St. Clair Bourne, an African-American filmmaker with over 30 documentaries and features to his credit, recently completed a documentary on Brass Band music in New Orleans for National Geographic. While working as location coordinator on the film, I gained a perspective on brass bands that was more expansive than I previously had. This article is a sharing of some of the insights I gained.
IT AIN’T WHAT YOU THINK
Early in the shoot we passed through the French Quarter, and in the mall area between Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral the Rebirth Jazz Band was seriously getting down. Efrem Towns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was sitting in with them. The music was joyous. Before the band ended, baritone and soprano saxophone player Roger Lewis, also of the Dirty Dozen, and a trio of other musicians were beginning to set up shop on the other end of the block.
Was this simply a case of brass bands playing for tourists, clowning for dollars? Patiently I tried to explain that there was much more going on than met the uncultured eye. For example, there’s no prohibition on playing acoustic instruments in the Quarter, but there is a prohibition against playing amplified music. Because brass bands are self-contained and mobile, they can play anywhere and anytime they want to in the Quarter.
Bloodie (Gregory Davis, business manager for the Dirty Dozen) additionally pointed out that the reason members of the Dirty Dozen go into the Quarter to play is that since becoming popular nationally and internationally, their at-home schedule was very erratic, and their fees for playing were higher than most New Orleans venues could afford. So playing in the Quarter was a way to earn pocket change during the periods when the band wasn’t on the road.
“Also, you know it’s hard to keep your chops up if you don’t play. Sometimes we’ll be on the road for two or three weeks playing every night, and then we’ll be home for two weeks with no gigs. If you don’t play during the time you’re home then when you go back on the road, your chops are in bad shape. So we come down here and it’s like practicing for us and at the same time it’s a chance to make a little money. But the main thing is that it allows us to keep in shape as musicians.
Ernest “Doc” Paulin, one of the stalwarts of the brass band movement, and who was born in 1906, comments that today there are so many “laws and stuff you can’t get together like you could back in the old days. If you wanted to have a parade you got a band and some marchers or whatever and you did what you wanted to do, but now you’ve got to get all kinds of permits and things. The old days were better.”
Unless one is careful, it is easy to misinterpret Doc Paulin’s insights. Those “better days” that Doc Paulin is talking about in the context of the brass band movement has to do with the ability to perform when and where you wanted to, unrestrained by legislation and unencumbered by a need to “buy” permits or pay for police security.
As a result of the unique social context of New Orleans and the mobility of the brass band itself, brass bands are venue non-specific, meaning they can play almost anywhere. Brass bands are also economically independent units which are not necessarily dependent on club owners, hotels or other traditional and/or establishment middle men for income.
Roger Lewis also does it “because it’s fun. We play whatever we want to play, for as long as we want to play, and it’s a chance to experiment.”
Far from just a circus show for tourists, far from a creatively moribund form whose practitioners are locked into ceaseless repetition of the same songs with roughly the same solos over and over again, the contemporary brass band movement is actually alive and well. From legendary elders (most of whom are well over 65 years old) to bright-eyed pre-teen youngsters, New Orleans is experiencing a creative revivification of New Orleans brass band music.
BRASS BAND JAZZ: A TRADITION THAT TRANSCENDS ITS ERA
Other than the considerable impact of John P. Sousa’s music on high school, college and military marching bands, traditional New Orleans jazz is the only music whose popularity transcends its origins in turn of the century America. In fact, on a world level, Sousa’s music is relatively unimportant, especially compared to the profound impact jazz in general and New Orleans jazz particularly has had on world musical culture.
The world loves New Orleans jazz. People respond to its beat, its melodies, the way the various instruments work together. Although jazz specifically was a synthesis of experimentation with ragtime (and other popular musics of the day), African-American religious music of the period, various blues manifestations (such as folk songs, work songs, field hollers and shouts) and other musical currents (such as the aforementioned marching music of Sousa), jazz is also a prime example of the whole creation being much greater than the sum of its parts.
Consciously or not, when people listened to jazz in general, and particularly jazz of the 1920s, audiences were responding to a profoundly 20th century musical phenomenon that united pre-industrial folk traditions and folk dispositions with an emerging futuristic industrial consciousness that America embodied more than any other country on the face of the globe at the close of 19th century.
Whereas other American musics from that era are played today as period pieces, traditional jazz, and especially the brass band music in New Orleans, continues to have a healthy life in the contemporary context. Additionally, this music also continues to be attractive and accessible to musicians worldwide.
