The New Generation of Brass Bands: Live For Today

Young Fellaz Brass Band. Photo by Taylor Davidson.

Young Fellaz Brass Band. Photo by Taylor Davidson.

Sean Roberts, 23, likens learning how to play the trumpet to learning how to walk or talk. “I didn’t even really have to learn,” explains the trumpet player with To Be Continued Brass Band (TBC). “It was like, once I picked it up, I instantly knew how to play.”

At the age of six, Glenn Hall III, the 15-year-old Baby Boyz Brass Band trumpet player and band leader, knew he wanted to pursue musical performance as a career. For Hall, the recipe for success is simple: finish his last two years at McDonogh 35 College Preparatory High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, attend an out-of-state conservatory, book gigs, and become a star.

Ashton Hines is 21, and he plays trumpet in the Young Fellaz Brass Band. He can also tell you his first musical memory. “I sat at the drums one day and played this beat,” he says. “My parents were like, ‘Man, put him in a band!’ And from then on, I’ve been playing the drums.” Hines was five years old at the time. “I couldn’t even reach the drums,” he says, “I was standing up, jumping to hit the cymbal.”

The three musicians possess a youthful optimism that is paired with the complete confidence that playing music is what they were born to do, and they lead the next generation of brass bands in New Orleans. Generational relationships in the brass band community have often seemed overblown, as the younger bands seemingly turn their back on older bands and their tradition, get criticized for it, only to become part of the tradition themselves as they age. In the meantime, their youth has allowed them to develop their sound and expand their careers without fear. Open-minded and unrestricted, TBC, Baby Boyz and the Young Fellaz function like sponges, searching for inspiration, and learning from virtually everything they encounter.

All the members of TBC were in high school when the band started, and it has been together for eight full years now. Baby Boyz have been together for three, and the Young Fellaz—made up of 14 to 23-yearolds—formed just three years ago. Constantly on the up-and-up, all three bands are self-proclaimed works in progress. “We weren’t the best band,” Hall admits. “We came a long way within three years.”

Roberts echoes a similar sentiment for TBC, whose members range from 21 to 25. “By starting so young, sometimes people look at us like we’re the same teenagers as when we first started,” he says. “We started as young men, but we’re grown-ups now. We’ve still got that young people funk and image, you feel me? We’ve got that. But we’re grown.”

With monikers that hint of something yet to come, TBC, Baby Boyz and Young Fellaz define themselves as young and energetic, and their sound was sufficiently developed to attract the attention of Ben Coltrane, a Los Angeles-based producer. His love of jazz brings him back to the Crescent City, where he is constantly searching for new talent. Coltrane first heard TBC after finishing dinner at Felix’s, his favorite restaurant in New Orleans, when he stopped and listened to the young musicians who were performing curbside outside of the restaurant. Thinking that TBC’s sound was interesting and should be recorded, Coltrane’s relationship with the band began.

Baby Boyz Brass Band

Baby Boyz Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

He founded Blue Train Production, the label behind TBC’s first studio album, Modern Times, and the Young Fellaz’ upcoming studio album Assassination of American Pop because he saw a need for a record label that was willing to take risks on new and young talent. The idea behind the label is to capture the constantly changing music that young brass bands are making today on the streets of New Orleans, and to ensure that it reaches audiences beyond our city limits. Likening himself to the Martin Scorsese of brass bands, Coltrane sees his role of producer playing double duty as that of preserver of history.

While young brass bands respect and learn from tradition, they will break away from it without apology. For TBC, it helps to be hardheaded. “You’ve got to say, ‘Screw the audience,’” Roberts says bluntly. “You have no choice but to listen to our music. This is our music, and you’re going to listen. If you want the crowd to feel hyped, you’re going to get the crowd hyped.” The Baby Boyz try to incorporate as many different types of music as they can when they perform. Says Hall, “We might play some jazz, some funk, some R&B. Sometimes you may catch us playing some orchestra music.”

