[TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO]
Host intro: Any group trying to build buzz in a music town like Nashville has to win over crowds who think they’ve heard it all. Brassville has done that while shouldering a heftier sense of cultural significance. WNXP’s Nashville Artist of the Month stepped into a gap in the local landscape with a crowd-pleasing, contemporary take on brass band music. Jewly Hight has this profile.
When Brassville headlines one of the city’s premiere clubs these days, the crowd response tends to match the exuberance of trombone-playing emcee MarVelous Brown. [music: live recording of “Haters”]
There was no fanfare, not even permission to play, when the initial members of Brassville performed for the very first time in 2019—for tourists crowding sidewalks during the NFL draft.
The musicians didn’t care whether or not people tossed them small bills and change—they just wanted to see who’d listen.
Nate McDowell lugged his tuba downtown where an arena PA was already piping out music.
McDowell: We were actually competing against a speaker right across from Bridgestone. … There’s not a lot of brass band action in Nashville, so we knew that that would stop people, turn heads and get people’s attention.
In the months that followed, the group picked up actual gigs, and members. They settled on a lineup of eight musicians, who shared a connection to a well-established outfit, Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands. That program helped put the marching bands of historically Black colleges and universities on the map more than half a century ago.
Everyone in Brassville had participated either as students, like trombone player Marcus Chandler, or serve as professors, like trumpet players Jonathon Neal and Larry Jenkins.
Jenkins: All of us come from, you know, this line of teaching and thinking that taught us how to be better musicians. And that goes back very far as well.
Decades ago, TSU musicians were regularly hired to back national acts in the jazz and blues clubs of Jefferson Street. The school’s band rooms now host Brassville rehearsals.
The guys could almost be mistaken for a doo-wop group when they’re finding their parts in a Silk Sonic tune.
[rehearsal sound: singing, one voice jokes that they’re “The Ville Bops”]
They’ve built a repertoire of popular R&B, hip-hop and neo-soul renditions that showcase either their jazz chops or molten funk grooves. But they mostly leave a famous brass band staple to New Orleans, says Nate McDowell.
McDowell: I’m going to be honest: we don’t really do a lot of second line events.
If the members of Brassville wanted to play parades, they’d have different instrumentation—not Derrick Green on drum kit, Rashad Sylvester on keyboards and electric bass played by Adrian Pollard.
Pollard: So the uniqueness within our band is that we do have two bottoms, no pun. More so just, you know, having a tuba… [all start laughing]
When the guys regain their composure, Pollard has a sincere take on how his bass and McDowell’s tuba fit:
Pollard: I know his style, so I can piggyback on what he does, not more so to step on each other’s toes, more so just to blend together. …It’s truly a brotherhood.
Anyone who books Brassville gets all eight of them. They work all over town as a tight-knit unit, playing originals and adding their horn arrangements behind artists in an array of genres and scenes. And they show up to perform on important occasions, from TSU homecoming to Juneteenth events and a Fisk Jubilee Singers celebration.
McDowell says being that busy requires strategic decisions.
McDowell: We look at, “Does it make sense from a cultural standpoint? Is this something that we want to contribute to? Does somebody have a great idea that’s benefiting, you know, the culture in Nashville?”
Brassville is helping transform the culture of live music in Nashville. Just about anywhere that rising generations of Black performers are making headway, including on honky-tonk-crammed Lower Broadway, the band is at the heart of the action.
Here’s how Jenkins sees it: I think we hold a firm place as ambassadors for the city and for the sound of Nashville, the new sound of Nashville, because what we bring to the table wasn’t necessarily here.
It’s no accident that the moniker Brassville itself is a riff on the city’s name.
(Check wnxp.org next week for an expanded, digital feature on Brassville.)