When you picture the art and culture associated with New Orleans, the sight and sound of the city’s signature brass bands probably tops the list, and with good reason. After all, true New Orleans natives never pass up an opportunity to have a parade, which is never complete without a brass band. Brass bands are an important part of events like jazz funerals, city festivals, and more.
The history and significance of these bands are rich with accomplishments, and the cultural imprint continues to evolve to this very day. Here we’ll take a closer look at the time-honored story of one of the world’s most distinctive musical traditions.
Where Did Brass Bands Get Their Start?
Brass bands, in general, have their roots in the wars and military battles of 19th century Europe. Drums and bugles were part of the way military units communicated orders and coordinated movements, both on foot and when on horseback. Occasionally, the very talented musicians that took care of these responsibilities would entertain themselves off the battlefield by forming bands.
Eventually, these bands and the types of music they played would make their way into civilian life in America and beyond, setting the tone for the music of the day. The popularity of brass band music only continued to spread, thanks to musical geniuses – like one-time Marine Corps Band member, John Phillip Sousa – who were constantly exploring new ways to improve on its signature sound.
Although there are variations, a standard brass band today consists of trumpets, trombones, a tuba, a saxophone and/or clarinet, a snare drum, and a bass drum. The sheer portability of this set-up makes it easy for the band to travel just about anywhere, just as the 19th-century buglers and drummers did during wartime – through the streets, into local barrooms, to international festivals, and so forth.
That Signature New Orleans Sound
Throughout the 19th century, Sousa-style marching bands were all the rage in New Orleans. At the same time, African traditions – like ring dancing and the playing of music — were also alive and well among the slaves in Congo Square. Creoles and free people of color of the time were often accomplished instrumentalists as well.
After the Emancipation in 1865, we saw the formation of the first black brass bands, each of which was rooted in all of these influences. Before long, these bands became staples at major public events like baseball games, funerals, festivals, and business openings. By the 20th century, many black brass bands were incredibly famous and were important parts of not only the black community but New Orleans in general.
Brass bands also had a profound formative influence on the rise and development of jazz starting in 1900. It was not at all uncommon for established jazz ensembles to double as brass bands, or for major jazz musicians of the time to also perform in brass bands. Greats like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton are just a few examples.
As jazz continued to evolve into an American art form, brass bands and the distinctive type of New Orleans jazz they played would become the center of events like the jazz funeral, one of the city’s most emblematic traditions. They’d also become staples in second line parades, as well as other large-scale community events, and they remain so to this day.
The Continued Influence of the Brass Band
As the years continued to roll on, the signature sound and spirit of the New Orleans brass band continued to change, grow, and evolve. For instance, the rise of hip-hop helped shape the sound of the brass bands we know and love today. This influence can be heard especially strongly in songs by bands like the Soul Rebels.
In 2005, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would make preserving and embracing everything that makes New Orleans unique even more important. The brass band would continue to grow in stature and importance as a result. Over the course of just a few years, groups like the Hot 8 Brass Band would go from playing local parades, clubs, and parties to touring America and Europe. New bands would also emerge under the influence of the ones that came before and introduce their own takes on the classic sound we all know and love.
Today, the New Orleans brass band is still very much thriving, and with good reason. What other type of music better expresses the changing experiences of multiple generations without ever once losing its own unique identity?