The repertoire has always been a difference-maker between generations. The Dirty Dozen brought Dizzy Gillespie, then-modern jazz and funk to brass, and Rebirth made Gerald Levert’s “Casanova” from 1987 a brass band staple. TBC has performed with the Roots, and Young Fellaz have applied the brass aesthetic to Adele’s “American Boy” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

“Good music is good music,” Roberts says. “Sometimes we’ll play, like, a hip-hop song with an up-tempo beat, and some older guys they will be like, ‘That’s not traditional New Orleans music.’ And sometimes we go, ‘Kiss our ass, we know it’s not. We know that.’” “As far as the fusion, you feel it,” the Young Fellaz’ Ashton Hines says. “If I’m playing a traditional New Orleans song, and a hip-hop song comes to my mind, I play it. It’ll fit perfectly. I guess good music can do that. Good music can blend with other good music. We go by this: If we like it, somebody else will like it. We just do what we like.”

While the understanding that brass bands are rooted in tradition is respected, what youth are doing today on the streets of New Orleans is another game altogether. Young brass musicians are moving from their traditional social functions, accompanying intimate musical process of mourning and celebration, and moving closer to contemporary notions about the place of music. Spectacle and performance are the ultimate goals, and they’re not the first to think along these lines. The Soul Rebels, for example, focus on the stage and rarely parade. “Everyone wants to please the crowd,” says Hall. “That’s the main focus, to make the crowd feel happy when we’re playing. Have that confidence. We came here to entertain you.”

Young Fellaz Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Young Fellaz Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Hines agrees, emphasizing the importance of entertainment to the Young Fellaz. “We sing a lot. We dance a lot. We do a lot of dance moves together. We do a lot of dance moves separate. You’ll be watching our show, and we’ll get offstage and dance with you. We love to have fun.”

Departing from traditional responsibility, the bands draw motivation from euphoric live shows and dreams of stardom.

“I was about 19 when I realized, ‘I want to do this,’” says TBC’s Roberts. “That’s when my passion for the music really kicked in. I just wanted to be outstanding. I wanted to be in shows, be in front of a crowd playing. Be outstanding and have everybody looking, applauding.” The Young Fellaz are also motivated by the empowering feeling they find onstage in front of a captive audience. “I like being onstage because I love to grab the mic,” Hines says. “I can do anything on the mic. You might catch me rapping, scatting, singing. That’s the thing a lot of people seem to like about the Young Fellaz—when we’re on stage, you can tell we’re having fun.”

Optimistic and interested in fame, young brass musicians recognize the benefits of taking their music on the road. Says Roberts, “In order for the world to know, we have to bring New Orleans to the world. We want to keep the music alive and going down here, but we want to bring it to the world, and make it on a broader scheme. You know, mainstream. If we have to leave for a period of time to get other places to feel us, to accept it and enjoy it and love it the way people in New Orleans do, then that’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make.”

Hines envisions a similar career path. “I want New Orleans to be home,” he says. “If I have a week off, I’m in New Orleans. I want to travel everywhere, but when I say I’m going home, I’m coming right here. You’ll see me on Frenchmen Street.”

The emphasis on the road may seem at odds with the brass band’s traditional role—a social function the bands seem to have embraced with renewed vigor since Katrina—but unlike the brass bands before them, they’ve had generations of models for touring brass bands. TBC, Baby Boyz and Young Fellaz may or may not know that the Olympia Brass Band toured, but they certainly know that the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth maintain active touring lives.

To create a stronger live show, the bands study charismatic local musicians and mainstream entertainers. “If I were to go see, I don’t know, Billy Cyrus or something,” Roberts shakes his head and continues. “It’s not only the music, but his performance. The way he acts, how he speaks, the things he says. I try to incorporate all of that. I take that back to my band and we try to incorporate that into what we’re doing.”

The Baby Boyz’ Glen Hall III says that his cousin, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, is his biggest inspiration as a performer, while Hines looks outside the city limits. “Growing up, I looked at Michael Jackson and James Brown. I watched the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, and I like entertainment, so it’s like, ‘I wonder why people like them?’ I like them and they can’t sing, or they can’t play an instrument. Why do I like them?” Hines pauses for a moment before answering his own question with a smile. “Because they entertain.”

