Jazz funerals work a little differently in Minneapolis. Just ask the Jack Brass Band.
“It wasn’t like a second line. We were actually inside the church, standing up in front of the congregation at the altar,” recalls band leader Mike Olander about one of his group’s recent engagements. “We did ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee,’ we did ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ We did ‘Saints’ to close. They were really receptive to it and the family afterwards said how much it meant to them that it wasn’t strictly a real solemn thing.”
There’s a peculiar fish-out-of-water feeling to the sight of a New Orleans style brass band in another city. Perhaps it’s the absence of the cultural moorings—second lines, Mardi Gras parades, and so forth— that we take for granted as part of the natural habitat of the brass band.
The Jack Brass Band has its origins back in 1990, when Olander was gifted a copy of the Dirty Dozen’s New Orleans Album. “It was such a different sound,” he remembers. Coincidentally, the Dozen were scheduled to perform in Minneapolis a few months later. Olander and a friend were dying to go. “I was 15 or 16 at the time. Because we were underage, my mom had to call the club and convince the manager to let us come,” he says. “We got there before the band had arrived. We helped them load in. They were very cool about talking with us.”
The Dozen must have been surprised and charmed by their young Midwestern admirers; at the end of the night, they gave them a little treat. “My friend and I played bari sax and trumpet. When the band finished the show, they all walked off the stage, and then the bari sax player and the trumpet player went back up on stage and played just by hemselves,” recalls Olander. “The two of them played just for us for about three to five minutes. I’ve been in love with the music since.”
Minnesota isn’t an obvious place to start up a New Orleans brass band. “When people hear the words ‘brass band’ up here, they’re thinking the Canadian Brass,” says Olander. “You know, five guys wearing tuxedos. People ask us ‘What kind of music do you play?’ And we’ll say ‘Oh, we’re a New Orleans-style brass band.’ And they’ll say ‘Oh! A Dixie band.’ Not quite.”
In New Orleans, starting up a brass band is considered a thoroughly respectable career move. It’s easy to forget that elsewhere in America, the style is the province of a very specialized group of fans and practitioners.
“I think the main misunderstanding with New Orleans music from people outside is that they mistake the jubilance of it or the joyfulness of it for kitsch or even comedy,” says David Henzie-Skogen, leader of Madison, Wisconsin’s Youngblood Brass Band.
Youngblood was started by a group of high school friends in the mid ’90s. “To us it never seemed odd,” says Skogen. “We’re people that play horns and drums and this was the heaviest horn and drum music we could get our hands on. We weren’t interested in being in a ska band or a funk band. We gravitated toward the music because we felt it had something deeper going on. When we were 14 and heard Rebirth we were like, ‘Yup, that’s the hottest shit around.’
“We were going to New Orleans all the time, getting our asses kicked by bands down there—in a good way. In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents were okay with it. I was 15 or 16 and like, ‘Hey Mom, Dad, I’m going down to New Orleans for a week for Jazz Fest, going to play some music, hang out in some pretty suspect neighborhoods.’ But they were cool with it.
“When we first started going to New Orleans, we became pretty good friends with the Hot 8. We were the same age. We were trying to do something different with the music. Dinerral [Shavers] and I would kind of hang out and mess around playing snare drums. They were getting into playing outside of the Rebirth mold; it was more intense and hardcore and coming from the streets.”
Skogen and friends formed an inter-city bond with the Hot 8. Around 2002, they got a taste of one of the less savory aspects of brass band life in New Orleans. “We were in front of Donna’s, just hanging out on the corner with the Hot 8 guys,” recalls Skogen. “Four unmarked cop cars raced up on the sidewalk and these plainclothes cops jumped out with guns pointed at us and threw us all against the wall and harassed us for 15 minutes about ‘where the drugs are’. Just operating under the assumption that there’s these white dudes and black dudes hanging out on the corner, some kind of drug deal was going down. It threw into such stark relief the contrast of where we were all coming from. The Hot 8 guys were pissed about it, but they were like, ‘Yeah, this is pretty standard procedure. They always think we’re doing something.’”
