Rob Smith’s History of Wonderbrass

Wonderbrass was created through the amalgamation of two projects that I had a hand in initiating. Firstly in 1987, along with Jess Phillips I took over the tutorrole of the (WJS) Welsh Jazz Society’s Jazz Workshop, refocusing its energies upon the creation of a performing unit rather than a rehearsing one. This became the WJS Workshop Band, consciously named after Charles Mingus’ work and recordings at the ‘Jazz Workshop’. Secondly in 1992, again with Jess Phillips and this time also with Denise Lord, I was awarded funding to hold a series of ten weekly workshops resulting in the creation of The Taff Ely Streetband, which was to perform at community carnivals around the South Wales Valleys as part of the National Garden Festival’s final fling in the depressed communities of the United Kingdom in Ebbw Vale.

These two bands continued to run alongside each other for a couple of years. WJS withdrew the funding for the Workshop Band and it struggled along on weekly contributions for a while, whereas the Taff-Ely Band decided at the end of the initial summer-long project, to apply for funding from the local authority to continue the project and this subsequent award gave it the resources to continue its development until it was creating enough of its own income through performances to be self-sufficient.

In 1994 the WJS Workshop Band had more or less withered on the vine and the Taff-Ely band was going from strength to strength under a strong committee. At this point it was decided to amalgamate the two bands under the new name of Wonderbrass, hold rehearsals in Pontypridd and forge ahead with the inclusive and performance-oriented philosophy. That the band members who were Cardiff residents could be persuaded to travel up to Pontypridd every Tuesday night is a tribute to the strength of the project there.

Wonderbrass has been through numerous personnel, leadership, committee- member, musical and artistic changes but continues to be strong today. It has adapted to changing conditions in order to survive but retains a core philosophy that runs through its 29 year history, initially a philosophy shared by its instigators but latterly, in 2006, the band sat down and worked out its own priorities and preferred way of operating, creating a mission statement and a set of musical, social and administrative priorities.

The series of meetings that led to the creation of the ‘mission statement’ took place across three Tuesday night sessions (replacing regular rehearsals) in September 2006. Discussion groups were formed to talk about various aspects of the band’s activities such as repertoire, performances, special projects with other artists, travel and accommodation etc. Three priorities were adopted at a final plenary session:

1. The band seeks to promote the idea that musical excellence is not the sole domain of musical professionals, and as such needs to strive for excellence in performance. So that it can market itself professionally and, by doing, so have a sustainable development plan.

2. The band needs to focus on its outdoor, acoustic and street performances to raise these to a level of excellence alongside stage and theatre based performances.

3. The band wishes to remain inclusive and for set periods of time each year (usually autumn to spring) will make itself open to new members. A fourth priority was acknowledged but not listed which was to seek opportunities to collaborate with other artists in order to learn and grow as a band, to develop repertoire and to experience other artists’ approaches to working with, or even leading, the band.

Improvisation within Wonderbrass

Musical improvisation has frequently been viewed as liberating for the performer and listener. Rightly or wrongly it is viewed as an authentic, unmediated form of musical expression and the idea of learning to improvise has attracted many of Wonderbrass’ members to the band in a search for spontaneous musical expression.

There are many forms of musical improvisation that range across most forms and expressions of music; improvisation in such music can range from utterly solo improvisation, one player soloing alone with reference to no other player; ‘soloing’ whilst other players hold down a repetitive or pre-arranged structure as a kind of ‘platform’ or reference grid for the single improviser; or group improvisation where there are several players improvising at the same time with the whole imaginable spectrum of degrees of reference to each other in performance. Examples of the above would be, firstly the solo free improvising of solo saxophonists Lol Coxhill, Steve Lacy or Evan Parker, secondly the traditional small band jazz prevalent across the world now and typified by one horn (solo wind instrument) and rhythm section (drums, bass, piano or guitar)iv, and finally traditional New Orleans or Dixieland jazz (clarinet, trumpet and trombone plus a rhythm section).

