Brassville aims to reclaim the deep scope of Nashville music history, stage by stage
In Instagram footage of Brassville's very first performance back in 2019, four founding members of the band can be seen taking a distinct sonic strategy to the streets of Nashville. They chose an evening when they knew that NFL draft festivities hosted by the city would draw the tourist hordes, and set up on a corner in front of the Music City Center and across from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, two gleaming monuments to the storied, predominately white music business presence that long ago became intrinsic to the city's brand.
While a nearby outdoor PA piped out the modern, rocking country you'd expect, Brassville's horn players jovially launched into jazz tunes they knew in common. Since they'd already decided on a moniker that bent the name of the city to accommodate a brassy, new musical association, they made sure to display it on a sign.
The band was busking, a familiar sight in downtown Nashville, but the Brassville guys didn't much care whether or not anyone tossed them money. They were there to find out how a brass band would go over in a city unaccustomed to hearing that music, especially from performers who'd identified it as their niche to fill and lineage to extend.
"We wanted to see what the palate was for something like this," explains Nate McDowell, who lugged his sousaphone there that night. "There's not a lot of brass-band action in Nashville, so we knew that that would stop people ... We were like, 'We just need to be visible. When people see and feel what we do, we're going to get asked to do things.' And that's, really, exactly what happened."
In the months that followed, Brassville was invited to play many places, while adding members along the way, eventually solidifying a lineup of eight: McDowell, trumpeters and composers Jonathon Neal and Larry Jenkins, drummer Derrick Green, trombone players Marcus Chandler and MarVelous Brown, the latter also a heartily charismatic emcee, keyboardist Rashad Sylvester and bassist Adrian Pollard.
Each had connections to another, more established outfit: Tennessee State University's Aristocrat of Bands, one of the most revered programs among the high-stepping marching bands of historically Black colleges and universities. HBCU bands are well-known to Black southerners, even if it takes a moment of pop crossover like Beyoncé's Coachella concert film Homecoming to educate white audiences of their excellence. The AOB is a fixture at elite, annual invitationals in Atlanta, and also earned a coveted spot in the 2022 Rose Parade. Most members of Brassville marched in it as undergrads. Two, Neal and Jenkins, are instructors to its students.
"The band culture teaches discipline," Neal notes, "and that is the biggest thing we could take away from the Aristocrat of Bands."
They also carry with them the awareness that there's a long tradition of TSU's music program preparing Black players to embark on professional performing careers right there in the city where they'd studied. "I hear some of the stories funneling down from some of our former band members," says Jenkins. "So we really are part of a long history of great musicianship as well."
Aside from a lavish exhibit in the mid-2000s, many authoritative tellings of Nashville's music history have centered institutions like the Grand Ole Opry and Music Row's concentration of song-, record- and deal-making rooms, along with the industry infrastructure that grew from them. But that focus neglects a world of activity that went on in the historically Black part of town where TSU is located between the 1930s and the '60s.
Lorenzo Washington, who lived through it, calls Jefferson Street — then a central corridor, where numerous clubs hosted an evolving array of big-band jazz, jump blues and hot R&B combos. The "original Music Row."
"You have to know where you been before you can determine where you going," Washington notes sagely, "and where we as Black folk has been in this music is really to the top. Artists like Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, these guys were international artists and they put their footprints right here on Jefferson Street in North Nashville."
Washington reels off other famous names — Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, James Brown — who routed their tours through over the decades, and emphasizes, "When those guys would come through Nashville, they would come through with the intent of grabbing one of those Tennessee state musicians. Everybody around the country knew that Tennessee State has some of the baddest and the best musicians."
It was a robust scene, indeed, one where Charles scooped 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 standing gig at one club for a time, and Etta James cut her first live album at another, but all the activity wound down after the city sliced through the district with an interstate.
In the early 2010s, Washington found that many elders who'd been a part of that era justifiably feared they'd been forgotten by Nashville. "I used to invite some of the musicians over to just sit around and talk, tell some of their stories about Jefferson Street," he says. "I started just hanging [their] pictures in the living room And then I had different ones bring artifacts over and, after about a year, they start telling me that I was the curator for Jefferson Street."
He took that to heart, transforming his personal collection of oral histories and mementos, even his house, into the Jefferson Street Sound Museum. The importance of the stories he's been telling was further amplified when the long-awaited National Museum of African American Music opened its doors in Nashville.
Since Jefferson Street's heyday, Black musicians who came up in the city or sought education there have had to be resourceful, charting other paths to performing opportunities. Brassville embraces the aims of more recent generations — including a wealth of hometown rap and contemporary R&B talent and the swelling numbers of Black artists specializing in country and roots styles — who've worked at making inroads in venues dominated by white faces.
Brassville has the agility required to adapt to different musical settings; traditionally, brass bands have supplied the syncopated jazz strut of New Orleans' second lines, but Brassville's players veered from that template in their instrumentation and repertoire.
"Because Nate and I marched together, we have that relationship," Pollard says of how the unorthodox bass-and-tuba combo works. "I know his style and I can piggyback on it, not more so to step on each other's toes, more so just to blend together."
McDowell puts it this way: "We're the evolution of what a brass band can be."
They have a sophisticated feel for the connections between jazzy, live-band elasticity and hip-hop, neo-soul, funk, and a repertoire that contains frisky originals and new renditions of tunes made popular by the likes of Silk Sonic, Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. They typically work up Jenkins' and Neal's arrangements in rehearsal rooms at Tennessee State, gathering around the piano to sing their parts like a doo-wop group until everyone locks in. "We are here to complement one another," says Neal. "And so we choose music that we know this group can arrange and flip."
It's also well within their wheelhouse to accompany an array of artists who don't often have horns behind them, like lifelong resident and slyly perceptive hip-hop singer and songwriter Brian Brown, Nashville trap standard-bearer Starlito, electronic experimenter DK the Drummer and Tiera, one of the few Black women in country-pop with a label deal.
Proving that they're interested in and capable of moving between scenes has paid off for Brassville. They get asked to do a lot around town, enough that McDowell says they take care to measure the requests against their sense of community mission: "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 the legacy of Nashville, Black music, Black band music, anything that is adding to things that we find valuable?' "
Last year was Brassville's busiest yet, by far: They played TSU's Homecoming, the 150th anniversary celebration of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the world-renowned a capella ensemble from a sister Nashville HBCU, and a number of other noteworthy events showcasing current and historic Black musical accomplishment in North Nashville. They also brought a Juneteenth show to Lower Broadway, where tourist-targeting honky-tonks reign, landed a month-long residency in the premiere venue 3rd & Lindsley and took the stage in numerous clubs where rock has been the stock in trade.
"I think we hold a firm place as ambassadors for the city and for the sound of Nashville, the new sound of Nashville," reflects Jenkins, "because what we bring to the table wasn't necessarily here."
Pleasing crowds is Brassville's chief ambition, but the members do it in a way that acknowledges Nashville's forgotten sounds, shares solidarity with the city's ascendant, Black music-makers and encourages the next generations to join them. They're always teaching.
"A couple of my students, they formed a band here," says Neal, "and that kind of influence came from Brassville, really."
To hear the broadcast version of the story, use the audio player at the top of this page.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.