I had the great pleasure to attend a superb performance of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band on Saturday – and of being reminded of the significance of the deep-rooted Brass Band tradition. I had the honour of meeting conductor Ian Shires and star cornetist Roger Webster.
Brass bands are about music – but more than music. Many are closely woven into the local community, a matter of local pride, a focus of identity, a place to bring people together, and also a pedagogic venue, teaching and integrating youngsters. Brass bands can play almost anywhere, not least on the march, frequently performing outdoor civic duties at local events. They are part of our cultural heritage.
And this is a shared cultural heritage across Europe and beyond.
In Holland and Belgium, and nearby parts of Germany, France and Luxembourg, there is a strong tradition similar to Britain’s, although, unlike British bands, they also play saxophones (after all, Adolphe Sax came from Dinant in Belgium). The band from Willebroek, 25 miles north of Brussels, were three times European Brass Band Champions.
In the Balkans, Brass Bands play a style that owes much to 19th-century Roma (Gypsy) trumpeters and Ottoman marching bands turning local folk music into brass.
Across Europe, the Salvation Army has deployed brass bands since 1878.
In Norway, the Brass Band Federation is the largest voluntary music organisation in the country, and has the the King as its patron.
The tradition has spread beyond Europe, to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and North America. Brass bands in New Orleans date to the late 19th Century, often playing a fusion between European and African folk music.
The modern form of the brass band in Britain, with its full complement of 28 players, including percussion, dates from the mid 19th century.
Brass bands can be highly competitive,with bands organised into five sections with promotions and relegations, much like the football league divisions. Rivalries abound. A key player moving from one band to another is almost like a top footballer moving between clubs.
The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is one of the most famous bands. It was on BBC national radio every month from 1941 to 1951, it played at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and it has several times won the National Brass Band Championship, not least in 1992 just 5 days after the Colliery was closed, as depicted in the wonderful, moving, film Brassed Off.
Bands are mostly organised on a voluntary basis, with few resources and sometimes little experience of the commercial side of entertainment. But they do need money. Overheads are not insignificant, and even if each member of the main band is paid just a few pounds per show, the size of the band and their transport costs soon reach a significant level. The pedagogical work that many of them do (complete with youth bands that have been the nurseries of many a top musician), add to the costs.
Some get sponsorship, some rely on donations, while others try to make ends meet by giving lots of concerts: Grimethorpe played over 60 gigs around the UK in one recent year, travelling over 6,000 miles, but such a level of activity is unsustainable, given that amateur band members have jobs and families.
On top of that, there is in my mind no doubt that some bands have been ripped off by commercial agents who have booked them at prestigious events for a hefty fee, but only passed on a small proportion to the band, sometimes with the band blissfully unaware of what was being charged in their name.
Brass bands are a tradition worthy of support. Securing for them the full fruit of their labour (to coin a phrase) would go a long way to helping them. So would further opportunities to reach new audiences.
Their repertoires are far more varied than the uninitiated sometimes imagine: last Saturday’s performance ranged from Freddy Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody to Wagner, Indiana Jones to Puccini, The Lady is a Tramp and much else besides. Broadening their reach would not just help save them, it would bring pleasure to millions.