Syncopated Brass Bands
Jazz Band leader Lt. James Reese Europe (pictured left) backed by the 15th New York RegimentUnderwood & Underwood - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
- Political Issues/Activism
Syncopation is a rhythmic device that involves placing accents off the beat in unexpected places or playing two rhythms against one another. Military-type ensembles that performed in this rhythmic style are called syncopated brass bands. They often “rag” or syncopate the melodies of songs to produce the “ragged” rhythmic quality associated with ragtime. Their diverse repertoire included marches, hymns, and other religious songs, patriotic songs, popular ballads, and stylized dance music used for religious, cultural, and social events in African American communities.
Context and History
“Suddenly around the corner marched these colored men. As they came closer I saw them playing flashy, shiny instruments that bounced the bright sunshine right in my eyes. Horns all raised up high blasting so very loud.”Clyde E. B. BernhardtJazz Trombonist and Blues Singer (1910s)
Syncopated brass bands evolved out of the brass bands of African American regiments in the Union Army during the Civil War. When the war ended, many of these formally trained musicians joined or formed civilian musical groups; others affiliated with the brass bands of circuses and medicine shows. A few musicians financed themselves, but most of the local bands were sponsored by fraternal and benevolent societies and social clubs. These bands consisted of 12 to 14 members and performed a diverse repertoire. They played for political rallies and Election Day ceremonies, funerals, dances, and other cultural and social functions for Blacks and whites.
In New Orleans and other southern cities, a significant number of brass bands transformed into syncopated bands while remaining at the center of religious and social activities. They accompanied funeral and burial processionals, mournfully playing a dirge or hymn while bereaved participants walked slowly to the cemetery. On the way back the bands played an up-tempo spiritual, a syncopated march, or a ragtime song. Syncopated brass bands also played for dances where musicians collectively improvised and “ragged” songs, eventually defining a New Orleans–styled jazz. W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (1919) performed by James Reese Europe’s Syncopated Brass Band of Harlem represents this ragging style.
Local amateur musicians also formed syncopated brass bands, providing entertainment for various working-class community functions. These bands are represented by The Laneville-Johnson Union Brass (“I’m Going On”), The Lapsey Band (“I Shall Not Be Moved”), and Bunk’s Brass Band (“Didn’t He Ramble”).
Musical Features/Performance Style
Trumpets or cornets, trombones, horns, clarinets, and drums form the standard instrumentation for brass bands. They applied a “ragging” approach (similar to ragtime style) to playing the melody of hymns, spirituals, popular songs, and marches.
Syncopated brass bands played instrumental renditions of vocal songs.
- Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Sakakeeny, Matt. Roll with It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
- Schafer, William J. with assistance from Richard B. Allen. Brass Bands and New Orleans Jazz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
- Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. New York: Continuum, 2001.
- Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 63-67, 108.