The corner of 14th and U streets NW swelled with nearly 100 people rocking to a brass band’s Friday night street performance. Shoeless panhandlers were dancing with summer interns. Young professionals and baby boomers were shimmying next to one another. And a kaleidoscope of races shed inhibitions and bounced to a bold version of the 1990s R&B classic “No Diggity.”
In a largely segregated city trying to erase its reputation for stuffiness and stress, soul had burst onto this street corner.
In the back, Kim Bradshaw, 35, was moved even more by the sight than she was by the sound. She texted her friends to come join the party.
“This is what the city needs,” she said.
Bradshaw, a fourth-year medical student at Howard University and a native Washingtonian, pulled a few dollars out of her purse to drop in the bucket bearing the group’s name: Brass Connection.
On weekends in the District the past four years, this nine-man family troupe of trombonists, percussionists and sousaphone players has been seducing mobs of people to stray from their routines and take in the band’s joyful sound. This spring, a staff member for the Washington Mystics sought out the musicians after a flood of fans leaving a Miley Cyrus concert got caught up in the rhythm. Brass Connection is now the house band for the WNBA team.
Brass Connection’s unusual journey to Section 116 at Verizon Center started in 2010, in their home town of Charlotte. Bill Jones, the family’s 53-year-old patriarch and the band’s percussionist, grew tired of his sons, grandsons and nephews struggling to find good jobs that inspired them.
“To tell you the truth, times were hard,” Jones said. “All the men in my family were sitting around and doing nothing . . . so I said let’s just put a group together.”
Musicality ran in the family. Jones and his siblings grew up in the church and learned to play drums, guitars, keyboards and trombones. Their children and grandchildren picked up instruments around the house and taught themselves how to play.
The band decided on a repertoire focusing on what Jones called “timeless, feel-good music,” such as soul selections by Stevie Wonder and the O’Jays and ’90s songs by Bell Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown. Recently, they added the Pharrell Williams smash “Happy.”
They were an immediate hit playing in downtown Charlotte and at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center there. In less than a year, they decided to try their luck by taking the show on the road.
They squeezed themselves and their dent-laden brass instruments and drum sets into a 2003 Pontiac seven-seater or a 2004 Chevy Suburban. They tried Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, New York. But none of those cities showed as much love as the nation’s capital.
“If we want to have fun, we’ll go to Atlanta,” said Darby Woodard, 31, a trombonist and Jones’s nephew. “If we want to have fun and do well, we come here.”
The day before the band first came to the District, Woodard said, he quit his day job delivering furniture to focus on music. It seemed like a whim then. Now, he said, it seems like fate.
Their first hot spot was Dupont Circle. It was there, they say, that R&B singer Trey Songz hopped out of a limo to listen. The crowd went wild. He put $500 in their bucket.
“I love D.C.!” Woodard remembered thinking.
They tried more spots. It took five minutes before police told them to leave the grounds of the Washington Monument. But then they discovered the eager crowd at Seventh and F streets NW, near Verizon Center.
So each week, they sojourned back to the District. In the past year or so, Woodard said, the group has mastered a routine. The sounds of their instruments blend more easily. They incorporate more local go-go beats. They flirt some with ladies in the crowd.
“People enjoy their music and their energy,” said Ketsia Colimon, spokeswoman for the Mystics. “They seemed like a natural fit.”
The Mystics’ games generally aren’t highly attended — the announced crowd for a game June 13 against the Chicago Sky was 7,198 — but Jones said he and his relatives are grateful. The association with the team gives the band a chance to play in an arena that’s air-conditioned and helps the younger members learn to act more professional.
“Your shorts are going to come out of your pockets,” Mosche Snowden, the 35-year-old lead trombonist, admonished 16-year-old trombonist Addae Tyehimba.
Snowden was threatening to dock Addae’s pay because he was wearing shorts. “You know you have to come in uniform.”
Later, all dressed in red Mystics shirts and blue jeans, they waited for Jones to give the signal to play.
“ ‘Happy!’ ” he yelled, triggering the performance of the popular song during a timeout.
After the game, a Verizon Center staff worker stopped Jones.
“We love you guys!” she said before whispering, “but you’re getting paid, right?”
“Oh, definitely,” Jones assured her. “We wouldn’t keep coming back if we weren’t!”
The band walked to the street corner at Seventh and F, where two women watched a man playing the electric guitar. As it turned out, the women weren’t that interested in him.
“You guys are going to play, right?” one woman asked Brass Connection.
“Money!” Jones shouted, triggering his relatives to start playing the O’Jays song “For the Love of Money.” Drowned out, the guitarist packed up and left. Within five minutes, a group of about 70 had formed a circle around the band.
When the band played Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” a woman started to jump and cry in an emotional release. Following the lyrics’ suggestion, everyone let her do as she pleased. A group of Sikhs walked past the corner, and then turned around.
A woman who had been walking around Gallery Place without shoes picked up her sneakers, which had been on the sidewalk, so she could dance on subway grates without hurting herself.
Another woman seemed uninterested as she sat outside the Metro station, holding a sign asking for money to feed her kids.
During a percussion breakdown, a teenage stranger shook her chest at Joyce Ciotti, 54, from Pittsburgh, who responded in kind. Ciotti’s husband told her they had to leave — it was getting late, and her daughter was getting married the next day.
“Just one more song,” she responded, pushing him away. “Take my hotel key.”
“They’re not from here, but they’re the best band here,” said Antonio Cabbbagestalk, 34, a panhandler who often hangs out around Gallery Place. “I like them because they’re a family. Just like the Jackson 5.”
Different street corners have different personalities. The lunchtime crowd at L’Enfant Plaza was known for being hard to crack — world-famous violinist Joshua Bell once performed there undercover as a part of a Washington Post magazine story and made only $32.17. But Brass Connection eventually got people dancing. The Gallery Place crowd is the most generous but consists mostly of tourists. U Street, meanwhile, has more residents and the loosest audience.
“That’s the Way I Like It!” Jones yelled.
Heather Busam, 44, was walking with her husband, Joe Meade, and his guide dog, Skittle, when the KC & the Sunshine Band cover song began. Meade, who is blind, had an instinctive reaction. He took his wife and started twirling her. Skittle joined in as well, his leash wrapping around his owner’s leg.
Busam gushed over the group.
“They really embody the neighborhood,” she said. “They are young, talented, vibrant. Look at them. It feels so good to have them around.”
A group of teenage dance contortionists heard the sound and started pop-locking. Two women held each other’s arms and started swinging around. Then they formed a dance circle with a familiar face: The sad-looking woman who had been asking for money was now dancing, too. She came with the woman who had been dancing on the grates, now shoeless, and Cabbagestalk, the panhandler.
“We all decided we should walk here,” Cabbagestalk said. After the band left, the streets around Verizon Center seemed a little too boring.