Brass Queens, is a Brooklyn-based, New Orleans-inspired, all-female brass band. Great musicians with a great story!
Dan Gosling: Hey everyone. It’s Dan, The ChopSaver Guy doing something a little different today. We’re doing a zoom chat with the Brass Queens or the founders of the Brass Queens. I’m here with Ally Chapel and Alex Harris. And they have an amazing group. You guys are based in Brooklyn, correct?
Alex and Ally: Yep. Mm-Hmm
Dan: And you are essentially an all-female New Orleans-style brass band.
Alex Harris: That’s right.
Dan: Accurate enough?
Ally Chapel: Yup.
Dan: And I don’t know, a couple months ago, they, we connected on Instagram because of ChopSaver. They are now huge ChopSaver fans, which is super cool. And then it was, we talked a little bit, I said, you know, you guys have a really cool story. This might be fun to just talk about your band, the beginnings of it, what you guys are doing and let’s record it and share it with people. So that’s what we’re doing. So welcome to my studio, my office, and I’m welcomed into your home studio as well. So I’m just going to start with how did you guys start? How did the Brass Queens come into existence?
Alex: You wanna take this one?
Ally: You can start it.
Alex: Okay. Ally and I met in a community band in Brooklyn. We’re both from other places in the country, made our way to New York City and met playing music. We were a part of a leadership team of this organization and just came to the realization that we wanted to do something for ourselves. And we wanted to do something with all the great women that we were meeting in this community band. And we just noticed, like, you know, it doesn’t feel like such a safe space to, you know, grow as a musician when there’s a lot of men around. In our experience, there’s a lot of, you know, really welcoming male musicians out there. But we just wanted a more inclusive space. So we were getting our nails done one day <laugh> and we decided, you know, let’s just do it. So we sent out a group text to all the ladies that we knew, and we were like, “Hey, do you want to do this?” And everyone was like, “Yes!” And what, how many people was it at that point? It’s
Ally: Like 12 or 14.
Alex: Yeah. It was a lot, it was a, it was a large group. And so then we went back to my house and started arranging music right away. And we had our,
Ally: Yeah. That day!
Alex: Yeah. We had our first rehearsal just a few days after that. And the rest is really history!
So we just celebrated our third anniversary actually this past March, which is the first time we’ve been able to celebrate because of COVID.
Dan: Right, right. Yeah. Yeah. So this started March of 2019. So, a year before COVID.
Dan: And then the last two years we’ve been dealing with COVID. So, tell me you were part of another band. What was that also a kind of a New Orleans-style, brass band gathering of people?
Alex: Yup. It’s called L Train Brass Band. It’s like a hundred plus musicians community band in Brooklyn playing all around the city. New York City, Brooklyn, Queens.
Ally: Yeah. And we actually were you know, because we, we came together with the original founders to create like turn it into a nonprofit. So now it serves a lot of adults who are either, you know, have moved to New York City and looking for community or adults who want to get back into playing. There’s a guy in the band now who hasn’t picked up his trumpet in 30 years. But he’s back at it. So it’s a great community and something we we’re still active in. You know, making sure it keeps running.
Dan: So that organization’s still is active. It’s still there.
Dan: So this, your group kind of grew out of that.
Alex: Yes. Mm-hmm
Alex: It’s a baby band.
Dan: Were all, were all the members, Brass Queens also members of that or did you kind of expand out?
Ally: Originally, yes. But we work with all types of all different musicians from the music scene in New York. I say it like it’s a collective, but it’s not. People have found us and express interest and we have a core group of musicians that we play with. It’s seven horns and those are the seven horns and a lot of our musical style and identity is because of those players and a lot of what we do and how we arrange for ourselves is based on the sound and the abilities of the people that you know are in our group.
Dan: So yeah, that was kind of, one of my next questions is, is Brass Queens, is it a concept? Meaning, people can come and go or is it is a lot of subbing or is it kind of a, does it need to be more of a set membership? And it almost sounds like at least right now, the way you’re arranging things, it’s kind of based on the current personalities, is that accurate?
