The History of Brass Bands
Lively, exuberant, full of energy—probably the first words that pop into your head when you hear “brass band”.
Without a doubt, the brass bands of today certainly fit that description (especially if you’ve ever seen one in New Orleans).
What exactly is a brass band? How did they start? Is anyone still playing brass band music today?
These are fantastic questions and you deserve the answers!
Let’s talk brass bands from origin to evolution to modern revival.
Interestingly enough, as alive and colorful as brass band music might be, you might be surprised to know it had a somewhat more somber beginning.
Now you might be wondering, how in the world could a brass band even come within a universe length of somberness?
By having its birth on the battlefield.
In 19th century England, it wouldn’t be surprising to find military units that included cadets with bugles and drums.
This wasn’t meant for battlefield entertainment; these instruments served a vital purpose in communicating orders and movements to troops in a way that could be heard above the fray.
But off the battlefield, where there were soldiers with instruments and downtime, cadets came together to play music and entertain their buddies (and themselves).
These soldiers formed bands that consisted of brass instruments (bugles) and percussion instruments (drums), the foundation of all brass bands thereafter.
The brass band music set Victorian England ablaze and by 1860, an amazing 750 brass bands had formed in England alone.
These were no longer soldiers playing their field instruments, these were now amateur and professional civilian musicians.
What were some of the factors that caused the wildfire-like spread of this new musical genre?
Actually, there were quite a few different fuels that fired the brass band trend.
For starters, the British Industrial Revolution was taking England into a new modern age and things were changing rapidly.
Old ways were being left behind, and this included medieval and Renaissance-era music.
The Revolution also stirred up discontent and increased political activity (rallies, protests, etc.) among the working class, something that unsettled employers.
In order to keep the masses calm during their leisure time and prevent them from participating in hostile political activities, employers encouraged employees to form musical bands, even going so far as to finance them.
Which was the first named brass band to appear?
In one of the greatest debates since “which came first the chicken or the egg, there is universal disagreement whether Bessies O’ the Barn Brass Band or Black Dykes Mills Brass Band came first as the band with the longest standing tradition of brass music.
What makes up a brass band
Musical education also began to be an important part of university curriculum.
Put together bright musical minds coordinated into music departments, and music technology and performance can’t help but progress and improve.
The brilliant invention of keys and valves for brass instruments (the original bugles didn’t have either) meant greater versatility as they could now play many more notes (almost, if not as many, as windward instruments).
Greater musical versatility could only mean one thing—brass music had the freedom to take off in just about any number of directions and styles.
Though the brass band wasn’t fully a brass band until later in the 19th century, the brass instruments you’ll find played in a brass band even today include cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, trombones, B & E flat basses.
Though they are not considered brass, in keeping with the original drum position, no brass band is complete without percussion instruments.
With the variety of instruments that came to be included in brass bands and the ability to play different types of works (including original compositions, orchestral transcriptions, marches, medleys, and hymn arrangements), brass bands were the hottest new form of musical entertainment.
They were even being hired by political candidates to liven up campaigns.
Brass Bands Head to America
The brass band exuberance couldn’t be contained to one nation for very long.
It eventually spread to far-flung areas such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand and spread closer to home, being embraced by several different European countries as well.
Given the close links between Britain and America, it was no surprise that brass band music would spread across the “pond” and make its way into American life.
The lively music of brass bands hit the height of their popularity just before the Civil War.
War didn’t cause brass band music to fade into obscurity, however, American troops, embroiled in civil war, formed similar bands to their British counterparts.
Musicians with bugles, bassoon-like instruments and saxhorns played to bolster the spirits of their fellow soldiers, especially on the long, trudging marches they faced during the Civil War years.
Even after the end of the Civil War, brass band music was alive and well in America, becoming an important part of life in the 19th century.
Its high-spirited sound was a perfect way for Americans to celebrate civic pride, even on a more local level.
Saxhorns actually fit over the shoulder of its player and became a troop favorite because it’s horn faced backward, projecting its sound so that troops behind could clearly hear.
At one point, it was hard to walk into any town in the nation that didn’t have its own brass band.
Sometimes made up of amateurs and sometimes comprised of professional musicians, the bands were often sponsored by factories, companies, fire departments, and militia units.
Some players who started out as amateurs went on to become brass band professionals, leaving their mark on America’s musical history.
One of these was a musician and eventually director of the US Marine Corp band, John Philip Sousa.
A songwriter, composer, and bandmaster, Sousa became known as “The March King. Many of his marches and compositions were patriotic, maybe the most notable being “Stars and Stripes Forever”.
