Garrett E Morris / Courtesy of the artist
In Instagram footage from Brassville’s first-ever performance in 2019, four of the band’s founding members can be seen taking on a distinct sonic strategy on the streets of Nashville. They picked a night when they knew the city’s NFL Draft festivities would draw hordes of tourists and settled into a corner in front of the Music City Center and across from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, two sparkling monuments to the historic presence and predominantly white music industry that has long since become intrinsic to the city’s brand.
While a nearby outdoor sound system pumped out the modern country and rock you’d expect, the Brassville horn players jovially launched into jazz tunes they knew in common. Since they had already chosen a nickname that bent the name of the town to accommodate a new brassy musical association, they made sure to post it on a sign.
The band was playing on the street, a familiar sight in downtown Nashville, but the guys from Brassville didn’t really care if someone was throwing money at them or not. They were there to find out how a marching band would perform in a city unaccustomed to hearing this music, especially from performers who had identified it as their niche to fill and their lineage to expand.
“We wanted to see what the palace was for something like that,” says Nate McDowell, who dragged his sousaphone there that night. “There’s not a lot of fanfare action in Nashville, so we knew that would turn people off… We were like, ‘We just need to be visible. When people see and feel what we do, we’re going to be asked to do things.’ And that’s, really, exactly what happened.”
In the months that followed, Brassville was invited to play numerous venues, adding members along the way, eventually solidifying a line-up of eight: McDowell, trumpeters and composers Jonathon Neal and Larry Jenkins, drummer Derrick Green, trombonists Marcus Chandler and MarVelous Brown. , the latter also a warmly charismatic emcee, keyboardist Rashad Sylvester and bassist Adrian Pollard.
Each had ties to another more established outfit: Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands, one of the most revered programs among high-level bands at historically black colleges and universities. HBCU bands are well known to black Southerners, even if it takes a pop crossover moment like Beyoncé’s Coachella concert film Back home to educate white audiences of their excellence. The AOB is a staple of the annual elite invitations to Atlanta and also earned a coveted spot in the 2022 Rose Parade. Most members of Brassville marched there as undergraduates. Two, Neal and Jenkins, are instructors for his students.
“Band culture teaches discipline,” Neal notes, “and that’s the biggest thing we can take away from the aristocrat of bands.”
They also carry with them the awareness that there is a long tradition of a TSU music program preparing black players to embark on a career as a professional performer in the city where they had studied. “I hear some of the stories coming from some of our former band members,” Jenkins says. “So we’re really part of a long history of great musicianship as well.”
Aside from a lavish display in the mid-2000s, many authoritative accounts of Nashville’s music history have centered institutions like the Grand Ole Opry and the concentration of song, record and deal halls of Music Row, as well as the industry infrastructure that grew out of them. But that focus overlooks a world of activity that took place in the historically black part of town where TSU is located between the 1930s and 60s.
Lorenzo Washington, who lived it, calls Jefferson Street – then a central corridor, where many clubs hosted an evolving lineup of big-band jazz, jump blues and hot R&B combos. The “Original Music Line”.
The Jefferson Street Sound Museum founded by Lorenzo Washington is dedicated to preserving the musical heritage of Jefferson Street. This museum serves to educate Nashville about the historic sounds that Jefferson Street fostered, such as blues, jazz, and r&b. pic.twitter.com/fTkoz9ZCwX
— TSU Academic Success Center (@TSUSuccess) February 26, 2021
“You have to know where you’ve been before you can figure out where you’re going,” Washington notes wisely, “and where we black people have been in this music is really top. Artists like Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding , these guys were international artists and they left their mark here on Jefferson Street in North Nashville.”
Washington reels off other famous names – Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, James Brown – who have toured over the decades, and points out: “When these guys would pass through Nashville, they would pass by with the intention of grabbing one of those Tennessee state musicians. Everybody in the country knew that the state of Tennessee had some of the best musicians and some of the worst musicians.