It’s no secret that brass is a tough style in which to build a national following, yet Youngblood has managed to turn all sorts of heads (including a review on Pitchfork, presumably a first for the genre) by aggressively pushing the music’s most modern elements—particularly its connection to hip-hop. The group’s 2000 debut Unlearn features a collaboration with Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli.
“This was right when the Black Star record was released and people like Kweli were considered to be the crème de la crème of the underground hip-hop scene,” remembers Skogen. “But not international superstars the way Mos [Def] and Kweli are at this point. For Kweli, I just called his manager every day for like a month, I was like, ‘You should listen to this shit. This would be a really interesting thing for Kweli to do. We’re for real.’ I finally got his manager on the phone, sent him a track and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is cool. Let’s do it.’”
The result of that persistence is “Y’all Stay Up”, one of the most seamless brass/hip-hop hybrids you’re likely to hear.
For people in other cities who got into brass band music in the ’80s and ’90s, two names reign supreme. “You pretty much had some Dirty Dozen CDs and Rebirth Brass Band CDs and that’s it outside of New Orleans,” says Olander. In modern brass band music, those two groups remain the primary reference points for outside fans. When Olander visited New Orleans for the first time—Jazz Fest ’96—he learned how much more was out there. “I stocked up,” he says. “I got Pinstripe, I got Soul Rebels, I got New Birth, I got Treme. Anything I could find and get my hands on.”
Skogen has a similar story. “When we were 14, Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen were basically the
groups we were listening to.”
Even on a purely visual level, a New Orleans-style brass band stands out. The sight of a sousaphone is always a surprise for audiences reared on more compact instruments. More consequential in musical terms, though, is the characteristic drum section. The complexity of second line percussion would be impossible without those dueling snare and bass drummers.
“I’m a drummer and I can remember the first time I ever heard a second line beat,” says Kevin Stevens, leader of Bay-area-based Brass Monkey Brass Band. “I just thought it was the coolest groove I ever heard.”
Stevens is normally a kit player. “It definitely was a whole different thing learning the language and the rhythms,” he says. “It took a little getting used to. When you have two separate drummers, you can do rhythms that one drummer can’t. You have things that a drum set player would never play or could not play. And that’s exciting to me, improvising and creating beats with another drummer.”
Not surprisingly, many outside groups prefer to stick with the kit. “We have sort of the Bonerama model,” says Tim Halpin of St. Louis’ Funky Butt Brass Band. “Most of the time we have a full drum kit and a guitar. It allows us to play some things that, if we had to split them up, we wouldn’t quite be able to play.
“I think there’s a real affinity for New Orleans music here in St. Louis because we share a river and there’s a lot of shared heritage,” says Halpin, who’s been attending Jazz Fest for 22 years. “When New Orleans bands come through here, people turn out in droves to see them.”
Every New Orleans musician who took him or her under their wing. Outsiders who have put in the time and effort of establishing meaningful connections with the city have discovered that this characteristic generosity is not just about community solidarity; it’s about perpetuating the music, and is thus available to anyone with the dedication to seek it out.
“I would show up in New Orleans back when I was in high school and the Dirty Dozen would say, ‘Where’s your horn? Go get your horn and come sit in with us,’” Olander says. “They’d be playing a pretty decent festival or a bigger club and they’d still be like, ‘Bring your horn. We want you to sit in.’ I think that really sets the whole brass band community apart from a lot of other musicians. They’re about spreading the music. With a lot of other bands it’s like, ‘When you’re good enough, you come play with us.’ Versus ‘Hey, we’re going to bring you along and get you into the scene and work with you and give you opportunities and teach you.’
“The reaction from people in New Orleans when we first started going down was that they wanted to help us get it right,” says Skogen. “Looking back, it was really valuable to have people saying, ‘Okay, you want to take this seriously? You want to figure this music out? We’re going to put you through the fire a little bit because if you’re going to do it, you should be doing it right.’
“The ultimate feather in the cap is when we do something and we hear from the guys down there that they dig it,” adds Olander. “And they do their own twist or start performing some of that same material that we introduced into the genre. When that happens, then you must be doing something right.”