The Beat Goes On: The Ongoing Legacy of Brass Band Music in New Orleans

Almost year-round in New Orleans, large brass band ensembles featuring trombones, saxophones, trumpets and drums can be heard throughout the city, filling the streets with joyous, upbeat tempos like an infinite parade. The rich brass band tradition in New Orleans — modeled after military bands — has been a part of the city’s lifeblood since the 19th and 20th centuries, and was born in part out of a resistance to Jim Crow-era laws and treatment. Brass band music offered local musicians, in particular black musicians, with a means to organize as a community and to earn a living. Brass bands quickly sprouted and their lasting legacy soon became paramount to New Orleans culture. Summer camps were set in the late ’70s as a way for budding young musicians to meet and learn with some of the city’s best brass band musicians. And that lineage and its significance in present-day culture have been recorded in a recently released book “Talk that Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Way.”

The book was co-edited by Bruce Sunpie Barnes, principal photographer, and Rachel Bruenlin, co-director for the Neighborhood Story Project, who came together to help document the Music for All Ages program Barnes was running at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. It begins with the history of the Black Men of Labor (BMOL) Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which was formed after seminal New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker’s brass band funeral in 1994, with roots in the civil rights movement. One of the chief missions of BMOL is to preserve the legacy of brass band music through an adherence to traditional songs, and by pairing younger musicians with legendary brass and jazz musicians around the city. As well-known for their bold sound as they are, the band is also known for its bold style of dress. Band members are adorned in Afro-centric blazers custom-made from imported fabric. Eric Waters, who served as the official photographer for BMOL, has been documenting the group since its inception and has amassed a powerful archive of photographs. A large portion of which — nearly 10 years’ worth of images — was lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I consider brass band to be the heartbeat and soul of New Orleans. It’s the rhythm of life of the people,” Waters tells In Sight.

Inspired by the concept of photographing BMOL musicians against a backdrop of rich textiles in the same style of famed Malian photographer Seydou Keita, jazz photographer and co-creator of “Talk That Music Talk” Bruce Barnes collaborated with Neighborhood Story Project to photograph present-day jazz musicians in the same style.

“One of the things I wanted to show with the photography was the movement of musicians around the city — be it a brass band funeral, a group of musicians playing at Jackson Square for tips, or a concert in a formal setting,” Barnes explains in the book. “Photography is very much like music in that you must learn to improvise.”

Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club will celebrate the publication of “Talk that Music Talk” with an open-to-the-public concert at Sweet Lorraine’s in New Orleans on March 6, 2015.