Brass Bands and Dixieland

Civil War Era “Colored” Brass Band

Pre-Civil War New Orleans was a musically active city, and part of that tradition was the military style brass band. The brass band was based on the traditional English brass band, and consisted of cornets, alto and tenor horns, and both valve and slide trombones. During the Civil War the military band tradition intensified, and occupational forces left behind after the war presented blacks with the opportunities to learn and teach band instruments. Before the war Creoles and whites were the only people to formally study music or learn traditional European instruments; blacks were relegated to playing on “cigar” box instruments of homemade design.

With these new opportunities, various types of ensembles appeared in New Orleans based on the old brass band tradition, ranging from the parade bands, dance bands, formal ensembles, and blues type bands consisting of two to four players.1 Between 1890 and 1900 the dance band tradition, whose ensemble consisted of violin, cornet, clarinet, trombone, drums, double bass, and guitar, developed into the Dixieland band. These early dance bands were often referred to as ragtime bands or orchestras; this was due to the popularity of ragtime music, and these ensembles adoption of this piano compositional style. Ragtime bands were divided two sections, the rhythmic section, and the melody section. The rhythmic section consisted of the drums, string bass and guitar; the melody section consisted of the cornet, clarinet, violin and trombone. The trombone in the ragtime band really served a dual function, as a player of counter-melodies to the cornet and clarinet and as a member of the rhythm section, helping to create the syncopated rhythms associated with ragtime. With this ensemble and its music the beginnings of Dixieland jazz were formed. Dixieland jazz quickly developed, and by 1915 it had spread to cities outside of New Orleans: north to Chicago, east to New York, and west to Los Angeles.

  1. James Lincoln Collier “Jazz,” New Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 2, 538.