It was a robust scene, indeed, the one where Charles picked up saxophonist and TSU alum Hank Crawford, and where R&B singer Jackie Shane and blueswoman Marion James, both Nashville natives, launched their careers. Hendrix had a permanent gig at one club for a while, and Etta James recorded her first live album at another, but all activity stopped after the town cut through the neighborhood with a highway.
In the early 2010s, Washington found that many alumni who had been part of that era rightly feared they had been forgotten by Nashville. “I used to invite some of the musicians to sit down and talk, to tell some of their stories on Jefferson Street,” he says. “I just started hanging [their] pictures in the living room And then I had several people bring in artifacts and after about a year they started telling me I was the curator of Jefferson Street.”
He took this to heart, turning his personal collection of oral histories and memorabilia, even his home, into the Jefferson Street Sound Museum. The significance of the stories it tells was further amplified when the highly anticipated National Museum of African American Music opened in Nashville.
Since the heyday of Jefferson Street, black musicians who have come to the city or studied there have had to be resourceful and find other ways to perform. Brassville embraces the goals of more recent generations – including a slew of local rap and contemporary R&B talent and the growing number of black artists specializing in country and roots styles – who have worked to make inroads in places dominated by white faces.
Brassville has the agility required to adapt to different musical contexts; traditionally, marching bands have provided the syncopated mainstay of New Orleans second-line jazz, but Brassville musicians have moved away from this pattern in their instrumentation and repertoire.
“Because Nate and I walked together, we have this relationship,” Pollard said of how the unorthodox bass and tuba combo works. “I know his style and I can relate to it, no more to step on each other’s toes, more just to blend in.”
McDowell puts it this way: “We are the evolution of what a marching band can be.”
They have a sophisticated feel for the connections between jazzy elasticity, live band and hip-hop, neo-soul, funk, and a repertoire that contains frisky originals and new interpretations of tracks made popular by the likes of Silk Sonic, Kendrick Lamar and Big KRIT They usually work Jenkins and Neal’s arrangements in rehearsal rooms across the state of Tennessee, gathering around the piano to sing their parts like a doo-wop band until everyone locks. “We’re here to complement each other,” says Neal. “And so we choose the music that we know this band can arrange and turn around.”
It’s also right in their wheelhouse to back an array of artists who don’t often have horns behind them, like lifelong resident and slyly insightful hip-hop singer and songwriter Brian Brown, standard-bearer of the nashville trap Starlitoelectronic experimenter DK the Drummer and Tiera, one of the few black women in country-pop with a label deal.
Proving they are interested and able to move between scenes has paid off for Brassville. They’re asked to do a lot of things around town, enough for McDowell to say they’re careful to measure the demands against their sense of community mission: “We look at, ‘Does it make sense From a cultural perspective Is this something we want Does anyone have a great idea that benefits the heritage of Nashville, black music, black band music, of anything that adds to things that we find valuable?”
Last year was by far Brassville’s busiest: they played the return of TSU, the 150th anniversary celebration of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the world-renowned a capella ensemble of a Nashville HBCU sister, and a number number of other notable events featuring current and historic Black musical achievement in North Nashville. They also brought a Juneteenth show to Lower Broadway, where honky-tonks targeting tourists rule, landed a month-long residency at the 3rd & Lindsley premiere venue, and took the stage at many clubs where rock has been the exchange currency.
“I think we hold a solid place as ambassadors for the city and the sound of Nashville, the new sound of Nashville,” says Jenkins, “because what we bring to the table wasn’t necessarily here. “
Pleasing the crowds is Brassville’s primary ambition, but the members do so in a way that recognizes the forgotten sounds of Nashville, shares solidarity with the city’s ascendant black music makers, and encourages future generations to join them. They are still teaching.
“A couple of my students formed a band here,” Neal explains, “and that kind of influence came from Brassville, really.”
To listen to the broadcast version of the story, use the audio player at the top of this page.