In New Orleans, culture doesn’t come down from on high, it bubbles up from the streets.
Ellis Marsalis Jr.
As we parade into the new fiscal year, we’re going to head back to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and explore some of the famous brass bands the city is known for.
As you might imagine, a brass band is an ensemble composed of only brass instruments. They typically include trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, sousaphones, and percussion. Historically, they have played a mix of Euro-military style music and African folk music, and they influenced jazz, early on, before jazz started influencing them. Brass bands have often been a part of many celebrations, from second line parades to funeral processions.
Two of the earliest brass bands of note in New Orleans include the Excelsior Brass Band (1879 – 1931) and the Onward Brass Band (1886 – 1931). These two bands had some overlap in their players including Isidore Barbarin, Peter Bocage, and George Baquet. And while Lorenzo Tio played with the Onward Brass Band, his father (Lorenzo Tio Sr.) and uncle (Luis Tio) played with the Excelsior Brass Band. Another notable player from the Onward Brass Band is King Oliver, who, in addition to being a cornetist and bandleader, was a mentor to Louis “Pops” Armstrong. Oliver and Armstrong also participated in the Original Tuxedo Brass Band during the 1910’s and 1920’s, before heading to Chicago.
From a later incarnation of the Onward Brass Band, check out “Second Line”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
In the 1960’s, New Orleans saw a revitalization of the jazz scene, thanks, in part, to Allan Jaffe. He was a tuba player who took over Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, making it a home base for jazz artists. From that location, a steady stream of artists, young and old, brand new and legends, came through and performed. Many musicians were part of the Olympia Brass Band, and they eventually became known as the Preservation Hall Brass Band, touring all over the world. The Preservation Hall Brass Band exists to this day, continuing to record and tour. At the same time, Preservation Hall has expanded to also include a recording label and a non-profit supporting New Orleans’ jazz.
From their most recent recording, A Tuba to Cuba, listen to “Keep Your Head Up”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Started in the late 1970’s…
…is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The group arose from a church program established as a positive outlet for kids, and it eventually became a professional band. Musically, they are known for incorporating funk and bebop to the traditional style, and they’ve even expanded their instrumental line-up with electric guitar and keyboards. Overall, they have been, and continue to be, an influential force on the music scene.
Here they are with “Ain’t Nothing But A Party”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
A few years later…
…came the Rebirth Brass Band. Similar to the Dirty Dozen, The Rebirth Brass Band also incorporates jazz adjacent styles into their sound, including hip-hop, soul, and funk. If you’ve ever watched the HBO series Tremé, you may have caught the band – some of its members also worked behind the scenes as consultants on the series. And while they tour nationally, they also have a standing gig at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans, a cornerstone of the jazz scene.
Here they are with “Rebirth Groove”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?