Louis Armstrong’s phenomenal ambassadorship and popularity worldwide was a testament not just to Armstrong’s particular genius as a musician and entertainer, but also a testament to jazz’s potency and profound effectiveness. In essence, this music unites the best elements of 19th century musical achievement with the aspirations of young men and women who, both literally and figuratively, optimistically entered the 20th century.
New Orleans jazz was a vehicle within which musicians (regardless of their ethnic or cultural origin) could participate on the stage of modern musical culture while simultaneously drawing on, and indeed even focusing on, their own indigenous culture. This was particularly true of the numerous Euro-immigrants (especially the Italian immigrants in New Orleans) who were washing onto American shores in wave after wave, seeking both a better economic life, as well as an opportunity for cultural self-expression (both of which were generally suppressed by the feudalistic aristocrats in the native countries these immigrants were desperately fleeing).
In this light, it is no surprise that although jazz as an art form was created by African-Americans, the art form is also truly an American art form that the whole world shares precisely because jazz offers the best opportunity to participate in the creation of “high art music.” In this context high art music simply means a music which reflects and projects the essential elements of a given culture.
This is why it is not incorrect (although sometimes misleading) to say that jazz is America’s classical music.
From the basic principles of individual freedom and social democracy, to the constant creation of new and more effective (and indeed often “faster”) modes of communication and commerce, from the constant efforts to set new records of technical excellence and human achievement, to the vitalness of an artform which innately looks more to the future than to the past; it is in this sense of embodying these and other essential characteristics of the America psyche and experience that jazz is indeed a classic expression of the American reality.
WHY “BRASS” BANDS?
While the marching brass band is only one format of jazz, the brass band remains a community-rooted and healthy format which has managed to profoundly transcend the strictures of traditional forms, to become a creatively fertile and culturally relevant format in the contemporary context. Before we briefly survey the contemporary scene from a stylistic point of view, it is instructive to understand the origins of the brass band movement in New Orleans.
Post-Civil War New Orleans was a polyglot of peoples and cultural influences. Both the German and Italian immigrant communities in particular had extremely strong brass band traditions that found active expression in numerous outdoor venues (including parades, picnics, riverboat trips and excursions on the lake). Specifically, the German Oom-pah brass bands were very popular and influential in New Orleans. Additionally, America was high-stepping to the lively parade beat of John P. Sousa, and in that regard New Orleans was no different.
Also, at that time New Orleans was the major gateway port to the Caribbean, Central and South America and there were numerous official, semi-official and public ceremonies to welcome and greet officials, dignitaries and other people of status from literally scores of countries and cultures. On a more mundane, although no less important level, the pawn shops and music stores were awash with instruments left behind by the armed forces of that time.
The jazz marching brass band was born in this musical milieu teeming with musical activity and excitement, a musical milieu of mass cultural activity that few other cities on the North American continent could match in quantity and no other city could match in distinctiveness.
Although it might seem obvious that brass band music would naturally develop in New Orleans because of its cultural richness, the fact is that the jazz band was not simply an extension of existing American popular musical activity, but rather the traditional New Orleans marching jazz band was a radical synthesis and transformation that combined both traditional African cultural antecedents with the technical demands of existing European musical cultural expressions to produce a music that is profoundly American in the truest and most accurate sense of what American musical culture is and aspires to be.
Moreover, this radical redefinition of musical culture was concurrently acceptable by the dominant society as well as both acceptable and accessible to the turn of the century subjugated African-American community precisely because the music’s radicalness was contained within a “parade,” a vehicle that was common, familiar and considered both safe and desirable by all strata of New Orleans society.
The African descendents who played music in New Orleans and created jazz brought with them more than simply a “jungle sound” that emphasized the “wild beating of drums” and “undisciplined intonations and timbres.” Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, King Oliver and all of the other founding fathers of jazz also brought with them African cultural antecedents that included the procession as a basic focal point of cultural activity.
Turn of the century “negroes” did not parade simply because they loved to dance in the streets, but also because in addition to being acceptable to the dominant society, parading was culturally consistent with traditional African ways of celebrating life, death, triumph and important occasions.