Jam sessions, frequently the model for post-be-bop workshops, ‘cutting sessions’ and even gigs or concerts, have often been portrayed as testing and proving grounds for competitive improvisers trying to establish their technical and physical superiority over rivals. There is a portrayal of one such session in Clint Eastwood’s film Bird (1988) where a young Charlie Parker is forced from the bandstand by having a cymbal thrown at him by the band’s drummer. Because of the formalisation of such sessions as places where unknown players ‘prove themselves’ up against experienced rhythm sections, they might also be viewed as examples where the least listening happens on a jazz bandstand. (Monson, 1996: 83-4) George Lewis in his book on the history of the association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) posits an alternative view of the cutting session:

‘While the jam session was indeed a competitively based system of authority and virtuosity, Ellison’s protocapitalist, social Darwinist framing of the jam session system seems undercut by accounts that speak of communal generosity rather than shaming.’ Lewis 2008: 21

Lewis goes on to show how from such a socially ambiguous musical culture as the late nineteen fifties Chicago jazz scene there emerged an African-American co-operative of musicians working together in Chicago that advanced a sense of pride in African-American heritage as well as a resistance to the economically and socially constraining hegemony of the USA in the nineteen sixties. The life and work of composer and bandleader Sun Ra serves as another, but different, model of jazz co-operation. Having a big band operating as a collective in times when big bands themselves were economically unviable and thus rare, Ra’s take on black arts and politics is a radical departure that resulted in some blistering collective musical expressions.

Asserting a cultural and political identity through musical expression extends beyond blackness and African heritage, however. Whilst maybe lacking the cutting edge provided by resisting oppression in a racist society, almost an apartheid society until the nineteen sixties, white people in Europe have appropriated, or adopted, improvised and collective creative musical forms to assert, variously, national identities within jazz and left-wing political ideas, as well as exploring the therapeutic powers of the processes of making music together.

British free jazz drummer and composer John Stevens put together and published in 1976 a ‘workshop manual’ of concepts, exercises and pieces aimed at facilitating creative participation in group music-making. The title of the collection is indicative; Search and Reflect. Initially running music sessions with prisoners and people with mental illnesses, Stevens expanded his concept and ambition to create an inclusive methodology for group music-making which embraced everyone and both celebrated and liberated the innate musicality in all its participants. He is fairly clear in his introduction to the collection that music has therapeutic and other social benefits:

Another important part of the process of learning about music is learning how to participate in a group. One function of the workshop pieces is to encourage confidence and independence in the participants, showing that everyone can have a creative role in the music that the group is making. Stevens 1976:2

Further to this notion of a liberating participation in an open compositional or improvisational strategy, musician and philosopher Brian Eno wrote on the embodiment of political or organisational structures in musical forms via his participation in the Scratch Orchestra’s performances of Cornelius Cardew’s composition ‘The Great Learning, Paragraph Seven’:

‘I should point out that implicit in the score is the idea that it may be performed by any group of people (whether or not trained to sing)…the composer, instead of ignoring or subduing the variety generated in the performance, has constructed the piece so that this variety is really the substance of the music.’ Eno 1996:335-339

Whilst examining the notion of the resistance to genre and the commodification of music, using improvisation as a creative strategy, the writings of two British improvisers and writers, Derek Bailey and Edwin Prevost, are widely influential.

For Bailey improvisation is a way of exploring the possibilities of one’s instrument, including non-standard playing techniques, as well as a way of resisting genre. This may inspire many improvisers to push through conventional approaches to conventional instruments in order to find one’s own sound or personal voice. Bailey’s body of theory, as expounded in both his book and a 1992 Channel Four 4-part documentary series, is useful in articulating the primacy of improvised procedure as a form of musical expression, but also is limited by its focus on individual exploration and the quest for a unique and individual musical voice. (Bailey 1993).

On one level Prevost would seem to back Eagleton’s idealistic notion of the ‘good life’ as being at the heart of collective improvisation:

[T]hey all speak of a particular human aspiration: to live in cooperative productive harmony with fellow human beings. Readers will note that I suggest that we can rehearse – and experiment with – this ethic through the medium of making music together. (Prevost 2004:3) But later in the same book, Minute Particulars, Prevost seems disillusioned with the current state of improvised music, maintaining that:

‘Improvised music as a setting of a communitarian art form is receding. It is not retreating from this position. It is being pushed. But in my view communitarianism is a necessary intellectual and emotional environmental condition for the creation, maintenance and evolution of a civil society, and likewise for improvised music. The formulation of theory and the development through practice in music is, I think, through the joint analytical propositions of dialogue and heurism…’ (Prevost 2004:10-11).

