Revitalizing the Jazz Brass Audience Connection
by Michael Montgomery
At first I thought it was the California Aggie Marching Band (or “Band-Uh,” as they like to be known). As I got closer, the pounding rhythm and raucous brass distinguished themselves in the still air, and I remembered whom it was I was biking to see: the City of Trees brass band.
Well, actually, I was on my way to see Sammy Miller and the Congregation. City of Trees was playing in the Corin Courtyard beforehand, and I had left early with the intention of catching their second half. I wasn’t disappointed.
In spite of the frigid weather, the band seemed to have no trouble staying warm. I guess generating body heat isn’t a problem when you’re playing music with that much energy. Later, Sammy and his Congregation also impressed me with their liveliness. Considering that both groups prominently feature brass instruments, I’m beginning to think such vivacity is the norm for this kind of ensemble.*
* There is a subtle point here. Brass saxophones are woodwind instruments. Likewise, flutes made of brass are also woodwind instruments. Both produce sound by splitting air over a wooden reed or gap, respectively. Traditional “brass instruments,” in contrast, like trumpets, produce sound using resonance of their tubes. For my purposes, “brass” denotes any of the musical settings normally associated with jazz, including those that incorporate woodwinds.
The trick, I believe, is their size: big enough to generate an atmosphere of street-corner conviviality, yet not so big they lose their intimacy. More specifically, effective medium-sized brass ensembles like City of Trees and the Congregation are small enough that multiple brass instruments can be played simultaneously without succumbing to the kitsch of Big Band nostalgia, yet large enough that they can still build the rapport and momentum that made those Big Bands an enduring tradition in the first place.
In this respect, I think Sammy’s notion of his band as a “congregation” is appropriate. Religious or not, all strong congregations are strong communities, and a good brass-driven ensemble (or any musical configuration, for that matter) is a strong community. What’s marvelous about Sammy’s music is that this community doesn’t stop at the edge of the stage: the Congregation deliberately extends it to the audience as well.
When I interviewed Sammy in October, he justified this approach. “Jazz,” he told me, “is often a music of what it’s not.” If I understand him right, this is to say that jazz often defines itself not as listeners’ music, but as musicians’ music. It’s not about the audience, but the people on stage—how they improvise, how they accompany one another, how they riff on old standards.
Jazz hasn’t always had this tendency. It originated as dance music. Only once Charlie Parker and other bebop pioneers started to push the genre’s limits in the 1940s did some of its players begin isolating themselves from their audience. Sammy’s goal with his Congregation and its self-styled “joyful jazz” is to restore the audience connection while still making music of high artistry.
“Even now it feels like the performers are the only ones who understand what’s going on, and the audience is just a witness,” Sammy said in our interview. “That never made sense to me because the audience is there, and to pretend like they’re not there is to not include them in the experience. So we try to make them a part of every step.”
This was certainly evident in Jackson Hall on November 9, with jokes, call-and-response sections of songs, and even an informal poll asking how we’d heard about the performance. I doubt if anyone, even in the most distant seat from the stage, felt excluded.
This, too, is appropriate. In the jazz of the first half of the 20th century, brass instruments were in demand precisely because they were good at reaching, without amplification, people in the farthest reaches of dance halls. In a sense, then, Sammy’s audience-centered, brass-driven jazz is nothing new. Nor is it intended to be. But it’s never something that gets old.
Michael is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This is his second year on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.