We should also remember that this post-reconstruction era was a period of an intense backlash against blacks that included the imposition of “Jim Crow” segregation and the creation of numerous restrictive and callous segregationist laws that circumscribed every public (and most private) activity of African-American people. In this context, although large gatherings were actively discouraged, parading was allowed.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has literally returned to his roots in traditional New Orleans music and who is actively studying through reading books, listening to records and tapes, as well as talking with older musicians and knowledgeable scholars, believes that traditional New Orleans jazz was the best possible synthesis of African and European musical art forms. In a conversation, he spoke with authority about the European cornet players of the day such as Jules Levy, Herbert L. Clarke, George Swift and others: “These men were not only great technically, but most trumpet players at one time or another end up studying from textbooks which taught trumpet techniques and which they wrote.”
What the saxophone was later to become in jazz, and what the guitar is to post-50s pop music, the cornet and trumpet were to the popular music of post-Civil War/pre-World War I American society. Additionally, Africans had a musical tradition which included trumpet-like instruments. This connection was made stunningly clear at a 1989 fall concert.
The Caribbean Cultural Center in New York presented a program of the “trumpet tradition” that began with a recording of traditional African trumpeters and included a cameo spot by Olu Dara playing a traditional African wood trumpet that is shaped like an animal’s horn. The focal point of that program was on six New Orleans trumpeters (Dave Bartholomew, Wallace Davenport, Umar Sharif, Joe Newman, Marlon Jordan and Wynton Marsalis). From ancient African beginnings up through the 1920s, trumpets were part of our musical history.
In jazz it was not until the 1930s that the saxophone became the premier instrument. It is instructive to note that Sidney Bechet, who is widely celebrated as jazz’s first great saxophone player, was widely known in his formative years in New Orleans as a cornetist. In fact, Louis Armstrong testifies “I marvelled at the way Bechet played the cornet, and I followed him all that day. There was not a cornet player in New Orleans who was like him. What feeling! What soul! Every other player in the city had to give it to him.”
Even in the modern context, musicians who are known as masters of their instruments often have trumpet playing in their background. For example, master drummers James Black and Herlin Riley both started off as trumpet players.
Wynton believes that part of the predominance of the trumpet has to do with the three-part formation of the front line in traditional jazz and the trumpet’s natural tones in the mid-range. “The trumpet plays the melody, the lead. The clarinet plays obligatos, answering the trumpet, and the trombone plays the rhythm parts. The trumpet is in the middle C to G above middle C range, the same range in which most melodies are written. The clarinet of course is well suited for the higher registers.”
Thus there is both a cultural proclivity and a structural reason for the dominance of the trumpet player. In addition, prior to the invention of the microphone and the widespread availability of electricity, musical instruments had to be played loudly enough to carry without artificial amplification. This was another reason for the popularity of brass instruments. (An interesting aside is that this is also why the banjo was used in traditional jazz and it wasn’t until the widespread availability of artificial amplification that the guitar replaced the banjo as the dominant hand-held string instrument in jazz.)
Finally, the reason for the dominance of the brass band on the musical landscape of New Orleans is because the brass band was accessible to the community at large. Not only was there a cultural predisposition toward processions with brass instruments providing music but more importantly, the support of brass bands was within the means of the black community.
Many people have an image of a second line involving thousands and thousands of people, but while it is true that there are extremely large second lines for annual parades, the more common occurrence is a small neighborhood-based second line or funeral procession that comprised perhaps only one or two hundred people at the most. The economic maxim of small is beautiful is nowhere more true than in the context of community support for brass band music.
Both Doc Paulin and Danny Barker note that brass bands were integrally entwined into the social fabric of daily life in the black communities of New Orleans up through the ’30s. During that period, brass bands were employed by the myriad of benevolent societies and social, aid & pleasure clubs (SA&PC) that undergirded and held together the black communities of their day. The benevolent societies in particular hired bands for funerals and the SA&PCs hired bands for parades, dances and balls.
Much more so than any other venue or institutions (including all of the hotels and nightclubs combined), it was these black organized mutual aid social organizations that provided both the social and economic context within which the brass bands flourished. Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen notes that the SA&PCs were the main economic support for the Dirty Dozen during their formative years.
Often, this aspect of economic support is overlooked by those who are unaware of how deeply interconnected the brass band music scene is with the day-to-day life of the New Orleans black community. This factor is particularly important to note when one considers that the city government does not in any way economically support this important manifestation of black culture. Brass bands exist because the black community of New Orleans has made it a priority to economically support these bands that play at parades, funerals, picnics, after baseball games, for private parties, wedding receptions and similar social functions.