Joseph Maize, Jr. of TBC Brass Band

Joseph Maize, Jr. of TBC Brass Band. Photo by Kim Welsh.

This year TBC has done a lot of growing up, and that maturation has not come without pain. On May 9, Brandon Franklin, the 22-year-old TBC saxophonist, was tragically shot and killed in the Hollygrove neighborhood. Roberts describes his bandmate as a natural leader and one of the most level-headed, focused, determined people he’s ever known. When asked how the band members were coping with the loss of their friend, Roberts replied, “some better than others, but we’re going to keep it going.” Franklin made his last recording with the Young Fellaz as a guest on their soon-to-be-released album. For TBC, the loss of Franklin created unity among the remaining band members. Says Roberts, “We’re pretty much going to have this band, these members, until we’re dust.”

In June, TBC and the Young Fellaz had run-ins with the New Orleans Police Department when officers began enforcing an existing 8 p.m. curfew for street performers in the bustling French Quarter. The noise ordinance hit hard for TBC, who created a name for themselves over the years by playing at the corner of Bourbon and Canal. More than just a high foot traffic area for young bands to gain exposure and earn an income, the French Quarter is also where Roberts learned to play his horn. “Everything I learned, I learned it off these streets,” says Roberts. “This is the birthplace of jazz.” For the Young Fellaz, who play an average of five to six gigs a week at the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen for exposure, the ordinance was equally frustrating. While the enforcement wasn’t directed at them or any musicians in particular, enforcement of the ordinance threatens their signature gigs.

TBC has processed the difficult year with what Sean Roberts refers to as “swagger”—a term that Jay-Z brought to hip-hop in 2001 that led to a sub-genre in Atlanta in recent years. Explains Roberts, “It’s how you carry yourself, how people perceive you when they see you playing your instrument, the way you play. When we’re not playing, it’s how we talk to people, fans and whatever. It’s everything—you as a person, when you talk to someone, when you have a conversation. You feel me?”

Sean Roberts emphasizes lifestyle attitude; the Baby Boyz’ Glen Hall focuses on chops. “If you’re going to be a musician, you must practice if you want to get better at playing your instrument,” he says. “That’s what a musician is. All of us practice almost every day.” The Young Fellaz’ Ashton Hines is similarly high-minded about his job. “The crazy thing about music is, you’ve got to be serious, but there’s so much fun going on. To me, learning about music is fun. Learning about New Orleans is fun. My job is based on fun. Music is a job now, so I want to put eight hours a day into it.”

TBC has a similar work ethic, playing an average of 12 shows per week. Roberts says, “It’s good that we stay busy, this is our full-time job. When it’s for work, it’s work. Work hard, play later. Work now, play later.”

In many ways, the stories of young brass bands resemble those of the older bands they’ll eventually become. The confrontational element that they bring to the tradition changes, but the tradition has absorbed those elements and will absorb more. And each band that bucked the tradition had to decide at some point to stick with what it believed in.

“Some of the older guys tell us that it helps to be hardheaded,” TBC’s Sean Roberts says. “We’re young and we’re hardheaded. We’re kind of rebellious to an extent. We’re still learning as we’re going, so we still face challenges. For me, it’s just what I was created for.”

While successful musicians outside of the brass band world are strong influences on the stylistic development of TBC, Baby Boyz and the Young Fellaz, older New Orleans brass bands remain their gold standard. “We model ourselves after all the bands that are older than us,” says Roberts. “They’re older; they tell us about some of their mistakes.” Roberts pauses and laughs. “Unless we’re doing a second line. If we’re doing a second line and Rebirth’s doing a second line with us, then it’s a competition.” Hall says that Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen, among other older bands, are archetypes for the Baby Boyz.

“I listen to Rebirth and the Soul Rebels a lot,” says Hines. “Soul Rebels, they have fun too. And Rebirth, it’s like, that’s tradition.” The Young Fellaz also look to their big brother band, TBC. “We went to them, and they taught us a lot—different things to look out for, like how much we should be getting paid,” says Hines. “They’re older than us,” explains Marshan Bowdon, the Young Fellaz’ tuba player and co-founder. “We’re a young band. We do everything ourselves.”