The Gospel of Brass

River City Brass Band turns 30, with a new director — and a new direction
Images courtesy of River City Brass Band A 2010 performance of the River City Brass Band at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. A 2010 performance of the River City Brass Band at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
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Pointing a handheld video camera at himself, James Gourlay made an eccentric sight on the streets of Pittsburgh, as the native of Scotland made tiny films literally “picturing” what it would be like to live in this city.

The eminent tuba player, educator and brass band director was in town not quite two years ago to direct a brief series of concerts by Pittsburgh’s world-​renowned River City Brass Band. A group of 28 instrumentalists that performs around 100 concerts per year, mostly around Greater Pittsburgh, River City Brass is the only full-​time professional brass band of its kind, known for its boisterous and blasting style of popular music.

At first, the Pittsburgh trip was merely a vacation from Gourlay’s series of jobs in Britain and elsewhere in Europe that included playing in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and 10 years with Zurich Opera House, as well as top administrative positions with both the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. But when Gourlay looked back at the tapes he made, he liked what he saw.

I did these concerts, and what happened was unexpected,” says Gourlay. “Initially I wasn’t so interested in the actual job. But I spent four weeks in Pittsburgh and fell in love with the city.”

There were good reasons not to be thrilled at the prospect of taking over the baton and the financial statements of the River City Brass Band. The group has surprised many cynics this year by celebrating its 30th anniversary — a birthday that seemed unlikely two years ago. The band came close to shutting its doors, as poor attendance, a stuttering economy and cuts in arts funding caused the group to cut its director’s and musicians’ salaries, reduce rehearsals to a bare minimum, and still wake up to headlines in early 2009 such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s “End in Sight for River City Brass?”

Former director Denis Colwell oversaw the group’s survival, including a 30 percent cut in his own pay, and then decided to part ways after 15 years and more than 1,300 concerts. So Gourlay’s temporary gig was more than a fill-​in, it was an audition. What he didn’t realize was that he wasn’t the only one making a decision. While Gourlay was falling for Pittsburgh, a reciprocal relationship was developing. Unbeknownst to Gourlay, at the concerts he directed the band’s leadership was asking attendees, the majority of whom are series subscribers, to vote on their favorite of the guest directors.

I did about 12 concerts with River City Brass, and when I got back home I said, ‘Well, that was nice. Wonder if I’ll ever see them again,’” says Gourlay. “Then the chairman of the board phoned me up and said, ‘the public has voted for you in all the concerts.’ They had voting slips to choose the new music director, which I didn’t know! And the audience voted for me overwhelmingly, and I thought, ‘I can’t let those people down now.’”

Now, with nearly a year under his belt as director, Gourlay has begun to show that not letting people down means more than just upholding the status quo. With a slew of new education initiatives, the injection of new music into the group’s repertoire, and a collaboration slated for 2012 that could turn a whole new audience on to brass music, Gourlay is making River City Brass live up to his own standard. “I’m excited about everything I do,” he says. “If I’m not excited, I don’t do it.” when the river city brass band began in 1981, it was an attempt to galvanize a musical community around a fading American tradition. In the U.S. and in Britain, the community brass band had long been an important part of blue-​collar cities such as Pittsburgh. And the traditional brass-​band repertoire of marches, big band tunes, new compositions and reworkings of popular song proved an immediate hit.

Dave Auman was there at the beginning. For 30 years, he’s played cornet with River City Brass Band, though it hasn’t always been easy. For one thing, in 2009 it certainly looked like Auman and his 27 colleagues were out of a job.

That was a bad time,” says Auman. “Foundations were not giving money out the way they had been, and when the bottom fell out of the [economy], it didn’t take very long before the presenters that would do these community concert series had no more money.”

With attendance figures and grant dollars dropping, late 2008 and 2009 were dark days. Besides the director’s salary cut and cut in rehearsal time, in February of 2009 the band’s all-​union musicians renegotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that included a steep pay cut that meant the group could continue.

A year later, as River City Brass searched for a new director, Gourlay looked at the books. “I could see, of course, that it was bad. But I could see also that it had been considerably worse for this organization. I was and I am convinced that the problem is that the organization needs to reinvent itself, to revitalize. It needs to keep appealing to its core audience, but also reach out to new audiences.”

In his 30 years with River City, there are very few pieces of traditional brass-​band music that Dave Auman hasn’t played. And with an audience of more than 80 percent season-​ticket subscribers, there aren’t many pieces that the band’s fans haven’t heard. Which is both the group’s strength and its weakness.

