The melodies of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” blast through the silence of a deserted Howard University campus. The sounds are coming from just outside Lulu Vere Childers Hall, where the DuPont Brass band rehearses beneath the building’s overhang, taking advantage of some shade on a sunny day of 82 degrees.
For this band of local musicians, several of them current and former Howard students, Memorial Day weekend is time spent tuning up for another season of performing classic compositions for commuters.
On any given day this summer, nine classically trained African American musicians will appear at a Metro station and play from a repertoire so broad it includes Johann Pachelbel and John Legend. In three years together, DuPont Brass — flugelhorn player Jared Bailey, 23; trombonists Isaac “Izzy” Bell IV, 23, Bathai Edwards, 21, and Jarvis Hooper, 20; band manager and tubist Brent Gossett, 25; trumpeters Anthony Daniel, 22, Jonathan Easter, 22, and Jonathon Neal, 23; and percussionist Stan Banks, 22 — have graduated from performing exclusively on the streets to also playing at weddings, galas and festivals, in
including a gig this summer at the Capital Pride Parade.
What began with broke college students raising money for tuition and food is developing into a collection of street musicians who are building a local brand.
DuPont Brass came into being in December 2011 when then-Howard students Bell, Gossett and Neal joined with Daniel and Bailey and took to the streets to play for fun — and funds. “That first year we started playing, it was a real struggle,” Gossett said. The group learned 15 tunes and played them for two hours a day, often in the bitter cold.
The band chose to play primarily outside the Dupont Circle Metro station’s south exit on 19th Street NW — in the space between Krispy Kreme and Panera Bread. (The band spells its name with a capital P in the style of the Civil War admiral for whom Dupont Circle is named.) There was good visibility next to the escalators, lots of foot traffic, and the location put them within a block of the neighborhood’s nightlife.
The band now travels to stations up and down the Metrorail map, but its most memorable experiences occurred at Dupont: A former French horn player for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra gave them $100; couples danced to their music in the snow; singer Ledisi posted a photo of the band on Instagram: “u guys sound beautiful!”
“We feed off the people’s energy, especially in Dupont Circle,” said Neal, a Howard University senior. “We named ourselves [DuPont Brass] because of the energy the people gave us. Their energy gives us energy.”
“We started on the street because that’s all we were able to do,” said Bell, a music teacher at William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts. “It started with us playing, just practicing, and the ideas started coming together.”
The musicians are working on an album they hope to release this year, once they secure the funds to get back into the studio. “I had no gigs before this. I’ve gotten a lot of studio work just being in DuPont Brass,” Bailey said.
Performing at Dupont Circle didn’t come without challenges — police telling the musicians to leave, bad weather, band members sometimes absent, days without tips. Then came the challengers. “Everyone got hip to that spot because of us,” Neal said. “There is always someone we have to battle with to get our spot back.”
Drummers, violinists, guitarists — DuPont Brass has taken on all comers. “People always give up . . . not to be cocky, but they didn’t sound as good as we do,” Easter said.
“It’s all about drive and desire,” Daniel said. “For a lot of us, this is the career that we’ve chosen. There is no offseason.”
After practice, the band usually unwinds at Daniel’s house in the District’s Bloomingdale area. Things can get quite crowded in the house. Snare drums are stacked in the living room. Saxophones and trumpets are lined up against the wall in the hallway. On an early summer night, Neal and Gossett wash frozen chicken and put it on a George Foreman grill; they’re skipping cookouts and parties in favor of a three-hour rehearsal later that evening.
“We already understand what works for us and what’s necessary,” Bailey said. “When we start playing, people are going to hear how hard we worked. When we see people invest in us financially and emotionally, that makes the three-hour rehearsals all worth it.”
The performance schedules are planned by Gossett, currently a graduate student at Louisiana State University. Gossett takes time away from his studies every day to plan the band’s activities. “I’m about to let you all know now: I’m about to send four very long texts,” reads his warning message to the band, preceding a detailed read-out of the group’s upcoming itinerary, which he sends through GroupMe, a mass text messaging app.
Gossett also helps negotiate the band’s fees. It’s an important aspect of management, especially after experiences with some shady business deals early in the group’s career. He can’t attend every gig because he’s in school at LSU, but he makes it back for the big ones. When DuPont Brass played a wedding in the District last year, the couple flew Gossett up for the performance. “Definitely one of our best gigs so far,” he said.
“This is what we do. This is what I’ll do until I die,” Bell said. “If someone asked me to pick between making music and breathing, I’d rather choke and spend my last breath on my horn. What would be the point of living if I can’t play?”