What sets brass bands in New Orleans apart from other variants is the wide spectrum of functions they serve as an aspect of the festival traditions of the Crescent City. While many of the Black brass bands of the late 19th century (such as the Excelsior, the Eureka, and the Onward) began as marching units, with the rise of jazz near the turn of the century the interpretation of their functional connection to events such as parades and funerals underwent a major change. Taking the "jazz funeral" as an example, the use of dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery remained constant, but the return trip began to move away from strict renditions of marches, loosening up the 6/8 march beats into a funkier 2/4 rhythm with a danceable backbeat. As the bands plied the neighborhoods of the city (on their way to favorite "watering holes"), a "second line" of gyrating dancers would spill onto the streets, becoming a part of the swelling procession and daring the band to heat up the playing. The expressiveness of the dancing encouraged the musicians to respond in kind, creating a vortex of intensified feeling designed to purge the members of a deceased's family and fraternal order of their sense of loss, replacing it with a celebration of life and a sense that the dear departed had gone on to "a better place." Whether in Mardi Gras parades or for the annual marches of the numerous Benevolent Associations and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, New Orleans brass bands have become world-renowned for their ability to evoke an unequalled excitement and involvement from their audiences, forcing even the most impervious listeners to "shake it."
During the period through the '20s, brass bands remained an important benchmark on the musical landscape of New Orleans, but by the mid-'40s there were very few of them left. Interest in the brass band tradition by adherents of the New Orleans revival helped to reverse the situation, and by the '60s many discontinued bands had been restored, with new units like the Young Tuxedo, the George Williams Brass Band, Dejan's Olympia, and the Gibson Brass Band developing and reinterpreting the tradition of rhythm and blues, funk, and modern jazz. Led by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, this movement also includes the Algiers Brass Band, the Treme Brass Band, and the Rebirth. Today, the brass band tradition in New Orleans is thriving, as visitors to the French Quarter or other Big Easy environs will soon discover.
by William Ruhlmann