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NOLA History: The Brass Bands of New Orleans

History of New Orleans brass bands, dating back to the music and dance of Congo Square to established groups like Rebirth Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins who play in popular venues and second lines.

It doesn’t take much of an excuse for New Orleanians to have a parade, and the backbone of any “second-line” parade you’ll encounter in the city is the brass band. Brass bands have their roots in the military conflicts of the 19th century in Europe, when military units used drums and bugles to communicate orders and movements to the troops, on foot and mounted on horseback. Those drummers and buglers, often talented musicians in their own right, would form bands to entertain themselves and their mates off the battlefield. These original bands grew into a true musical style by the Victorian period in Great Britain, and spread across the English Channel to other countries in Europe.

It didn’t take long before brass band-style music made its way to the United States, and, naturally, New Orleans. American military units began to form bands like their European counterparts. The British-style brass band soared to new heights when John Philip Sousa became a member of the US Marine Corps Band, and became that band’s director in 1880. Sousa, always looking for ways to improve on the sound of the marching brass band, invented the marching-style tuba, the sousaphone, which is so important to what would become the New Orleans-style band.

Like so many other things that arrive in one form when they reach the mouth of the Mississippi, brass bands came to the city and were forever changed. The formal structure of the British-style band was great for military units and formal parades, parties, and gatherings, but many of the black musicians hired to play in the brass bands of New Orleans began to spread their wings. The spread of the popularity of the sousaphone as the bass foundation of brass bands gave musicians experimenting with the format the ability to escape ballrooms and formal parlors, taking their music to the streets. The traditional African rhythms played for decades in Congo Square and other neighborhoods of the city merged with the marches of the brass bands.

Many of the ethnic groups which form the cultural heritage of New Orleans had the tradition of playing music during funeral processions of loved ones. Originally, the family and friends of the deceased would play music, but that evolved into hiring a brass band by the late 1800s. Those bands would not necessarily know all the tunes of a particular ethnic group, so the bands developed a common ground, a sound unique to New Orleans. Musicians would combine regular gigs in nightclubs, ballrooms, and even the brothels of Storyville with their street bands to make a living. Naturally, the nascent jazz rhythms of the turn of the century crossed over from one to the other.

By the 1930s and 1940s, the New Orleans brass band style had become a “traditional” aspect of jazz that did not change or evolve as fast as the bands playing in clubs or making recordings. Concerned for the future of the style, Danny Barker formed the Fairview Christian Marching Band in the 1960s. Barker’s goal with Fairview was to recruit young musicians to the brass band style. He was successful with this, as Fairview alumni such as Dr. Michael White (Liberty Brass Band) and Gregg Stafford (Original Tuxedo Brass Band) revitalized the format. Four other Fairview members, Gregory Davis, Charles Joseph, Kirk Joseph, and Kevin Harris, became the foundation of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, one of the “revival” bands of the 1980s. The popularity of the DDBB inspired others to form bands, most notably Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band.

Today, Liberty, Original Tuxedo, the DDBB and Rebirth are considered “established” brass bands, while bands such as To Be Continued Brass Band and the Young Fellaz Brass band are the up-and-comers. Street corner meets nightclub and studio, and the tradition continues. Visitors to New Orleans, once they step out of their air-conditioned hotels on a hot summer night, will be treated to some of the finest brass band music in the world!

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans.  His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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