I’m 62 years old, and I’ve been a professional musician since I was 23,” says Auman. “There’s not a whole lot that takes me completely by surprise, but what we do get with some of the music is, ‘man — this is gonna be hard.’ The stuff that [River City Brass Band founder] Bob Bernat used to call ‘raw meat for the band.’

But if you don’t try new things, you’re not going to be successful. You’ve always got to be looking for new avenues. Like education: if you’re not hooked into music education, if you aren’t courting the future adults, you’re going to lose your audience. It’s that simple.”

If tapping into tradition and building a musically and organizationally solid band was the hallmark of River City Brass Band up until now, then under Gourlay the mantra might be “innovation within tradition.” Things have improved rapidly, thanks to the work of the band’s board of directors, as well as Colwell’s and Gourlay’s efforts. The musicians’ salaries have been restored to previous levels. Rehearsals have been reinstated. And new, scaled-​down efforts at touring — sending smaller 10– or 16-​piece bands rather than turning down gigs that can’t pay for the whole group — has meant a 100 percent increase in touring work for the musicians. The group also has taken the release of its recordings in-​house, starting the River City Brass CD label, with the band doing all its own recording, mixing, and CD production.

But that doesn’t mean the problems are solved, and the band is looking to new ideas to help make things work.

When I arrived,” says Gourlay, “I’d meet people, and tell them what I was doing, and they’d all say, ‘Oh, River City Brass — I’ve heard of that.’ It’s a brand! We were very dependent on the brand — ‘this is what we do, and people will come because of that.’ But we have an incredibly strong competitor, which is the Grim Reaper. The audience is aging, and if we don’t make efforts to replenish the audience we have, then we’ll go out of business.”

One answer lies in education, where Gourlay sees an opportunity to help allay the problems of cuts in arts-​education funding at all schooling levels. A new partnership, announced this past summer, has River City Brass Band working with Wheeling Jesuit University to rebuild that West Virginia institution’s fine– and performing-​arts program, creating a program that functions at a higher-​education level as well as integrating into the Wheeling community.

The group is similarly helping to step in with Pittsburgh Public Schools, offering brass instrument classes at the Creative and Performing Arts school (Pittsburgh CAPA) on weekends. And next summer, River City Brass will launch a summer school with the local players, as well as instructors from the UK and Europe, making it a magnet for students from around the world.

But perhaps the most exciting, and most eccentric, of the new River City Brass Band concepts is one that combines two musical forms that seem separated by miles of cultural distance and offers proof that music itself knows no such boundaries.

More than a century ago, shape-​note singing — the type of hymn notation created to promote community and congregational harmony singing, and the precursor to modern gospel music — lived side by side with brass bands.

If you look historically,” says Herbert V.R.P. Jones, director of The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, “in Louisiana and Georgia and Mississippi and parts of Tennessee, you find that in [the 19th-​century] there were brass bands playing the gospel music. I look at this not as a melting pot, but as a musical salad. Each thing has its own individual identity, its own flavor. So what we’re doing is to take that historical base and bring it to the forefront with a new freshness.”

Jones is talking about Gospel and Brass, a program of music combining the work of River City Brass Band and The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir that will debut in May of 2012. It’s a difficult proposition. While the historical background is there, no musical arrangements exist, and no groups have ever combined in such a way. But for the band and choir, it’s a natural fit. The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir shares office space and a 501©3 non-​profit tax status with River City Brass Band, which serves as the choir’s umbrella organization. But until now, these two entities have never performed music arranged for their combined effort.

For me, it was an absolute no-​brainer to bring these elements together,” says Gourlay, who is creating the musical arrangements for the collaboration. “Brass band music typically doesn’t reach the African American community. But gospel is a truly American musical medium, and we can visit those roots and integrate the brass band tradition into it. And in doing so, we’ll reach out to the African American community, as they reach out to us.”

The project will see the creation of a Gospel and Brass CD, the first of its kind. And, like all of the work River City Brass Band is undertaking in its revitalization, Gourlay is excited about it.

I think sometimes it just takes somebody from outside. You need somebody to say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this already?’

Justin Hopper

Journalist and author Justin Hopper focuses his work on two disparate places: his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and the rolling hills of Southern England. Covering the former, Hopper has won Keystone and Golden Quill awards for his writing about music and the arts, and recently published Making the Connections, a book about community projects enacted as a part of Pittsburghs 250th anniversary. For the latter, he has written for publications such as Paste and Spin magazines, and is currently finishing a book on the 100-​mile-​long South Downs Way.

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