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This Music is for Dancing: A History of the NOLA Brass Bands

Ron Bocian

Born and raised in Chicagoland in “Little Slavia,” I was introduced to Balkan music in my early childhood. I immediately loved the drums. The bass drum was especially fascinating to me. My young wiry body caught the bass drum vibe in my little chest.  Clinging front and center to the stage at the Croatian Culture Club at Friday Fish Fry in front of the Bob Doszak Orchestra (oftentimes just Bob on accordion and his son on drums) I would relish the occasions where the band would swell into a larger outfit at the church picnic grounds. A trumpet, tuba, and saxophone would fill out the sound in a most satisfying way, giving me my first taste of brass band music. Still, although the dance floor was full, the dancing was not for me at the time. Polka dancing was actually quite a hilarity to me. I was embarrassed to see my mother and father looking so kooky bouncing around in what appeared to be a real style of dancing.  I didn’t get it.

Here’s a clip of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from Fats Domino’s secondline Jazz funeral.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BbAUISpB3_h/

Big 6 Brass Band with Treme Sidewalk Steppers.

Fast forward 15 years, with my ever-burning passion for music, especially New Orleans-flavored jazz and funk, I found my way down to the Crescent City. It was supposed to be a spontaneous quick stop visit before venturing out West. Right away I discovered the sweetest little neighborhood music venues with warm, welcoming atmospheres, diverse crowds, brass band music, and often an enormous pot of complimentary red beans and rice. With these tantalizing traits, the quick stop I promised my traveling companion turned into a much longer stay for me—17 years actually—and we parted company. It soon followed that I discovered organizations in Nola serving a similar function of the Croatian and Slovenian culture clubs, which I was acquainted with in Chicago. These were known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. What was happening in New Orleans at the time these clubs were formed— in the early to mid-1800s—was very distinct to this large southern city. New Orleans was a busy port town with all the hospitality and entertainment frills of port towns, which typically includes more than a dash of adult strength interests. New Orleans was also a point of disembarkation for the military,
which shaped the entertainment offerings but also contributed to the many brass instruments  available and educated well-trained musicians via military bands. In addition, New Orleans had a population of musical sophisticates and housed the very first opera house as well as a symphonic society in the country in the mid 1800s. This even more contributed  to the vast pool of talent and innate performers in town. Essential to the development of New Orleans brass band music was the population of free people of color and enslaved people and their relationship with social aid and pleasure clubs. The social aid and pleasure club was a gathering place to celebrate friends, family, food, culture, music, and dancing and acted as an early social safety net and insurance company. If individuals come upon hard times the sa&pc had benefits and resources to help them through. One of the unique benefits of social aid and pleasure clubs in New Orleans was a funeral benefit. When a notable member of the community left this world, a second-line funeral procession was a key element through which a bereaved family processed their grief. The social aid and pleasure clubs would have a first-call brass band for all occasions. This band would play a central role in the funeral as well as many other celebrations. For the funeral, the band would typically play a dirge from the person’s home or their church and lead the way for the bereaved family and mourners to the cemetery to cut loose the body (bury the dead). Many sa&pcs had their own above-ground tomb for burials, because New Orleans is below sea level, after which the band and community of friends and family would turn around and make their way back to the community center with the most upbeat music and voraciously celebrate that person’s life. I attended many jazz funerals and played quite a few throughout my years in NOLA. Attending a stranger’s funeral may seem odd but it is often more of a community event than a private affair in NOLA. Among the most notable jazz funerals were those of Ernie K-Doe and Fats Domino. Pillars of the music community earned a very special send off. I recall former Mayor Mark Morial speaking at Ernie’s funeral. Gallier Hall was the venue, and it was standing room only, packed with a mass of people outside waiting for the second line. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band was the core band with Lil Rascals BB performing at the tail end of the second line in a massive turnout of extra local horn players and drummers. 5,000 was a very conservative guesstimate of people marching alongside the horse-drawn mortuary carriage with brass bands blowing up a storm with the sounds of old church spirituals and Nola R&B classic soothing your ears and soul. Likewise, in 2017, for Fats Domino’s send off, I danced as long and hard as I could for this one. The size of the second line was hard to fathom. One could not see the end of the parade. I heard there were 7,000 people. Felt that way! At one point Trombone Shorty was leading the massive brass band assemblage in “Ain’t My Fault,” a New Orleans R&B classic. In another moment I found myself next to Roger Lewis, who in a moment in between tunes started his brass band standard “Blackbird Special.” These are the moments in New Orleans when you realize you are in a very special place.

Congo Square commemorative plaque.

