Kismet: The West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band

21 Dec

Can 140 years of Tasmanian tradition be given new life on the West Bank of the Hudson River?

Every year for the past dozen or so years Tony Hicks has put together a brass band to play Christmas tunes, first for the Hamilton Park Ale House, and then when Maggie opened her own place on Newark Street, Tony booked us there, Skinner’s Loft. It was a fun gig. Around 6:30 we’d line up outside on the street and play for half and hour or so. Then we’d come inside, have a beer or two, and play a couple sets in the upstairs dining room. The staff would wear funny Christmas hats and people would sing along with the band.

Good holiday cheer.

This year, alas, for whatever reason, Maggie decided not to do it. We decided, on the contrary, that we’d give her a freebie. Not the whole gig, but out doors on the side walk, we’d do that.

So, after a good half-hour devoted to finding a parking space I enter Skinner’s Loft and see Tony and Ed, another trumpet player, sitting at the bar. I join them and Tony starts telling us about the Latrobe Federal Brass Band, back in Tasmania, where he’s from. Along about the time he gets to telling us about a particularly opinioned character named Scudgy Clayton we decided it was time to play.

So we go outside, set up our music stands, break out our horns—Ed on trumpet, Tony on Euphonium (a $3000 horn he got for $50 in a pawn shop), and me on trumpet, and start playing, Hark the Herald Angels, Jingle Bells, and so forth. Before you know it an eight-year old Vietnamese kid lays a twenty on Ed’s music stand.

Whoa! That never happened before. So we play some more while dreaming of mortgage payments and new shoes and before you know it, another dollar, and another, a quarter, and by the time we’re done, $29.25. All unexpected.

By this time it was raining, not hard, but enough to be annoying. So we pack up, go back inside, lay the $29.25 on the bar, and Tony regales Ed and I with tales of musical daring-do in old Tasmania.

Latrobe was founded in Tasmania in 1826, perhaps by convicts—at least that’s what Tony kept hinting, and the Latrobe Federal Brass Band was founded in 1872. Latrobe’s not much of a place now, less than 3000 people, and maybe half that when the band was founded. They didn’t have radio TV or iTunes back then so they had to make their own music. No doubt the Latrobe Federal Brass Band (hereafter LFBB) was a big part of the town’s musical life.

Latrobe Brass Band
The Latrobe Federal Brass Band, photo from the Archives Office of Tasmania.

As for the name, the Latrobe part is obvious, the Federal part not so obvious. It has nothing to do with government. It was the name of one of the founders. The USofA had the Sousa Band, Tasmania had, and still has, the Latrobe Federal. The illustrious Scudgy Clayton was not, however, impressed with Sousa’s music. “All shell and no guts” he said. “All shell and no guts.”

Scudgy played second horn and is known for playing a single-note line all the way through a tune. Baba bum babe ba,aba bum babe ba,aba bum babe ba…, on the same note all the way through. He’d been playing a side drum part. If you’ve ever seen drum music you know that it’s just rhythms, all noted on a single line. Scudgy played that one note all the way through. Gave the thing a foundation, guts. But Sousa, all shell, no guts.

Tony and his older brother were raised in the band. Tony’s father was secretary of the LFBB, which was the center of his life. Band first, everything else, second, third, fourth etc. Monday nights the band would rehearse; they were sacred nights. Nothing could happen on Monday nights, nothing but LFBB rehearsal. On more than one occasion the weather was canceled so the band could rehearse.

When he was nine or so Tony joined the band on Eb horn. And he’s been with the band ever since, though mostly in absentia the last two decades or so as he’d emigrated to America, which is how he ended up on the West bank of the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey.

As Tony was telling us about Scudgy, about how the band competed with 38 players when the rules only allowed 24, about how they toured Scotland in 1979, Ed announces: “the West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band.” And so it was born, at least as a concept and a dream. Whether or not the West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band will actually materialize beyond playing Christmas music next year, that remains to be seen.

But we’ve got a good start. For the Latrobe Federal Brass Band is the oldest continuously active brass band in Australia—yes, they’ve managed to survive after Tony Hicks deserted them. Heck, we’ve only played one gig, this year at Maggie’s, and we’ve already got 140 years of tradition behind us.

Can’t beat that with a stick.

And while you’re at it, throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate.

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One Response to “Kismet: The West Bank Latrobe Federal Brass Band”

  1. Charlie Keil December 29, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    Took me a while to read the full story, but it sure speaks to the power and truth of traditions. And their transferability from distant shores to nearby watering holes.

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