Alex: Yeah, it definitely is. I think one of the strengths of our band is that each and every like member is very committed to the band. So we don’t have subs a lot of the time. And everyone in the band is like 100% a Brass Queen. It’s part of their identity. You know, even when they play another band, it’s like Brass Queens is my band. They really have ownership over it. That means it’s easy for us to, you know, have rehearsals every week to learn new music, to have that commitment from everyone. So that we can just like, just gig after gig after gig, like it’s, there’s no scrambling. Yeah. And I really appreciate that. I hear from other band leaders, like, God, it’s so hard to get people to come play or like commit to a gig and I’m like, we just don’t have that problem.
Dan: That’s great. Yeah. That’s awesome. So the instrumentation is what?
Ally: It’s three trumpets. Alto (saxophone), tenor (saxophone), trombone, sousaphone. And then depending on the situation, if we’re mobile or if it’s really a New Orleans specific gig, we’ll do the traditional two style drummers with a snare and bass drum or we’ll have someone on drum set, so it can be an eight or nine piece.
Dan: And all female?
Ally: All female horns. Sometimes we have guys on drums.
Dan: Oh, okay.
Ally: That’s the only that’s the only one
Alex: We have our pair of jacks is we lovingly call them our pair of jacks.
Dan: Oh, nice.
Alex: And we are Brooklyn’s own, you know New Orleans duo for drumming. So, they’re our snare and bass drummer.
Ally: Yeah. And they’re so good at what they do.
Alex: They just click together so well it’s…
Ally: They actually, you know, they learned and grew in that the original band that we mentioned, L Train Brass Band, like, you know, we were all new to this style and we all put in so much work researching and listening and honing all of our abilities in the genre. So we really, you know, it would’ve been a shame not to, you know, expand upon that. So we brought that into our own thing.
Alex: Yeah. Even The Pinettes have a male drummer, so, we think it’s OK.
Dan: Who has a male drummer?
Alex: The Pinettes, The Original Pinettes. It’s like the original all-female brass band from New Orleans.
Dan: Oh, right. Yeah. Well, I’m sure you guys know history that a lot of us don’t, aren’t even aware of, which is, which is I’m sure part of what you’re trying to do is keep something alive, but remind people, hey, this came from something and that we, you know, this is not totally brand new.
Alex: We tried to do our due diligence and like all the credit in the world to the musicians in New Orleans. We’re not trying to copy or anything. We’re just trying to like pay our respects to that style.
Ally: It’s actually very fitting we’re talking to you, it’s actually 504 Day in New Orleans today.
Dan: Oh right! So, tell me about the New Orleans connection. Are there some of you from there or is this just something you all grew to love? Because obviously there’s people all over the world that love New Orleans style jazz, and don’t necessarily never, maybe never even have been there. A) Are any of you from there? B) Have any of you visited?
Ally: No, not from there. I actually really wanted to go to school down there. But it didn’t work out. But we do travel there every year except for during COVID. So we, we make sure to, you know, be there and experience the music and really we’ve made so many friends. Like we have direct lines with musicians there and, you know, we collaborate with them often. We host them when they’re in town. So it’s a really collaborative community. And other brass bands too, around New York. They kind of, I feel like whenever they come to New York, they learn a little bit more of the, you know, New Orleans community kind of through the people here because everyone is so invested. That’s pretty cool.
Dan: So tell me about the members background. Are you, are you, did everyone come from like a university background or, or more of a, just on their own kind of training? What that like?
Alex: I think it’s a combination. Like we all played through school. Some people throughout college. I didn’t. No one was like a straight up music major. I think one of our trumpets like minored in music. Did you minor in music?
Alex: And Ally! But yeah, we, we all sort of did that. And then I took a break personally for like seven years. And didn’t play until like a couple years after I moved back to, or moved to New York City. So we all found our way back to music in a way.
