The Brass Band from The Northshore Winning over the Hearts of New Orleans

By Thomas M. Bitterwolf

Music and the city of New Orleans are synonymous; the two maintain a symbiotic relationship, as New Orleans couldn’t survive without music, and music couldn’t survive without New Orleans. Jazz bands, brass bands, marching bands, and concert bands, New Orleans is the city of famous music. The city is responsible for the creation of different styles of music and for producing some of the most praiseworthy musicians in the world: Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Trombone Shorty.  

The attachment the city has to music also holds true for its residents. Kids grow up surrounded by the influence of bands both in the local school system and in their neighborhoods. High school marching bands mean the world to New Orleans and are comparable to high school football in Texas. High school bands march in Mardi Gras parades and even have events to compete head to head, such as the yearly Battle of the Bands contest. Outside of school, professional bands perform in the plentiful assortment of restaurant and bar venues, concerts, parades, and second lines. Thus it would seem highly unlikely a band from outside of New Orleans could compete with this overflowing of music from within the city and learn the musical traditions of New Orleans. However, one band is doing just that and is causing quite a stir in the city because of their origin, race, and repertoire of brass band music.

The Brasshearts band originated on the Northshore, an area of Louisiana about thirty minutes away from New Orleans on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. The seven current members of The Brasshearts are all born and raised Northshore locals; none have roots in New Orleans. They met each other through high school marching and brass bands. 

“The Brasshearts was created back in 2019 to compete at Wolf Jam,” says Brassheart’s trombonist and founding member Miguel Seruntine. Every year, Saint Paul’s School in Covington hosts a Battle of the Bands style fundraiser called “Wolf Jam.” Attendees donate money to charity during different bands’ sets, and the band that has the most money donated during their set wins Wolf Jam. “Everyone had so much fun with us at the event which inspired us to keep the band going,” says Seruntine. 

The Brasshearts originally named themselves Baby and the Brasshearts for Wolf Jam but later shortened it to just The Brasshearts. They decided to play brass music because of their connections within the Saint Paul’s brass band. “One of the really cool things about Saint Paul’s was that it was the only school on the Northshore that had a dedicated student-led brass band that was separate from the marching, jazz, and concert bands. The school used the brass band to perform at different events throughout the year, and for most of us, it was the first time we played with a brass band of any kind,” says Seruntine. 

 At first, the band started by gigging at local parties and small restaurants. “We didn’t have a real goal or aim, it was just to play around. Nothing was ever really authentic; it was just sink or swim, and we were trying to float,” says Brasshearts drummer Michael Silvestri. “It was just a slow, gradual build. We played restaurants and then started to dabble in private gigs because people at the restaurants would approach us. Then we got into the online booking sites, such as GigSalad, and built up our client base from there.”

After a while, The Brasshearts slowly expanded into New Orleans, which kickstarted their journey as a brass band. They landed gigs that a typical brass band from New Orleans would receive, such as playing in second lines; marching in the Mardi Gras parades of Rex, Krewe de Vieux, and others; and performing at local music venues such as Jazz Fest. COVID-19 caused a brief hiatus for the group but according to Silvestri: “COVID was a rebuild for us, and it allowed us to redefine our image. Now we are back better and stronger than ever.”

Recently, the band has been asked to perform New Orleans-style brass band music across the country: on the set of SEC Nation in Baton Rouge and at private events in Picayune, Biloxi, and even Philadelphia. “Philadelphia was big for us because it was the first time we got to represent New Orleans ourselves,” says Silvestri. 

However, success does not come unhindered. There was an obstacle that The Brasshearts still needed to overcome in order to declare themselves a true New Orleans brass band and have proper status within the city. The problem lay in the fundamental definition of a brass band, specifically, a New Orleans brass band. “Most New Orleans brass bands come up through both the New Orleans public school system, where they play in high school marching bands that focus on southern black tradition, and in neighborhoods and social networks where they are introduced, via ‘social immersion,’ to typical New Orleans brass band culture,” says professor Matt Sakakeeny, an associate professor of music at Tulane University. “There are a couple of [musical] traditions in New Orleans that are pretty closed off to outsiders.”

