It's nine o'clock on a Friday night and abnormally cold for May. Four members of Brass Connection are camped out at the intersection of Trade and Tryon, seemingly oblivious to the dozen or so passersby who have now stopped and are waiting for the band to play. Casual conversation between band members suddenly turns into an argument over creative differences. Two bandmates begin shouting at each other as the band's founder, Bill Jones, remains silent in his seat behind his drums.
"You may be a fucking star, but you are not the fucking leader," Poo, the band's lead trombonist, shouts at Sticks, the band's accessory percussionist. As quickly as the argument escalates, it ends as Sticks digs into an aggressive and blindingly fast run on his drum set. This is just part of being in a band. It's the sort of typical backstage stuff you don't see when musicians perform on a stage with a curtain.
Although they're scrappy and rough on the edges, the members of Brass Connection are probably some of the better-known street performers in Charlotte. But the band is just one example of that thriving scene. Filmmaker April Denée explores street performance, or busking, in the Queen City in her documentary Busk!, to be released May 19. As the film is poised to show us, all street performers have a story. They're out there on the streets for a reason.
For Brass Connection, sheer need was the initial motivating factor. The band was started four years ago during the worst of a bad economy, when joblessness battered the nation. Jones and his nephew Mike Taylor needed money and figured playing music on the streets of Uptown might pay off. Over time, Jones' own children, Jamaal, Kyle and Kylvin (who range from middle school age to 21 years old) have gotten involved. Even Jones' 7-year-old godson, Mike Mike, occasionally plays trombone in the band.
Around 9:45 p.m., the band packs its instruments into a waiting car and a minivan and makes their way one block over. Again they set up, but this time for the real night's work: entertaining people in front of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center's Belk Theater. Throngs of patrons will begin exiting the theater in a few minutes.
Although they are a mainstay in Charlotte, Brass Connection takes its show on the road part of the year. Jones keeps Brass Connection's schedule booked a month out. "We tour from March through probably November," he says. "In D.C., we play in Chinatown and DuPont Circle. In New York, we play in Central Park, and in Florida, we play in Clearwater at the pier."
When they're in town, you can find the band planted in one of a handful of locations. "I like to play at the Blumenthal and Knight Theater all the time. Usually, we play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and when they have shows. We stay out there and entertain most of the day on Saturdays," Jones says. The folks at the Blumenthal, Jones says, reached out to Brass Connection and asked that they perform in front of the theater.
Douglas Young, vice president of programming for Blumenthal Performing Arts, says Brass Connection is just what our city needs. "They sort of showed up one day a few years ago, and people loved them. Now they play regularly. We're big fans of their music," Young says. "Busking is a great tradition, and the Brass Connection is part of that. Cities like Charlotte that have this sort of sharing of talent recognize how the arts can inspire."
The band also performs regularly at Bobcats games and the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jones says overall, the city of Charlotte has been exceptionally kind to the group. "[Former] Mayor McCrory said we are, like, good for the city's culture," he says. "That was inspiring. [And] Charlotte police have been very nice to us; I don't have any complaints about that. They look [out] for us and joke with us. It's awesome."
On this particular night, Brass Connection is comprised of two trombones and two drum kits. During Sticks' drum run, a crowd packs the sidewalk. Few are able to remain still as a wall of sound screams from the well-worn instruments.
The band plays songs its older members have heard through the years. When younger members need some coaching, Jones is at the ready. "We try to play a lot of Top 40, and we go to different areas when we see what the crowd is like. Oldies but goodies. 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.' They like that. KC and the Sunshine Band," Jones says. "There's so much, you know. We have like 75 to 80 songs on the list. We play all by ear."
In spite of unusually wintry weather, the band's music hasn't stopped, and the crowd hasn't dissipated. People are dancing and smiling. More important for Jones and his crew, a steady stream of onlookers are making their way toward the band's setup, pulling dollar bills from pockets, wallets and purses. "When we started out, we realized people liked our music, so we put out a hat," Jones says.
The hat has since grown into a bucket — a clear indication that our buttoned-up banking city craves this brand of culture.