Ally: But some of our members now are professional musicians. Our tuba player, she’s a professional. She plays in a few different touring bands including ours and our trombone player has played professionally meaning like she didn’t have another job at the time. So yeah, definitely this band has given people a lot of opportunities as we were able to grow.
Dan: And you guys both play what?
Alex: I play trumpet.
Ally: And I’m alto sax.
Dan: Okay. So do you want this, I mean, you talked about some of them being full time musicians. Do you want this band to be full time? Could it be full-time? Do you want it to be, what, how busy do you want this to be? How big do you want this to get?
Ally: I mean, there’s one answer to the question is we’ll never stop growing and we’ll never stop pushing. You know, we do face like some burnout issues already. You know, the really busy times between like, you know, big shows and venue shows and then a lot of the private stuff that we’re doing. And then there’s like one off like kind of that’s maybe not our music, but we’re hired to really like, you know, craft an experience like, especially between the months of May and October, we can be really, really busy. So it’s kind of on the group and we’re really sensitive because we are the same musicians each time. Like we said, we have a like a core roster. It’s on those people to show up and say yes, and everyone wants great things for the group. And everyone knows that the more we do the more we’re going to go places. I guess that’s kind of a conversation we kind of take, you know, year by year, month by month as we do grow. But everyone’s kind of managing to do what they want to do and, you know, be really involved in this at the same time.
Alex: Right. Yeah. I mean, we, we all have careers outside of playing music as well. So we are doing like, first of all, we’re bosses at our job, you know, boss ladies. And we’re like a hundred percent of our time outside of work we’re like committed to the music.
Ally: Yeah. It’s like, we have, we say we have like two full time jobs. Cause we don’t do anything else. We just have this band and, and then you know.
Alex: Yeah. But if, if we could quit our jobs, like we were making enough money to do that. Yeah, maybe. But like, does, do you lose the magic when it’s like not a choice anymore?
Alex: That’s the question.
Dan: Yeah. Well, and that’s the question that all musicians kind of face, I think, and you see it. I mean, I’ve, I was a freelance musician for 30 plus years. I spend most of my time with ChopSaver now. But I saw the progression of, Hey, you know, I’m in a, I’m in a brass quintet, or I’m doing solo things. I helped found this orchestra, you know, a chamber orchestra here in Indianapolis, all things that I’ve done. And then I also played a lot with more established orchestras, like Indianapolis or the Cincinnati Symphony or what have you. And I could see the different levels of I don’t know if it’s burnout or if it’s just a comfort level or a lack of wanting to do anything outside their bubble, you could kind of see people that, that youthful spirit that it takes to want to be a musician that “go for it” attitude can get it can, it can, you can lose that.
You can, you can get burned out with the stress of performing or the, the infrequency of jobs or just the stress of, of being a performer. You know, we don’t go into it to be rich, obviously. Very few of us make a lot of money as musicians. We do it because we love it. And then once that love becomes a job or becomes not as fun, that’s a conversation a lot of people have to have. And some people find a way to get back into it. Some people are comfortable with that new level and other people, you know, I’ve done that. I’m going to try something else. So I think that’s very, you guys are speaking to all those things. That’s all part of the, you look at something like Canadian Brass. I mean obviously an iconic group. I think there’s still just the one original member who happens to be the tuba player.
He still loves what he does. He still loves it, but he’s had so many people come and go. And that’s a group where they had to accommodate coming and going and people, people not being, you know, around forever. But you guys are just, you know, three years into it. It’s exciting to see where it could go and what you guys want to do. And still you’re already having those conversations about how do we manage this? How do we make sure it still is fun? It’s still fresh. We’re not demanding too much from each other. So tell me about the other without going to real specifics. What other, what kind of careers are conducive to the music making on the side, if you will. Are you, are they teachers, are they, are you freelancers? Are you driving for Uber or what, what does that look like?
Ally: Well, I think one of the most interesting ones is our trombonist. She was one of the, she left her full-time job to, you know, do music full-time and then actually during the pandemic, she followed her passion of being an arborist. So she, she hangs out in the trees all day and then shows up to rehearsal, freshly showered, you know. So that’s, that’s really great. She’s doing what she loves on in both regards.
