Tis the season of purple, gold and green beads hanging from the oak trees or glittering on the streets, moonpies raining down to people screaming “Throw Me Something Mister” and king cake being devoured morning, noon and night, just watch out for the baby!
For many here in the South, Mardi Gras beats out holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving as their favorite season of celebration. No matter what picture comes to mind for this weeks-long party season, it would never be complete without the music.
The sounds of brass bands combined with clapping hands, cheering crowds and dancing feet truly exemplify all that Mardi Gras has come to be: spirited, carefree delight. Most Mobilians attend a parade or two or venture out to luxurious balls, and this time of year, these musicians can be found in either venue.
Second-line bands earned their name in quite a literal fashion. As the members of the parades made up the “first line” of the procession, celebrants and revelers who followed behind and danced to the music became the second line. After some time, formal bands formed from these celebrants and gave birth to the tradition of the second-line band Southerners everywhere recognize today.
Playing with anywhere from three to 10 members, depending on the occasion, these bands value high-quality and traditional tunes that pay homage to the century of history that came before.
Mobile plays host to a small community of these second-line brass bands, creating a magnetic group of musicians who are just as likely to sing their neighbors’ praises as they would their own. The Excelsior Band, the Blow House Brass Band and Bay City Brass bring to mind feelings of excitement and anticipation for listeners everywhere with their passion for music and dedication to this city’s traditions.
In the beginning
As the true birthplace of Mardi Gras, Mobile has even more history to offer than just the beginning of this pre-Lenten festival: the oldest second-line band still active today. The Excelsior Band, founded in 1883 (one year before the oldest New Orleans second-line band), still plays around town frequently. For these musicians, Mardi Gras means more than just parades.
“Mardi Gras creates a commonality of fun for people in Mobile and surrounding areas. It provides an open invitation to first time and repeat visitors,” Hosea London, the current bandleader, said.
London first joined the Excelsior Band nearly 40 years ago as a trumpet player before stepping up as leader in 2001. Now, in addition to adding that unmistakable trumpet flair to the band’s sound, he oversees the business side of the Excelsior Band, including booking gigs.
In 2013, the Alabama Council on the Arts recognized the Excelsior Band with the Alabama Folk Heritage Award, which became one of the band’s defining moments for London.
“We were honored with a plaque and a reception, so that was a moment for us. At least to that point, nothing like that had ever been done [for us],” London said.
Mardi Gras isn’t the only time the members of the Excelsior Band get to strut their stuff. The band performs year-round, playing their lively tunes for conventions, parties, weddings and funerals. In all, London estimates that the band plays at least 150 times per year, and sometimes as many as 300.
“The whole year, we’re doing conventions all over town, because when people come they usually want a Mardi Gras theme. We do a lot of weddings since people like that second-line parade from the church to the reception hall. It’s a really big attraction,” London said. “A lot of them are not always local people. They come and they want to do that second-line.”
Despite the hundreds of performances throughout the year, London confirmed that Mardi Gras may just be his favorite of them all.
“It’s almost like the parade is on the outside of the barricades. We’re inside the barricades, but we’re looking out at all the people looking at us. Even though you’re in the parade, it’s like you have a parade, too,” London explained.
Though thoughts of second-line brass bands and Mardi Gras in general often bring New Orleans to mind, London says that Mobile has more than a little something special over the Crescent City. The Excelsior Band prides themselves on maintaining the Dixieland-style jazz that their founding members played over a century ago, giving them a sound unique even here in Mobile.
“Mobile has a rich history of Mardi Gras, and really a rich history for musicians period. We’ve really kept the Dixieland-style music in our sound. A lot of the bands [in New Orleans] are mixing an R&B type of sound into their music. I’ll tell you, we stay with the standards because it works. Some of the same tunes I was playing 39 years ago, we still do. And people still request it and that’s what they want to hear,” London said.
Playing crowd favorites like “Margie,” “Hello Dolly” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Excelsior Band and other second-line brass bands continue to capture the hearts and fascination of all who hear them. In a society where attention can divert faster than the length of a world tour for contemporary artists, what about the Dixieland jazz sound keeps it relevant and even beloved?
“I think it just goes back to standards. If you listen to music over a period of time, any artist can go back and do classic songs, record it and sell it. People like having a base that they know they can come back to. We see generations of people, including children and grandchildren, mommas and daddies, everybody enjoys listening to it,” London said.
An ongoing tradition
If the Excelsior Band represents the rich history that pervades Mobile, then the Blow House Brass Band exemplifies the new life and energy that keeps the city growing and thriving.
Founded in 2007 by a group of then-high school students, Blow House is preparing for its ninth year of high intensity Mardi Gras madness.
Different from Excelsior who keeps up a busy performance schedule year-round, Blow House Brass concentrates their efforts almost exclusively for the Mardi Gras season. In just three weeks, the band has around 20 gigs booked.
