By Ede Rothaus
Wafting through the hot, still, and damp air of an August summer night in Manhattan: the unmistakable melody of La Vie en Rose.
I followed the music, towards the river, seeing glints of gold shining in the fading light. The glittering came from two of the instruments being played by a small brass ensemble. In front of a newly opened Northern Italian restaurant, four musicians stood in the street serenading customers eating and drinking at small outdoor candlelit tables.
It was the ancient tradition of busking, come to life 2021 style: Despascito and Livin’ on a Prayer, Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, and The Saints Go Marchin’ In.
Tom McHugh, bandleader and trombonist, formed Off the Bar Brass in September, 2020. The COVID epidemic had pretty much ended any opportunities for live performance and studio work. In response to these challenging conditions, creating a travelling brass band would provide a way to continue to play music, collaborate with fellow musicians, and earn a living as soon as the pandemic restrictions were lifted.
While the size of the band can vary from three to six players, one constant is that, like Tom, all members are professional musicians. Sabrina Walch, saxophone, plays and repairs bassoons. Andrew Dolgon is a tuba player and teacher. Mark Rucci, drums, is a sound engineer and professional drummer. The drum he carries around for street gigs is a large plastic paint bucket bought at Home Depot.
The relatively recent emergence of brass bands on New York City streets can also be partially traced back to how Hurricane Katrina’s destruction affected the New Orleans music scene. Over the last 15 years, a significant outflow of musicians post-Katrina brought many musicians from the “Crescent City” to New York, and with them, the tradition of brass bands. It’s difficult to know exactly how many such bands are now in New York, as players drop in and out as opportunities present themselves, and if the weather gods are cooperating. Best guess: 45 citywide.
As a result of the seemingly permanent change in New York’s restaurant laws, allowing year-round outdoor dining makes the likelihood of hearing Louis Armstrong and Luis Fonsi, soul, salsa, Katy Perry, rock n’ roll and the Great American Song Book, all with a brass twist, very likely, especially in the streets of the West Village.