jelly Roll Morton in his biography said, “They had a tuff little guy in the Broadway Swells named Black Benny. Benny hung around the charcoal schooners at the head of New Basin, but on Sundays he’d get his broomstick and march as grand marshall of the second line gang. He was a really tough egg and terrible to get along with, always in some argument.

“Some of the enemy would say, ‘Listen, don’t cross this line.’

“‘Why not?’ Benny would say.

“‘If you cross it, it will be your ass.’

“‘Whose ass?’

“‘Your ass.’

“‘Well let me tell you something. I don’t give a damn about you and your whole family.’

“‘If I hit you, your old double grandfather will feel it.’

“And about that time the broomsticks and brickbats would start to fly, the razors would come into play and the seven shooters—which was a little bit of a .22 that shot seven times—would begin popping…”

New Orleans trumpeter Lee Collins spoke to his wife/biographer Mary about playing a gig with Black Benny in 1915. “Mardi Gras time was coming, and they were short of musicians. One day a drummer named Black Benny met me on Rampart Street and said, ‘You little son-of-a-gun, Lee, I hear you’re getting real good on that cornet, so I want you to play a parade for the Zulu’s Club on Mardi Gras Day.’ He gave me a dollar deposit to make sure I would show up for the job like I was supposed to. Benny told me to be at the Zulu Club by nine o’clock. Louis Armstrong and another boy, Louis ‘Kid Shots’ Madison—he played cornet too—were there also. These guys were very good, of course, so that was a proud day for me.”

Collins also stated, “Black Benny himself was a very popular musician and one of the best bass drummers in New Orleans. Louis came up under him. He was a big, very dark man who looked something like Jack Johnson, the prize fighter. He got a great amount of respect from policemen as well as from other people. At one time he was a pretty tough character, but later he reformed and got married and settled down.

“Now, all theatrical and show people have a pet superstition; mine was black cats. What made me believe in black cats is what happened to Black Benny. I was working at the Lavida at this time, and Black Benny was at the Lyric Theater. He would come to the Lavida and sit in with me sometimes after finishing up at the theater. One night, me and Black Benny and all of my band decided to go over to Benny Harvey’s saloon at Gravier and Franklin streets. All the show people used to hang out there, as everybody thought that Harvey had the best gin in town. Just as we got to Rampart Street, a big black cat crossed our path. I stopped dead in my tracks. ‘Boys, I don’t like this,’ I said, ‘that cat had eyes like balls of fire. Let’s turn around and go down Burgundy Street.’ But they all laughed at me because I wanted to run back just for one block. So we kept going the way we were headed.

“Benny Harvey’s saloon was packed with musicians and show people. We were not there twenty minutes before Black Benny was fatally stabbed by a woman he used to live with. She got mad with him for some reason because he offered her a drink. Anyway, she had never gotten over his getting married and quitting her.

“I was standing next to Black Benny when the stabbing took place. If I’d had any idea that this woman had a knife, I could have saved Black Benny’s life. Or maybe he could have saved himself if he had gone to the hospital instead of hauling the woman away to the First Precinct. All the guys in the band admitted later that Black Benny might not have got killed if they had only listened to me. This happened pretty near forty years ago, but I still think there is something to the saying about a black cat crossing your path. Always turn around and go the other way!”

In the 1970s, Danny Barker said, “that Kidneyfoot Rella spit in Black Benny’s face as he lay dead in his coffin.”