[Dixielandjazz] N.O. Marching/Brass Bands, etc.

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Thu Apr 29 15:21:11 PDT 2004

Hey, DJMLers,

Talkin' about--N.O. marching and brass bands, past and present, hot and not
so hot, and rhythmic influences on those  bands and jazz in general. If the
topics interest you, read on and please respond, if you'd like. This is a
sum-up of an recent exchange with a N.O. friend. We started out talking
about drumming in current marching and brass bands and wound up looking
also at the sweep of history as we understand it.--Charlie Suhor

In the beginning... African drummers brought to the New World musical
elements--unusual accents, syncopations, ensemble counter-rhythms, timbres,
extended improvisation, and what we'd call odd time signatures  --that were
under-used or even unknown in Western music. Those elements came to be
superimposed on Western structures of 2/4, 4/4, etc. As Jack Stewart says,
it's clear that the complex rhythms weren't first adapted by drummers. They
showed up in the brilliantly syncopated and accented melody lines of
ragtime compositions and in the early jazz wind instrument players'
embellishments and improvisations.

Western military drumming and (our rhythmic sophistication in general) were
pretty confining--child's play, compared to African percussion. The snare
drum rudiments did invite further accentuation, though. Also, the oom-pah
zest of 2/4 and cut-time was a good grounding for adornment of cadences
along lines suggested by African rhythms and by ragtime melody lines. The
contrasting snare drum/bass drum/cymbal sounds of conventional marching
bands were also limited, but they were at least suggestive of the varied
ensemble sounds in African drumming.  (I believe the bass drum was slower
to take on rhythmic variety because it was the core of the military band's
guide to  right/ left foot marching.)

As African-influenced drumming was creatively translated to the drum set,
the early jazz players deviated further from march-based approaches and
used the traps both as time keepers and as voices that added color to the
ensemble. Baby Dodds is of course the best known early drumming genius. His
sense of form and varied palate of colors came through with the use snare,
bass, tom-tom, woodblock, etc. I think also of Zutty Singleton, Tony
Spargo, Paul Barbarin, and later, Ray Bauduc, etc.

Sonic approaches to drumming diminished during the swing era (another whole
topic) but were taken up with incredible complexity by Kenny Clarke, Max
Roach, Ed Blackwell, and others in modern jazz. Also, as rock drumming
matured, funk styles (e.g., Zigaboo Modleliste, James Brown's drummers)
became really rich and were meshed with second line and brass band drumming
(e.g., Herlin Riley, Johnny Vidacovich).

The early development of marching band and jazz drumming came to a head in
New Orleans for reasons well documented by historians--e.g., drum sessions
in Congo Square, a huge local marching band tradition (military, civic,
social clubs, etc.),  many dances, picnics, and other venues where the
music could evolve, and so on.

But the continuity of the marching/drumming traditions in the city is, as
we discussed,  questionable and probably exaggerated.  It's become the
standard view that there was an unbroken line of enthusiastic New Orleans
marching band players from the turn of the century to the present.

But from the mid-forties to around the sixties, when modern jazz became the
dominant music of young players, there was a widespread indifference and
even hostility to playing in the traditional marching bands. As you pointed
out, the marching bands and earliest jazz styles were still around and had
to be an influence, but they weren't embraced by many young black players
as a music of choice.

The young second liners of the time were white kids like Fountain, the
Assuntos, Gerard, Connie Jones. etc., who played Dixieland rather than
earlier styles, specifically emulating the likes of Fazola and Sharkey
Bonano's band. (There were exceptions like Bill Huntington's early
apprenticeship to Lawrence Marrero in George Lewis' band and Wallace
Davenport's playing with marching bands as a kid. But they soon added
modern styles to their repertoire.)

The resurrection of the marching/brass bands for young players probably
came with Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band around 1970.
They had both older models and recent innovations to follow. The latter
included interesting breaks from tradition like young Melvin Batiste
playing scream trumpet in the Olympia band, John Brunious and Sam Alcorn
playing be-bop rides over the Congo Square band, and bass & snare drummers
working out interplay at the end of eight bar phrases in the style of
modern drummers' left hand and bass drum interplay. (I reported those
things in Down Beat--. the Picayune didn't give a damn in those days.)
Finally, the international fame of Preservation Hall in the early 60s had
made the prospect of playing in older styles much brighter.

Things like that helped to close the gap. Kids born around that time did
get a sympathetic exposure to marching bands without the image of
"old-timey" or "Uncle Tom" music that was around in our generation, and the
music became an authentic part of their repertoire.

Then, the brass and marching bands became all the rage--around when, the
middle or late 80s?--and it's now questionable as to whether too much
success poisoned the well. We have many bands that are solidly in the
tradition without being trapped in its conventions, but there are two other
breeds also--the slick pop/rock groups that make good music of a sort but
are far removed from the style, and the bands that make a virtue of crude
amateurism, playing hackneyed riffs, with many of the players giving no
hint that it's a good idea to be a passable instrumentalist. Ellis Marsalis
talked about the city advertising it's embarrassments with the quaintly
inept groups. Maybe we should just be grateful for the good stuff that's
there, but it's pretty hard to see inventive musicians out of work whole
others make a living blasting away with fortissimo clichés.

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