Prevost’s faith in creative music-making is broadly echoed in a recent article published in volume 3 number 2 of the International Journal of Community Music. In an article titled Developing social capital; a role for music education and community music in fostering civic engagement and intercultural communication.

Patrick M. Jones posits that :

‘… performing music and participating in musical events as an amateur and for recreation can provide exactly the kind of opportunities and ways in which weak ties [connections with people outside our immediate family, friends andcolleagues] and bridging social capital [connecting us to people unlike ourselves] are developed. Music serves as a perfect mediating space for people of different groups and musicking not only develops a sense of shared identity and intercultural understanding, but also can teach skills for democratic action such as leading and following, debate, compromise and so forth.’ (Jones 2010:295)

Teaching improvisation and iteration is frequently a hybrid methodology of jazz theory, scales and chords and so forth, and free playing to eliminate music- theory barriers to musical iteration. The reconciliation of these two procedures in various degrees of one or the other is one solution to the thorny issue of teaching improvisation. I have used this area between theory and free iteration to create a set of exercises for facilitating improvisation. But of equal importance to this input from myself is the interaction between members of the band, the mutual encouragement and the critical listening to each other’s improvising, including my own. With Wonderbrass we have created the conditions for learning improvisation and these conditions are vital for people to do the risky experimental work of improvising through which they can refine their style. In The Philosophy of Improvisation Gary Peters describes Heidigger’s philosophical practice, which Peters regards as improvisatory, as ‘the performative dimension of his ontological project…’ which ‘presents us not just with a text but with a method of progressing that constitutes a teaching’. (Peters 2009:150) The process of ‘progressing’ for Wonderbrass has been enriched through projects and collaborations with higher profile players such as Claude Deppa and Jason Yarde.

The creation of the conditions for experiment, risk-taking and learning are probably as important as any other more direct input from the leader in the process of learning to improvise or improving one’s improvising skills and repertoire. In Wonderbrass we try and create and reinforce these conditions by group exercises whereby, for example, one player will improvise a short melody within a certain mode (selected because it is a useful improvising tool in a piece we are working on), and the rest of the band will try and play it back to them instantly. It is explained to the participants that strong, clear melodies are easier to hear and play back to the improviser, and it is the improviser’s duty in this exercise to assist others by being clear and not to try to trip up the rest of the band.

However, as the exercise progresses, the improvised phrases can and will become more adventurous and more testing to play back. Another example of this reinforcement, and drawing new members into a listening and improvising culture is to have sections create backing lines behind a soloist.

This is particularly effective in acoustic and street work where there may not necessarily be a harmony instrument present and textures behind soloists are apt to be sparse. Likewise the improvisation in Wonderbrass tends to blend with and complement these backing riffs. Whilst we try iteration and exploration as a  way of freeing up the player to create, the improvisations we end up with are context sensitive, a contribution to a collective way of playing together that aspires to the conditions outlined in the Eagleton quote above.

In this study I am trying to find out exactly what personal benefits people gain through participating in Wonderbrass. I will also be asking whether the fact that this participation is creative, through improvisation and contribution to composition and arrangements, adds value to the experience of participation in the band, and therefore music in general.

Heritage Lottery Fund project 2017-2019:

WB25 (Wonderbrass at Twenty-Five (an archive project.

The aims of this project were:

1. To celebrate the fact that we’ve been around for 25 years.

2. To capture key moments and events in our history and document them for posterity but to carry them forward into our future activities

3. To create new work based on our archive so that archive will not be a historical phenomenon but a repository of knowledge and experience that we and others can draw on in the future.

