The tradition of the brass band may have started long ago in Europe as an outgrowth of military marching bands, but once those outfits made their way to the sultry New Orleans streets, things forever changed. The New Orleans brass band is a special genre of music. A blend of original songs and covers, it’s rhythmically-informed and forever freewheeling in its playful, improvisational style. If you’ve ever walked Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, or visited any of the famous clubs situated there, you’ve heard the distinct New Orleans brass band sound.
Given the sheer life involved in such music, it’s no wonder the style of the New Orleans brass band became popular elsewhere. A group of University of Illinois student musicians who got their start in athletic bands found the call irresistible and put together their own version. As Nate Leonardi, the band’s current “fearless leader” explained, “In late 2011–early 2012 our drummer Ben Wooley and the original sousaphone player, Russell Pildes, got an idea to put a New Orleans brass band together, and it kind of took off from there.”
Originally known as the No Name Brass Band, the band now goes by Sixth Street Brass in honor of their practice space in the Harding Band Building on…wait for it, Sixth St. The band includes eight members for a full-fledged, funky sound: Ben Wooley on percussion; Korrey Frichtl on sousaphone; Hayley Rydberg and Airius Reeves on saxophone; Mason Manint and Dominick Jackson on trumpet; and Nate Leonardi and Evan Lorenz on trombone.
The beauty of the New Orleans brass band is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all genre. Sure, the underlying logistics are the same: you need brass, you need a strong beat, and you need verve. But the very point involves putting your own spin on the music, which is exactly what Sixth Street Brass does. “The idea obviously started in New Orleans, the instrumentation and the style, but then it branched out. It’s pretty much a big jam session. I know that’s what we love to do,” Hayley said.
Sixth Street Brass reimagines songs people have heard over and over again. “We put our own spin on the music, so that goes from doing traditional New Orleans brass songs to current pop tunes,” Nate said. “It’s a little different than what [the audience] has ever experienced.” When audiences hear these covers through the eyes and ears of Sixth Street Brass, they become new again. "We’re all musically inclined, so we can all put our spin of what we like to listen to into this brass band feel.”
Hayley said, “We arrange all the songs. We do covers obviously, but we arrange them ourselves. We’ve done Chicago, we’ve done Toto’s ‘Africa.’ We’re also starting to get more into pop music that’s happening right now. One of our friends is doing “Uptown Funk.” We’re working on some stuff for Fleetwood Mac. A lot of branching out.” The band also gains inspiration from famous New Orleans brass bands and musicians. Nate said, “My personal favorite is Trombone Shorty, because I’m a trombone player. I also like Young Blood Brass Band. We cover some of their songs.”
As members graduate, the band holds auditions for replacements. “This year we added a new tenor sax, a new sousaphone, and a new trumpet, and we got them from [posting] on the Marching Line’s Facebook page,” said Nate. Rather than keeping the band together after graduation, Nate believes it will be an important Champaign tradition. “It’s going to be too difficult for us to keep together if we all spread different ways. It’s something neat that can be tied to Champaign,” he explained.
That kind of approach means that everyone gets an equal say, and most every member brings a different arrangement to the table. Hayley said, “Nate gets a lot of the gigs, he sets it all up. I gave him the nickname ‘fearless leader’ because you have to be really fearless to do that job,” Hayley said. “But as far as having a say, everyone has a voice.”
While they started off playing more athletic style events—think tailgates and the like —Sixth Street Brass has started playing around town more often. “People are telling other people now, and it’s not just our close friends coming to shows. We’re going to off-campus bars, and we’re getting a lot of new people,” Hayley said.
“We like to gig as much as we possibly can. It’s fun onstage and we love doing it,” Nate said. Hayley agreed, “It seems like we’re probably going to get more this semester. And hopefully we’re going to branch out of the Champaign bubble.” The band would love to take their sound to Chicago, and even possibly New Orleans one day.
Hometown gigs are good for now, though, and audiences seem to be responding favorably to Sixth Street Brass’ unique take on music. “We played at Canopy Club for homecoming this year. It was a really long set with a huge crowd. Good atmosphere,” said Hayley.
The songs they do are ripe for the kind of upbeat atmosphere that goes with homecoming and other sports events, but in true brass band style, Sixth Street Brass doesn’t join the party, they are the party. As Hayley put it, “Everybody can tell that we started as friends. And it’s typically Midwestern to be friendly, so I think that’s portrayed onstage.”
Sixth Street Brass plays Cowboy Monkey on Saturday for what’s sure to be a party. As Bruno Mars (one of the artists the band covers) sings, "Don't believe me? Just watch."