“It’s all this month, right now. It’s always go, go, go. Even on a slow day, on Joe Cain Sunday, we’ll play at a gentleman’s house for lunch, we’ll play at a parade, then play downtown at Moe’s for a reception, and that’s kind of our day off,” Landry explained. “After that, we rest our feet. We put on a lot of miles during Mardi Gras.”
The founding members of the band faced challenges along the way to their current standing as a core group of the tight-knit brass community. Chief among them was simply members dispersing for college. Despite some of the founding members leaving Mobile for school, the Blow House Band lived on with old members and new.
“We had to bring in some new blood, younger people and people in Mobile to fill in spots. There’s a lot of logistics that go into it, but it’s something that all the original members make an effort to be here, especially right around Mardi Gras,” Landry explained.
When asked what memory jumped out as the most incredible in the near-decade since the band’s founding, Landry simply cited the supporters who have given them the drive to keep making their music.
“The coolest part for me, that I didn’t anticipate going in, was how people would respond to what, at that point, a bunch of high school kids were doing. Seeing a hundred thousand people at a MOT parade, cheering for you and screaming on the other side of the barricades. Nothing I anticipated really matched that,” Landry said.
And for Landry, founding and playing with the other members of Blow House Brass has changed so much, even his fundamental views of Mardi Gras itself.
“Growing up, of course I enjoyed watching the floats and hearing the bands but it was just that: watching from the outside. Now the band is a fixture. People expect to see Blow House every year now. That shift to becoming a part of the experience for other people has been so much fun for me and the guys in Blow House,” Landry explained.
The respect that Landry and Blow House have for the other brass players in town is evident in his tone and kind words toward the other bands. He recalls how both Bay City Brass and Excelsior helped them get started nine years ago. Last year, Blow House Brass played with the Excelsior Band for the first time, a memorable day for the Blow House band leader.
“I grew up watching Charles [Hall] play tuba for years and years. Then to end up doing it myself, and to play with him, was so cool. You can even tell [how much they influenced us] by what we wear. They did the black suits and we wear tux parts, so we really modeled ourselves after what they do and definitely respect the history they have,” Landry recalled.
Good times will keep on rollin’
In the end, giving spectators and party-goers a good time is the ultimate goal for Blow House Brass and, really, every brass band in the city.
“It’s all about the party. It’s such exciting music, that really hasn’t changed. Having live music and having several musicians playing at your event – I don’t see how that’s not exciting. For us, we bring a lot of energy to what we do, and that’s the feedback we get. It makes it a party for them,” Landry said.
A community has formed around these musicians, bound together with a simple and deeply ingrained love for the art they create and share.
“I think it’s cool that we all know each other. When I get a call about something and maybe it’s a gig that we can’t do or we’re booked, I give the guys in the other bands a call and try to hook them up,” Landry said.
And the feeling is definitely mutual from the other bands in the area.
“The most life-changing experience has been the thousands of people that I have met and the respect and honor that they bestow upon the Excelsior Band, not only in Mobile but throughout the Southeast and beyond,” London explained.
This community has become even more apparent in recent weeks. In late December, Bay City Brass bandleader Marcus Johnson passed away after 17 years of leading the band. Carlos Johnson, Marcus’ brother, has taken over the majority of the managerial duties for the Bay City Brass Band.
For Carlos Johnson, Mardi Gras in Mobile is all about family and the bond of community that brings celebrants together. Focusing on this less wild, more communal experience gives Mobile’s festivities a different experience than going somewhere like New Orleans.
And this camaraderie that the bands share with each other and with the city itself helps them to continue on without their long-standing leader this year. Carlos Johnson confirmed that Bay City Brass will be performing as scheduled, including their weekly Sunday brunch performances at the Grand Hotel.
“I’ve been a musician 20-something years. I’ve played about eight different instruments, and my brother was like that, too. It’s too ingrained in us to stop,” Johnson said.
Johnson recalled how Marcus changed the way brass bands were viewed in Mobile, opening up new opportunities not just for Bay City Brass, but the other bands in the city, as well.
“I think that before he started Bay City Brass, a band like us would play one time a year. He created a whole market for more than just us. He pushed to get people to hire a band like us through the year. We played once a year, and that was at Mardi Gras, and no one wanted to hear it unless it was Mardi Gras. He opened a whole new market and people started playing year-round,” Johnson explained. “He was really a Mardi Gras icon.”
Wherever you celebrate this Mardi Gras season, you’re sure to experience some or all of these talented and passionate musicians serenading you. And years down the road, when you recount all the crazy stories of this Mardi Gras with family and friends, you’ll be sure to remember the music that made you dance and the excitement it inspired in you.
And, as always, be safe as you let those good times roll.