We commissioned new pieces from myself, Nick Briggs (who joined the band at 15 and stayed for seven years, then went on to work as a professional musician and teacher in Berlin and London) and Claude Deppa (who has been a friend, collaborator and inspiration to the band since 1990 – and yes that is before Wonderbrass started but not its prototypes and predecessors – I can confidently state that Wonderbrass would not exist in its current form without Claude’s encouragement and generosity of spirit).

We showcased these pieces at a concert on 20 th October 2018, and recorded them and released them in September 2019 on CD and, in a shorter version, on 12” vinyl EP.

The videos of interviews with past and present members of the band are in the public domain.


Wonderbrass, after a difficult summer in 2006, used a couple of rehearsals to discuss, in small focus groups what its priorities should be. Out of that came the idea that one of the things we would like to prove to as many people as we were able was that excellence is not the sole domain of professional musicians. We took this to mean that we had to be as good as we could possibly be, behave and perform professionally when we were being paid and never under-perform, whatever the size of the audience. This applies even if there are fewer people in the audience than in the band. One of our self-deprecating slogans is ‘Outnumbering audiences since 1992’.

Striving for this has made it harder for people to join and catch up with the band and some of the projects we have run have seen a few faithful members walk away from the band, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. This has been difficult and painful for a band that seeks to maintain an ethos of accessibility and facilitation. In our interview, Ex-member 3 suggested there be two versions of the band, an access and training band and a professional standard performing band, with overlap between. My answer has been to declare periods, usually September to Easter, when we are open to new members and the emphasis is on inclusion, but those members are not invited to perform in gigs until their section leader is happy that they know the music well enough. The committee take the view that the maintenance and delivery of quasi-professional performance standards is necessary for the sustainability of the band, meaning it is able to raise all its own running costs by charging performance fees to promoters and institutions who know they will get musical excellence from the band.

So the band maintains its status as an inclusive musical structure whilst maintaining quasi professional performance standards. The compositions and arrangements in our repertoire are also models of inclusive musical structure as musical pieces. They have facilitated performances with other ensembles, from different musical traditions or cultures, they have created space for participation via improvisation, they build around band members’ existing skills and they build bridges with new audiences. I have attempted to show, in this essay, how community engagement in music making can enrich peoples’ lives; those who involve themselves in the music-

making itself but, beyond that, partners and family members, friends and audiences beyond. The contemporary phenomenon of ‘consuming’ culture rather than participating in and contributing to it may have its limits. It may not be a healthy or democratic state of affairs, and anyway, who wants only off the shelf cultural products where all the work has been done for us. Obviously many do: the proliferation of ready-meals, TV sport, pay-to-view films and even homes to rent that are as instantly habitable as hotel suites are all evidence of this off-the- shelf culture. Many either reject this, or they use it but also participate in a more sustainable culture when it suits them: they play sport, they write, paint, go to dance classes and pick up an instrument and participate. In working with such cultural participants artists can become leaders of such activities. We can become facilitators of cultural participation. We can create the circumstances where participation is necessary, desired and where people learn through taking part. They can grow, diversify and be so much more than the work they are paid to do, or the family responsibilities they willingly honour, important and rewarding though these activities can be. It is the choice to participate, given the opportunity, in creative activity, which is important here. Professional artists can become, if only as part of what they do, community arts leaders: teachers who can create the circumstances where learning and taking part happens. Beyond this however, I have attempted to demonstrate that creating structures that encourage or even require creative input from participants adds value to the experience of cultural participation. For some art forms where ensemble work is the norm, such as theatre, dance and music, this can be a challenge. But it is a challenge worth engaging with because of the value it adds to the experience of participation and the greater sense of ownership it can engender in active participants. My strategy for this has been to devise inclusive musical structures both at ensemble level and at the level of musical materials (compositions). Other artists seeking to lead community arts projects will devise their own solutions. I believe the goal of participatory art is to give the tools for creative participation to the people taking part. If people are to compose music, they need access to the means of production, whether human or mechanical, and the creative tools and theoretical understanding to shape their ideas and communicate them to others.

