Old friends, audience members and random musicians often flow on and off The Big Ass Brass Band’s stage, sometimes even mid-song. But that’s all part of the fun for the Dallas-based brass band.
Sitting outside The Free Man in Deep Ellum where it all started, Kevin Butler, the band’s tuba player and leader; Gaika James, who plays trombone for the band; and Alcedrick Todd, one of the band’s trumpet players, laugh when trying to count how many members there are in the band. They estimate that it’s typically seven or eight, but they’ve performed with at least a dozen people on stage. It all depends on who’s available and who’s in town.
“It feels more like a party onstage,” Butler says.
“It’s always a party,” Todd adds in agreement.
Improvisation is part of what gives the parade-inspired band their blend of funk, jazz and hip-hop music the energy that’s made it so popular in Dallas over the last few years. The energy and joy emanating from the band is infectious.
“It's like the nature of the music is, if you've got a horn or a drum, you can jump in or out at any point in time,” Butler says.
In particular, New Orleans brass band parade music is, by nature, a collective experience. Drawing on that long history of collective music listening and playing, the Big Ass Brass Band’s shows not only include the audience, but require it.
“Even though we're like seven to eight members, there's always that extra man. And that's the audience. Because we kind of feed off of them, they feed off of us.” Todd says. “When they see us all loose, they feel the need to, like, get right there with us and get loose as well.”
The band is really a musical collective, he says.
“It's basically a bunch of people together, in expression, an expression of joy perhaps,” James adds.
So how did the big rollicking party start? Simultaneously, James and Todd point at Butler.
A few years ago, when a Monday night slot came open at the Free Man, he got together a few people. He’d often wanted to start a New Orleans-style brass band, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Even without a name yet, they became Monday-night regulars.
One night, someone introducing the band said something like "stick around because it’s going to be this big ass brass band playing after us,” Butler recalls. The name stuck.
The Big Ass Brass Band is just one of many ensembles connected to its members, most of whom have their own, smaller groups as well. But the Big Ass Brass Band is definitely the biggest.
Todd, Butler and James all started playing in middle and high school bands before moving on to work as touring and studio musicians. Todd toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra; James spent five years on the road with Toby Keith.
Butler lived in New Orleans as a child, where he saw lots of second-line parades. When he started playing tuba, his father slipped him some brass band albums for inspiration.
“I just kinda fell in love with the stuff,” Butler says. “Just the energy that just that brass band can do.”
In 2017, the Big Ass Brass Band spent four months as the resident band at the Shanghai House of Blues and Jazz in China (no relation to the famous American music club).
That was one of the best and most rewarding parts of the band’s career so far. They even joke that they became “Shanghai famous,” because of all the people who came to see them after hearing about them.
Playing in the band is not only fun, but it’s also a workout, they say.
“Part of the style is you start playing as loud as you can. And then you’ve got to play louder. So it can feel like a boxing match with your instrument,” Butler says.
Todd compares playing in the band with playing with Hot Wheels at a friend’s house as a child, because it’s the same kind of shared, joyful experience of being together.
"I think the reason why we have such a good time onstage and why it’s so fun is because we’re playing together,” he says. “And the crowd always notices it and that's why they get into it too. Because the fun, it's all over the room. And they can kind of feel it. They see us having fun.”
The songs the band plays are a mixture of covers, classic brass band music and original music. Because improvisation and building off of each other in the moment are built into the music, almost anything can become a song.
Several years ago, the band was in the Oak Cliff Mardi Gras parade. It’s impossible to walk and play through the entire parade route, but every time the band took a break, bystanders yelled for them to play a song. In the band, somebody said, “Don’t get your ass whooped over a song.” Nobody remembers who started it, but Todd gets credit for repeating the words, which prompted the other members to pick up the line and chant it. The drummer struck up a rhythm, and pretty soon Butler brought in a baseline on his tuba. The next night, playing at the Free Man, “Don’t Get Your Ass Whooped Over a Song,” debuted onstage.
“Let your ear be your guide, No. 1. And it’s also in what you play and what you don’t,” James says of their improvisation process.
“If someone takes the microphone and starts leading a chant with the crowd, the rest of the band has to jump, you know, they can’t just leave them out to dry, the rest of the band’s got to jump on what they're doing,” Butler adds.
And somehow, the free-flowing style always works out. Sure, sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way they intended, but it’s never a train wreck — at least not so big that the crowd notices.
“When the trains collide, they turn into bumper cars,” Todd says.
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“And that’s when the fireworks come out,” Butler adds.
The band doesn’t have any official recordings, and although Butler would like to get the members in studio to record an album, he’s hesitant to do so. So much of what the band does happens in the moment, and the energy it creates requires an audience. A studio recording would lack that fundamental piece.
This year, the Big Ass Brass Band is up for a Dallas Observer Music Award for Best Jazz. And that feels great, Butler says, but more than anything, the band is simply about meeting people and making music, together.
“Big Ass Brass Band, come party with us. It’s pretty much always a party,” Todd says.