Until recent years brass bands have been rare in the United States, despite the fact that they are very popular in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe. But it wasn't always this way - in the nineteenth century brass bands were found everywhere in the U.S., providing most of the live music in small and medium-sized towns throughout the country. The instruments of the typical band consisted of cornets, euphoniums, baritones, tubas, trombones, tenor horns (similar to baritones, but smaller and higher pitched), and drums. The size of these bands generally varied from twelve to twenty-five players.
Brass bands performed for many occasions, such as parades, weddings, summertime concerts in the park, political rallies, send-offs for troops in wartime - in short, any event where music was called for. Communities often took great pride in their bands, sometimes leading to rivalries and competitions between the bands of neighboring towns. However, early in the twentieth century large concert bands such as the Sousa Band, which included woodwinds and orchestral brass instruments like trumpets and french horns, became increasingly popular and local brass bands essentially died out in America. (One notable exception to this development was the Salvation Army, which still used brass bands as part of their musical ministry).
In Britain the brass band tradition continued, in part because many industrial companies sponsored bands for various reasons - as a form of advertising, to create goodwill in the community, and to provide an activity for their employees. (A widely held interpretation holds that these company-sponsored bands were primarily a sneaky way for the owners to distract their employees from other leisure-time activities like political meetings and labor organization. However, this view misses the larger picture. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a major shift in the population from rural areas to urban industrial centers, where immigrant workers and their families often lived in poor conditions, where "vice" was widespread, and where few leisure activities were available. Improving living conditions and offering "wholesome" activities were a major part of industrial philanthropy; besides bands, this included the setting aside of land for parks and playing fields, the building of public libraries, the sponsorship of club sports like rugby and football, and so on.) To this day many of the best bands in the U.K. are found in the industrial heartland of Northern England and Yorkshire and are still sponsored by corporations. The Williams Fairey Band, the Black Dyke Mills Band, and the Grimethorpe Colliery UK Coal Band are prime examples. Also in Britain, besides the usual fare of concerts for general enjoyment, the rivalry between bands led to fierce competition at regional and national contests, where the size and instrumentation of the bands were dictated by contest rules, ultimately settling on the 28-30 person standard found today. Thus, the movement developed its own momentum, with new music of increasing difficulty being commissioned by contest organizers, and with bands seeking to constantly improve to meet the musical challenges.
Brass bands today have evolved into highly sophisticated ensembles, and the best include some of the world's greatest brass virtuosos. In Britain, many of the brass musicians in the major orchestras such as the London Philharmonic had their start in brass bands. Even here in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michael Mulcahy (trombone) and Bill Scarlett (trumpet, retired) grew up with and had early experience in brass bands. According to Douglas Yeo, the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the best bands in Britain are "as good as any major orchestra in the world."
In North America the rebirth of brass bands began just over twenty years ago, and there are currently several professional brass bands and about sixty amateur British-style brass bands in the U.S. and Canada, with more being formed every year. The brass band movement here received a major boost with the formation of the North American Brass Band Association in the early 1980s.
Further development of the brass band movement resulted from the formation of Brass Bands International Inc and the U.S. Open Brass Band Championships which is an entertainment style contest that gives bands an opportunity to work up several pieces of music to the highest level and compete with other bands, while also allowing for them to enjoy the camaraderie of other musicians and bands. Visit the US Open Brass Band Championships website at www.usopenbrass.org.
The music played by brass bands today covers a wide range of styles, from transcriptions of classical orchestral works, to jazz and rock and roll. A typical brass band concert might include marches, overtures, virtuoso solos, modern works for brass band, orchestral transcriptions, fantasias on folk or hymn tunes, and arrangements of popular standards or Broadway show tunes. Brass band concerts appeal to audiences of all generations, who are often amazed at this new, fresh, and exciting musical experience.
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