The tension between excellence and inclusivity that the inclusive approach, alongside the concomitant commitment to aspiring to musical excellence, appears to be one the majority of the members of the band are prepared to live out. There are practicing community musicians for whom the performance-focus of Wonderbrass would exclude it from their definition of ‘Community Music’ with its focus on process over product. But for me Community Music is a broad church that facilitates participation in a wide range of ways, and Wonderbrass sits happily at the high performance end of the community music spectrum. There are other ways of democratizing the band such as encouraging its members to write and arrange for it, learning to improvise (a strange and endless journey) and allowing members to direct the band, all of which happen but detailed examination of these activities lies outside the scope of this submission.

There is strong evidence that the band values my compositions and arrangements. As one band member says, “I think that because he wrote them for Wonderbrass they are perhaps the songs that work best for Wonderbrass”. The compositions add value to the experience of being in the band because nobody else plays them. They can be designed to show the band in its best light, to test the band and improve it in certain ways, and members can be in a form of dialogue with the pieces as they improvise within them or on them. So they form a part of the ‘member of Wonderbrass’ identity. ‘They [RS’s compositions] are like Wonderbrass really. That is the thing isn’t it? They are like Wonderbrass. So yeah it works well!’ (Interview with band member).

The pursuit of excellence has precipitated some uncomfortable breaks with valued members of the organization. This has proved a challenge to the inclusive identity of the band but it has proved a positive challenge to those who have worked hard to stay with the band. In 2012 we commissioned Jason Yarde to write a twelve-minute piece for us a part of the Performing Right Society’s 20×12 scheme of commissioning twenty composers to write twelve-minute compositions for twenty professional and amateur performers, often in combination. Jason’s piece was by some considerable distance the most ambitious, complex and technically demanding piece we have ever played. It uses sections polyphonically (as opposed to having all the members of a section play one line). It explores polyrhythmic sounds in asymmetrical time signatures such as 11/4. It has very concise solo sections.

It has very intricate passages played at breakneck speeds. The process of learning and performing it has raised the technical ability of the band as a whole noticeably over a short period of time. It can now enter our repertoire as a benchmark piece of quality and technical accomplishment. Pieces I have included as case studies in this submission, as well as others I’ve written in the past but not included here, have also set more modest technical challenges for the band, but ones that I have used to build techniques and confidence. One member talked of their fear on confronting the fast saxophone line in Midnight Sun:

‘Midnight Sun I really like…was one which really scared the hell out of me to start with but then when I started playing it more and more, like I can’t actually read the music for it any more. If I try and read the music I just get really confused and I still fuck up on the fingerings sometimes but I really like Midnight Sun. And I think it sounds great as well. When I’ve heard it in gigs when I haven’t been playing, it’s one that the audience seem to like as well. ‘ (interview with Band Member)

So the members of the band that understand the importance of the journey join in a collective, but also an individual journey of musical exploration and technical development; a journey towards the goal of musical excellence that the band agrees is one of its goals. But this personal journey is undertaken very publicly and it feels to many members of the band as if their journey is being writ large, its key moments enacted upon a giant stage:

E-mail from band member to the whole band on 16/07/2012: ‘It was such a buzz being part of the weekend – the chance to play the Southbank was for me an opportunity of a lifetime – beyond anything I’d imagined could happen 3 years ago “BW£ (Before Wonderbrass)’

Another member: ‘My best memory is playing at Brecon with Amampondo. It was a boiling hot August night with hundreds of people there and it was electric. I think it was 2005 or 2004. And it was really good, I think that’s my best bit.’

A third member: ‘I think, for me, when I’m playing with Wonderbrass, I feel probably more alive than when I’m doing anything else really. There’s a sort of sense of vitality about it. It’s more than just the playing (…) It’s not just about what I do, it’s about what we do.’

So for many in the band it is a dramatic and rewarding journey towards something many of them hadn’t envisaged. The band’s power, as an inclusive musical structure in itself, is its ability to deliver that for its members. I wrote a little about politics at the beginning of this submission. To me it is the way that the band is organized and the way that the people in it deal with each other within the band that is a political model, because that is what politics is; it is the way people behave towards each other and at its best it is almost like a little model of an ideal society in itself, if such a thing as an ideal society ever existed. The band constitutes a political entity in itself and empowers its members to celebrate their musicality and musical skills.