As mentioned earlier, New Orleans has a rich history of brass bands, and although brass-style music did not technically originate from the city, it has been heavily influenced and developed by it. Brass music cherry-picked from the newer developments of jazz, creole, and ragtime music. The earliest brass bands in New Orleans existed during the time of slavery in the United States. Excelsior and Onward were the first post-emancipation brass bands and were composed of recently freed African Americans. These bands laid the foundation for brass music in New Orleans and set a precedent for how the music was to be played and performed. Excelsior and Onward influenced the Eureka Brass Band, Young Tuxedo Brass Band, and, later on, The Dirty Dozen. In an article written by professor Sakakeeny, Brass Bands of New Orleans, he states: “The brass band has come to represent the distinctiveness of New Orleans, most notably in the African-American cultural traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade.” In addition, the lineage and traditions of New Orleans brass band music are honored and passed down from one generational group to another. 

Unfortunately for The Brasshearts, they are not a part of the New Orleans brass band family tree. Its members grew up in a very different culture, even though they were less than an hour away from the city. Silvestri admits, “I think some brass bands view us as invaders because we are from the Northshore.”

Nonetheless, The Brasshearts remain confident in their talent and continue to practice and perform as a New Orleans brass band. The Brasshearts describe themselves as a breath of fresh air and believe that their performances are not about race but about good-sounding music. And indeed, they do perform heavy, loud but articulate, classic New Orleans brass songs. “We get down; we enjoy what we do. We just happen to be white and from the Northshore. We don’t let that change the way we enjoy the music.” 

There have been famous all-white brass bands from the New Orleans area, such as The Storyville Stompers, who were active around a decade ago. When asked if The Brasshearts could ever be considered a New Orleans brass band, professor Sakakeeny responded: “Yes, I believe it is possible, but it really comes down to socializing with musicians and showing them the respect you have for them.” Thus, the dilemma for The Brasshearts is respecting their rival musicians, but also outperforming them. At the end of the day, The Brasshearts are a business, and like any business, they need to turn a profit. 

To accomplish this, when The Brasshearts play songs written by other groups, such as Casanova by Rebirth Brass Band, they make sure to give the group adequate credit and play the music with both heart and soul, as it was intended to be played. “I was about 14 when I listened to my first brass band record, ‘Rebirth of New Orleans’ by the Rebirth Brass Band, and hearing that had a big impact on me,” Seruntine says. The Brasshearts understand the importance of the music they are performing and the respected lineage of New Orleans Brass Bands. However, during practice sessions, they focus on adding their own flair in order to set themselves apart.

Additionally, one significant difference between The Brasshearts and other bands is that six out of seven members are currently enrolled in some type of music education at the collegiate level, either at Louisiana State University or Loyola University of New Orleans. They say they are genuinely dedicated to the music since none of the members have any other primary job besides gigging with The Brasshearts or studying at their respective universities. 

Thirdly, The Brasshearts offer lower prices, not to undercut the competition, but out of fairness to themselves and their customers. Silvestri explains that their pricing is slightly lower than other brass bands, but “that’s because we’re new and figuring it out.” 

Thus, The Brasshearts believe they have carved out a niche in the massive brass band community in New Orleans, which allows them to grow their musical talents, spread their reputation, and mature as a group. “Sure, we were in an eco-chamber in terms of music while at Saint Paul’s. But now we are literally on the streets of New Orleans, marching in parades and second lines. We are here. We are living it,” says Silvestri, reflecting on the band’s growth. 

Seruntine echoes Silvestri’s sentiment: “The future of the band is bright, as we have a lot of musical talent in the band. If we are not playing a public show during the week, we’re usually doing a second line somewhere, and we usually meet for rehearsals once a week, so the band is constantly staying busy.”

 “Our current goal is to have our album released by 2024, as we are hard at work currently writing original material. Alongside working on originals, we hope to continue to gig regularly around the city and to keep getting the word out regarding the band. We have picked up some great momentum so far, and everyone in the group is excited about what the future holds.”

The Brasshearts have indeed come quite a long way, not in terms of physical distance, but by overcoming obstacles to position themselves as a reputable brass band. While the future of The Brasshearts is uncertain, one thing remains clear; they have the potential to make an impact and thrive in the New Orleans brass scene.  

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s