…and Brass Bands Kept the Flame Burning

Jazz Appreciation Month

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Charlie Keil

“The black New Orleans brass band nurtured a characteristic outdoor-playing style that utilized a hoarse and ‘crying’ tone, wide vibrato, and a peculiar instrumental attack not heard in jazz and dance bands. This is easily heard but hard to describe. There is a tendency for different instrumental parts to clash with some dissonance, and the looser instrumental attack causes parts to be momentarily out of tune and time with each other. Sometimes this may be inaccuracy or ineptitude, but it is not just “sloppy” playing or musical illiteracy, as some critics charge. New Orleans musicians habitually adopt a characteristic ‘brass-band’ style when they play this music.”
William J. Schafer, “Brass Bands and New Orleans Jazz” (1977)

I didn’t put the italics on habitually adopt, above. That is Schafer’s emphasis. And mine. Circa 1900 all of America’s cities, towns, villages had brass bands that sounded “wild” if only because the science of valves, bores, precision construction, was still a joyous science and not a dismal science.

Last October, at a Honkfest in Somerville, Mass., and at Honkfest West this coming spring in Seattle, many of the bands will have that “characteristic outdoor playing style” because New Orleans — and brass bands in Africa, Asia, the Balkans — kept the flame alive in the 20th century.

The characteristics of “attack” that Schafer is able to define as “peculiar,” “looser,” “momentarily out of tune and time” but “not just ‘sloppy’ playing” probably define the playing of all brass bands in the 19th century that wanted to sound full, loud, lively, thrilling.

The old brass bands we see in photos usually consisted of a bass drummer and a snare drummer, at least two cornets, two trombones, low brass, maybe some reeds like clarinets or flutes, and ultimately saxophones (after they were invented later in the 19th century).

These bands were aiming to enliven, enhance and enlarge the events they played. Usually, there was no written music in view.

The “beaten and blown” outdoor-playing style sounded strange to Schafer in 1977 because most of the playing he knew was indoors. Most of it was “stringy and singy” (more folksily known as ‘pickin’ and singin’) and most of the jazz and dance music he heard was mediated from recordings, radios and TV. So what was actually a normal, natural aesthetic for outdoor bands sounded “peculiar” or “sloppy” to him. Happy seems to be “crying.” Togetherness seems “loose.” Dynamic feels clashing and dissonant. Organic and authentic seems momentarily out of time and out of tune.

Charlie Ives, Connecticut’s “first great composer,” had a father, George Ives, who played cornet and liked to lead the local brass band in Danbury. He liked to hear two brass bands marching past or “through” each other playing different tunes. Surely that’s one way to more than double your hoarse, crying, sloppy, loose, clashing, dissonant, out of time, out of tune, peculiar pleasure!

Charlie was a chip off the old block until World War I showed him just what a bad trip Western “civilization and progress” was turning out to be. He got depressed and stopped trying to compose that good old outdoor brass band sound. Maybe he realized that you can’t really compose and orchestrate wildness. It is immanent in all of us playing together and not a transcendent composition by one person.

Let me close this essay with a message of hope.

While some might say the American political economy is more dedicated to war, empire, crusading, plundering and profit than ever before, we do have the scientific and cultural knowledge to be fairly certain that children are born to groove.

Children would rather play by ear than read music, children will play a little out of time and out of tune if you will let them and children could be happy indeed reclaiming the outdoor brass band style.

In other words, the joy of brass bands could inspire kids to embrace music now more than ever before. (Training could come later.)

Let’s thank New Orleans for keeping the flame burning so that it can ignite the hearts of us all in 2008!

Ethnomusicologist Charlie Keil, Ph.D., has written for Allegro about Greek gypsy musicians, 12/8 path bands, and the study of groove. He maintains Web sites at,, and