Early NOLA brass band at a funeral.

The vernacular of New Orleans brass bands originally comes from Congo Square and is informed by the music, clave/time feel and percussion of West and Central Africa. The repertoire was originally spirituals and hymns  (“Closer Walk with Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away” et. al.) and call-and-response work songs. The experience of the second line in a memorial or celebration is what has shaped the repertoire of the music and the personnel of the band. The music is spiritual in a way that is subtly different than playing music through electronics, i.e., guitars, keyboards, and synths. The sounds come right out of the viscera of the body. The dancing that is paired with it is known as buckjumping, which requires its own essay to understand fully. Be sure to catch Buckjumping (a documentary from 2018). I dare any professional dancer or ironman athlete to roll on a four to five-hour second line through the streets of New Orleans and see if they can keep up with the local buckjumpers Several of my bands from San Diego have made the pilgrimage to Nola and all have experienced or performed in a parade. It truly moves you, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider your whole way of life.

Quoting one of my longtime San Diego musical associates Aaron Gragg, a sousaphone player with Chunky Hustle Brass Band and Fresh Veggies Micro Brass, “The sheer power in those brass bands on the street and on my favorite Lil Rascals tracks (“Rock with Me,” “For the Love of Money,” “Buck It Like a Horse”) are always in my ear now, and it’s how I want to hear my compositions. The way those players blow, giving it everything, is how I hear horn lines in my head now. Never leaving anything out.” I can testify that Aaron leaves it all on stage or in parade!

I spoke with a couple more of my brass band associates and composers. From the Chunky Hustle Brass Band, Jordan Adams adds, “When you hear the second line from far away, the first thing you hear is the bass drum and cymbals. When you get a little closer you hear the snare drum. A little closer you hear the tuba, then the trombones, and then the trumpets and saxophones. That’s what you have to think about when writing the music. You have to compose from the foundation up. While it’s easy to try and write out every note for every musician for every second of the song, it’s important to leave room for freedom and hooha in the music.”

Euphoria Brass Band, Ron Bocian center. Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

Euphoria Brass Band’s main composer J.P. Balmat concurs. “For me, composing really starts off with the foundation… the bass line played by the sousaphone. This is the heart and soul of NOLA Brass Band music. After that is established I try to create a melody and sound that pays tribute to the genre while incorporating my own influences like Afro-Cuban, funk, Middle Eastern, and even straight-ahead jazz. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Does it groove? Can you move to it? Does it create excitement for the listener?’ These are all things I love about NOLA Brass Band music. It’s feel good music for the soul!

Jordan and J.P. both agree that the music doesn’t necessarily demand virtuosity. As Jordan explains, “This music is all played by wind players and you have to take a few things into consideration: what type of endurance each player has, what their loudest range is, and which keys lay easiest on each instrument and allow for players to be able to use the register that projects the most.” Similarly, J.P. Balmat, who has been a quite prolific composer with the Euphoria Brass Band, says, “After playing with the same musicians for nine-plus years, I end up writing for each musician. I know where their strengths lie and how to write parts that challenge them. If the musicians enjoy playing the chart, then I’m happy.”

I feel so fortunate to be able to play with these cats because I know they both understand the genre. There is an anecdote in New Orleans that when one of the original brass bands made it to Chicago from New Orleans for the first time, they were not connecting with the audience the way they wanted and literally made a sign that read “This Music is for Dancing.” I can certainly relate.

Euphoria Brass Band plays at Jeffrey Joe’s memorial. Photo by Liz Abbott.

Drew Miller, co-founder of Euphoria Brass Band and long-time New Orleans music show DJ of The Second Line Parade on KSDS Jazz88.3, adds, “When we formed Euphoria Brass Band 10 years ago, we were the only brass band in town. The timing was right with the HBO series Treme, giving New Orleans music and culture much deserved and long-overdue attention nationwide. We stuck close to our roots for a while, but now we’ve developed our own voice, thanks in large part to Balmat’s exciting take on this genre. Just like in New Orleans, this music is a living, breathing beautiful tradition and we continue to be inspired and honored to be part of it.”

For a quick study of Nola brass band music, the essentials are the Treme Brass Band for the most traditional, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (the band that really brought the genre back into action in the late ’70s early ’80s), and bands like Rebirth Brass Band and New Orleans Nightcrawlers, which both recently won Grammy awards.

At the moment, the brass band music scene is rapidly growing in San Diego. I am aware of five brass bands from zero less than 10 years ago. With more people emerging from lockdowns and realizing how much they have missed human connections and interactions, the brass band genre will give you a reason to dance!

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