Brassville aims to reclaim the deep scope of Nashville music history, stage by stage A contemporary brass band that grew out of one of Nashville's historically Black universities is helping to expand the lost musical identity of the country capital.

Brassville aims to reclaim the deep scope of Nashville music history, stage by stage

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Nashville is the capital of country music. But the city once hosted a wide array of musical styles. Recently, a contemporary brass band that grew out of one of Nashville's historically Black universities is helping to revive that diverse musical identity. Jewly Hight of member station WNXP reports.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Fish don't fry in the kitchen. Beans don't burn on the grill.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Walking through downtown Nashville, you're likely to pass musicians strumming and singing on the street. Busking is a thing. But tourists who visited the city for the NFL draft in 2019 were in for a surprise.


HIGHT: That was when a few brass musicians set up on a corner and launched into some jazz tunes. They made sure to display a sign letting everyone know their name was Brassville. The players saw a niche to fill, says Nate McDowell, who was on sousaphone that night.

NATE MCDOWELL: 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.

HIGHT: Brassville was soon invited places to entertain. And rehearsal space wasn't an issue. The band members, who now number eight, can work up a new rendition of a Silk Sonic song at Tennessee State University.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing falsetto) Don't bring this groove down for nothing (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm on it. I'm on it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Don't let 'em bring this groove...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) ...Down for nothing (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: Let me have that one.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing falsetto) This groove down for nothing.


HIGHT: They can afford to cut up because they're serious about their musicianship. Everyone in Brassville learned discipline from TSU's marching aristocrat of bands. Some high-stepped in it as undergrads. And others, including trumpeter Larry Jenkins, serve as professors.

LARRY JENKINS: All of us come from, you know, this line of teaching and thinking. They taught us how to be better musicians. And that goes back very far as well.

HIGHT: He's referring to the music scene that once thrived in the historically Black neighborhoods around the school, whose alums landed gigs in the jazz, blues and R&B clubs along Jefferson Street. That chapter is missing from many accounts of Music City's past, says Lorenzo Washington. That's why he made his personal collection of artifacts into the Jefferson Street Sound Museum.

LORENZO WASHINGTON: Artists like Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding - they put their footprints right here on Jefferson Street in North Nashville. They would come through with the intent of grabbing one of those Tennessee State musicians.

HIGHT: Washington says that era ended in the '60s after the city sliced through the district with an interstate. More recent generations of Black performers have had to work at making inroads in venues where they weren't always welcome.


HIGHT: The members of Brassville equip themselves to adapt to any setting. Unlike traditional brass bands that specialize in New Orleans second line parades, Brassville has a full drum kit and keyboards and an electric bass bolstering the tuba's low notes. Jazzy neo-soul, hip-hop and funk are in the group's wheelhouse, and so is backing artists in. other styles.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Come on. So if you just stay a little while longer, longer, baby - promise...

HIGHT: It's reached the point where they get asked to do a lot around town, so they need to be strategic, says tuba player Nate McDowell.

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 the legacy of Black music, Black band music? - anything that is adding to things that we find valuable.

HIGHT: Last year was the busiest yet for the guys in Brassville. They were at Tennessee State's Homecoming and a Fisk Jubilee Singers celebration.



HIGHT: They put on a Juneteenth show in a downtown honky-tonk before landing a residency at another premier venue.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: (Singing) Let me hear you say, bye-bye haters.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Bye-bye haters.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #5: I said bye-bye haters.

HIGHT: Here's trumpet player Larry Jenkins again.

JENKINS: 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.

HIGHT: There's a sense of purpose to the way that Brassville pleases crowds, and it's no accident that the moniker itself is riffing on the city's name.

For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.


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