James Lancaster: New York Brass Band

Alumnus James Lancaster (Wentworth Hall, 1989) shares his favourite tracks with us and  explains how he went from teaching to founding New York Brass Band.

When I was growing up the plan was to be a classical musician. It changed. During the course of my Music degree I converted from being a straight classical musician into a jazz musician. There was a queue of trumpet players and I had to make it in the pecking order. I saw that I was going to spend half my degree waiting for these other guys to graduate before I got a crack at any of the exciting projects. 

In my first year, they had a jazz musician in residence come along and he stayed for a term. That was the sliding door moment where I just thought I’d do something different and I found that I could. In retrospect, being totally honest, at the end of that first year, if I knew that I was going to be a jazz musician, I should really have transferred to Leeds College of Music, where they have more specialist tuition. But I stuck it out at York and I enjoyed it but I’ve had to fill in some of the gaps. 

After I graduated I did a bit of private teaching. I went to Goldsmiths in London to do a PGCE in Music teaching, then I got a teaching job in Leeds, York and then at Ripon Grammar, where I did 10 years as Head of Music.

The band has been running for 12 years now but it started as a lunchtime club for sixth formers at Ripon Grammar.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It was a disaster that the flooding was so terrible and a lot of the musicians put out a cry for help via YouTube: that was when I started to listen to New Orleans jazz – but with a contemporary twist – it’s what the young musicians are playing on the streets of New Orleans. I started to listen to it and thought, ‘You know, nobody’s playing this music in the UK.’ 

I decided to get a lunchtime club for my sixth form jazz musicians and we tried playing some of this music and it was great fun to play. I had about ten sixth formers in the group and we went out and did some busking in York and Harrogate, just to practice and play the tunes. When we started playing, people started coming up to us to ask whether we were available for gigs. As that group of young students moved on to music college, we kept playing. 

After about three years of juggling both, my wife told me that I couldn’t carry on running the band and teaching. So, one of the two things had to go because we were working during the day and then in the evening I was doing all the admin and prep for weddings and gigs. 

“It’s what the young musicians are playing on the streets of New Orleans. I started to listen to it and thought, ‘You know, nobody’s playing this music in the UK.’ 

There were times when I was sending the band out to do jobs during the day but I had to be in school. One day, we were playing the St Ledger (a big race meeting at Doncaster) and I’m ashamed to say that I phoned in sick to school so I could go and play with the band. Look North appeared with their TV cameras and they panned across the champagne lawn. That evening, I saw myself on TV and panicked: that was a significant moment where I thought I can’t carry on doing the two things at the same time. Soon after that incident, I marched into the headmaster’s office and handed in my resignation.

The name is a play on words with York and New York – we’ve been disappointing American tourists for many years.

Over the past 12 years, we’ve had a few changes. Some people have moved away, a small group of them have established their own band. My three kids play in the band as well; my eldest plays the trumpet; the middle one plays the saxophone and sings; and my youngest plays trombone; and my wife plays some gigs too – so there’s a family core. I’ve got a big pool of players (about 30) so when it’s busy in the summer I can turn out two bands. My son will take one band to a wedding and I’ll take another band somewhere else. We’ve played quite a few celebrity weddings, like Danny from McFly’s wedding and Pixie Lott’s wedding.

I’ve taken a 15 to 20 piece band to Glastonbury for the past 6 years and we all play together – it means that I know that everybody knows all the tunes. We are a long way from the pyramid stage but we play in some really cool little corners, where all the old hippies hang out. People know where we are – we’re part of the furniture there now. 

One of the things that I’ve always wanted to do is break down the barrier between the University of York musicians and the musicians in York. On Wednesday nights I run a musicians night at the Phoenix pub, just inside the City walls from the Barbican. I try to encourage the musicians from the city to come down and join in with the old Yorkies and get to know everybody and have a jam session. The ulterior motive is that if anyone is really good, I can get them involved in the band.

“There’s been quite a few similar bands crop up but I think what makes us different is that we’re all jazz musicians so, when we really kick into gear, we can raise it to another level through being altered – really blow some jazz.”