He also invented a marching style bass tuba, the sousaphone, which would eventually become a staple of New Orleans-style brass music.
The Salvation Army, then newly established in 1865, used brass band music as a way to play Christian Gospel music and even wrote some of its own music. In modern times, the Salvation Army has been mainly responsible for keeping the brass band tradition alive in America.
Brass Music Moves South and Undergoes an Evolution
The great cultural diversity between the American North and South meant that once brass music reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, its transformation was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
In northern parts of the country, the band had a bit more formal style which made sense for military, political, civic, and patriotic events.
But the south saw music as more of a celebration.
It grabbed a hold of brass band music and took it to the streets, infusing it with a liveliness it hadn’t previously known.
The place that gave new birth to brass band music? The city of New Orleans.
In the past century, the mention of New Orleans almost certainly brings to mind colorful, enthusiastic brass music played in the streets with gusto and danced to by revelers.
Once brass music had reached New Orleans, musicians–many of them with African heritage–took the original sound and began mixing in their cultural rhythms to form the New Orleans style brass music that most recognize today.
A city filled with such a rich diversity of ethnicities saw a variety of cultural traditions being kept alive by their people.
One such tradition was the funeral procession, in which families often hired brass bands to play. Each ethnic group had its own variation on this rite with songs particular to their culture.
Since brass band musicians didn’t always know songs specific to every culture, the music became blended into a common sound that could be played at any procession. This sound became unique to New Orleans.
However, by the time brass music had reached New Orleans, the city already had a history of violence and corruption.
The youth of New Orleans needed an escape from the cycle of poverty and violence they were seemingly trapped in, and many of them turned to brass music as an outlet.
These youth helped mix in the cultural musical styles that formed New Orleans style brass band music.
From there each successive generation took styles they learned from past generations and began mixing in other genres of music like funk, soul, hip hop, rock, and pop music, all while keeping the music true to its roots.
A far cry from playing on battlefields, New Orleans brass music could be heard throughout the night powering out of nightclubs, bars, gin mills, ballrooms, brothels, and in the early days (pre-Depression era) being played right in the streets.
Brass music was incorporated into marching bands that livened up various parades.
Its vivacious sound began reaching an even larger audience as some bands started to make recordings of their music.
By the 1930’s & 1940’s jazz had taken on an art form in America and it came to be closely linked with brass band music.
Though brass band music was more closely associated with New Orleans, both musical styles lent influence to one another.
Despite its rather rapid evolution, eventually the pace of change in the genre slowed down, leaving some concerned for the future of brass music.
For a music tradition to be kept alive and thrive on into the future, the younger generation has to take hold of it, nurture it, and help it grow.
By the 1960’s brass music was struggling, and rhythm guitarist Danny Barker wasn’t going to let it die.
Danny Barker’s plan to revive brass band music in America had worked.
What the new generation was able to learn from Barker helped them to revitalize New Orleans brass band music and carry the torch, even after they left the Fairview band.
Clarinetist Dr. Michael White went on to play in the Liberty Brass Band.
Four later members of the band–Gregory Davis, Charles Joseph, Kirk Joseph, and Kevin Harris—went on to form the revivalist band the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in 1977.
These have helped keep New Orleans brass music fresh and alive for 40 years.
The devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could not dampen the vibrant sounds of brass music in New Orleans.
In fact, the tragedy has seemed to help the movement grow as residents refuse to let their strong spirit be broken.
Up and coming bands like To Be Continued Brass Band and Young Fellaz Brass Band are making their mark on the scene, while new bands such as the Baby Boyz Brass Band are formed by students still in high school that want to continue the long musical traditions of New Orleans.
The history of brass bands has undergone many transformations, branching out and spawning into other arenas (marching bands, wedding parades, funeral processions, etc.).
Gregg Stafford was dubbed “The Last Trumpet Player in New Orleans” for his dedication to keeping the New Orleans musical traditional alive. He led the Young Tuxedo Brass Band for 30 years.
Its traditions are kept alive and are still part of the vibrant culture of New Orleans today.
The sound is alive in the French Quarter and on the streets, and most important of all, in the heart and soul of New Orleans.
Modern Brass Bands Across North America
Even though New Orleans and brass bands might be somewhat synonymous, that amazing genre of music couldn’t be contained to one city.
The past 15 years has seen a resurgence of the brass band in North America. Especially essential to keeping the tradition alive across the country has been the formation of the North American Brass Band Association (NABBA).
Currently there are several hundred brass bands across North America, while modern composers (including the Salvation Army) continue to compose new music, keeping the genre alive and progressive.
From coast to coast and everywhere in between, its popularity is growing as new bands form and younger generations learn and expand this art form.