My favourite place to play is Rio de Janeiro. A guy from Doncaster, who plays the trumpet, went over to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and he has never come back. He set up a music school in a favela there as a charity. He works as a teacher during the day but in the evening the kids in the favela come to his music school and he teaches them to play the trumpet and other instruments. In the first year a few of the band went over to Rio to take some instruments out to his charity and to enjoy Carnival – which is amazing.  A year later we took the whole band out and every year we do our fundraising for 12 months, raising money for the charity and then we go out for 10 days. We take out a load of instruments, do some school workshops and work in the favela, then we have Carnival for five days – which is full-on playing and drinking and marching around. We’re planning to go back out again soon because Carnival takes place in February.  There’s a committee that organises the official parades and the police have to be informed of the root of the parades but then people break away and start their own parades. We play in some of the clubs as well. It’s brilliant. 

Before covid we had spent 10 days in Rio. We had just got back off the plane and everybody was talking about Covid. We managed to do Carnival and when we got back here, everything was shut down – all our weddings and gigs were cancelled. We were only doing online videos for a few weeks. It seems to be the way most musicians handled the time. During Covid we played at some socially distanced street parties where somebody would book us and we would rock up at a cul-de-sac, everybody would come out to their doors with a bottle of wine and we’d play a twenty minute set. 

There’s been quite a few similar bands crop up but I think what makes us different is that we’re all jazz musicians so, when we really kick into gear, we can raise it to another level through being altered – really blow some jazz. 

“Sometimes I sit back and think how the band has changed people’s lives – it’s quite amazing.”

Five Favourite Tracks 

  1. Sexual Healing – Hot Eight Brass Band

This track reminds me of starting the band. One of the biggest New Orleans bands are Hot Eight Brass Band and their version of ‘Sexual Healing’ is pretty well known, it’s an entry-level tune into what New Orleans music is all about. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve been over to New Orleans a couple of times and had drinks with Hot Eight Brass Band –  they’re really nice. 

  1. 504 – Soul Rebels 

504 is the area code for New Orleans. My two sons and I are going to go out to New Orleans to live there for two months in March and April. I’m using my leftover funds from retirement as a teacher. I thought, 

‘Shall I just sit on it or shall I just blow it?’ 

My eldest son was studying at Leeds College of Music during Covid and he ended up doing a lot of studying online rather than doing what you should be doing at music college. So I thought that this was a fitting way to finish off his education by going to the place where jazz was invented; hanging out with the musicians who are actually doing it now. My two sons are very sociable musicians so I know that they will go out and they will meet all these guys and end up jamming with them and getting places to play. 

  1. Get The Party Started – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

They are another family band, about eight of them and they’re all brothers. The tune I’ve chosen is ‘Party started’. They are a really cool band from Chicago. The family link is a big part of what I like and we’ve bumped into them at festivals. We were with them at the Isle of Wight Festival, it was three o’clock in the morning – we were covered in glitter – and we bumped into them walking home from their gig – they’re really friendly.

  1. The Wolf I Feed – Napalm Death

Napalm Death were onstage after us at a festival. They give the impression of being the most evil metal band on the circuit. Their songs only last about 30 seconds and they’re very energetic. We met them backstage and they’re all so friendly and nice – drinking cups of herbal tea – and then they went on stage in front of this massive crowd of people all just going crazy. 

  1.  Descobridor dos Sete Mares – Tim Maia

We learnt this song when we were in Rio because Tom, our friend from Rio said, 

‘If you learn to play this tune, everybody will go crazy.’

So we learnt to play it and everybody went absolutely crazy! But when we play it in the UK nobody gets it at all but we love it so much that we still play it. 

Our trombone player who’s been out to Rio three times married a Brazilian girl, who he met via the band when we were out there. They struck up a long distance relationship and she came over to the UK – they got married a few months ago.

Sometimes I sit back and think how the band has changed people’s lives – it’s quite amazing.

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