I work for the American Symphony Orchestra. So I actually left a career that I had built in fine art. I moved from New York to this from Denver to New York to be in the fine art world. And I left that to be, you know, in music full time and be available, you know, to play. And so I’ve, you know, really flexible, you know, work schedule, but I’ve since grown to the top of that. And so I’m kind of running that now. But I love, you know, being in music full time. And then one of our other trumpet players is in publishing. And then the other one is in a creative arts field as well. So everyone’s pretty, you know, in line with passion projects.
Alex: Not me so much! I work for a startup-ish type company. I will, it is sort of aligned with my passion. It’s Meetup. But it’s all about building community. It’s actually the platform we all met on. That brass band, the community L Train Brass Band was formed on Meetup. So I have a passion for the company in that regard. But like one of the few benefits of the pandemic is that I went to working remotely full time. And so that just provides you with so much flexibility in how you want to structure your day.
Ally: Like running a 70-minute set in the middle of a workday!
Alex: I know.
Alex: We’ve got to put some time on our calendar for that.
Dan: Yeah. So was there a goal when you first started out or was it just like, hey, this sounds like fun. We love this music. Let’s see what happens.
Ally: I just was going to say like Alex and I are not the type of people to just do something for fun. We have fun, but we’re like, we’re so even if we don’t know what the defined goal is, we’re always pushing. Like, we always know like kind of where to look for the next step. And we’re always trying to get there, even if we don’t know what the end thing is, we know that like, you know, a ladder needs climbing. It’s one rung after the other. And that goes from the sound to like brand to the business, to, you know, taking care of our people everything. So we’re still, you know, climbing that ladder
Dan: Yeah, yeah.
Alex: I mean the immediate goal when we started the band was providing us space for us to play with the other women that we knew. And you know, it was a novelty, oh, you know, all female band that’s so cool. You never see that. And like, we don’t even like advertise that so much anymore because like, we’re not just, that doesn’t define us anymore. We are first and foremost, a great brass band that you should want to listen to and, and hire. And it just so happens that we’re mostly women. And I really love that we’ve gotten to this place where we can be looked at for the product we’re producing, rather than like who’s making it.
Ally: And we’ve gotten to this level where, you know, the gigs we have to offer, if we do have to sub things out, you know, we can call in someone who’s on Broadway and say like, you know, this is a good gig and they’ll want it. We’re at this space, we’re at a, in a place where that space is created for, you know, professional women in the industry who don’t normally get all the opportunities offered to them, but we only have those opportunities to give. So it’s really cool to be able to have created something that provides for someone else when we have the opportunity.
Dan: Sure. That’s awesome. Who writes your stuff? Who does your arranging? All of you or do you have other people do it for you? Is it, are they, is there lot it improvised or do you have charts? What does that look like?
Alex: It’s a combo. So most of our arranging is done in house. So me, Ally does stuff. Actually I would say just about everyone in the band has arranged at least one song. We also do a lot of learning by ear. It’s the New Orleans tradition. So we, that’s something that we really try to do. And it’s great because it’s you learn a song and then you’ve got it memorized! You got it already. Like, we just learned a song last week on Tuesday and or Wednesday. And then we performed it on Saturday. And it was just like, yeah, cool. We got it. We’re going to play it tonight too. So that’s what I love about learning music by ear. So I would say probably like 50/50, we have charts and then half we have just by ear.
Dan: And how, how many tunes do you have now? How big is your repertoire?
Alex: Mm, I could hold on. I have our song list up here
Dan: And it’s covers as well as originals.
Ally: Most mostly covers. We do have our, our goal for this year is to, we have a bunch of originals that have come up in the last, you know, few years. But our goal is actually to record all of them. And then once we have them recorded, really make a big push, you know, for performing those live. But we’ve kind of been keeping them a little under wraps for a while. So that’s going to be our next, like big goal is to get those out there.
Alex: So I just looked at the list and it’s with our originals, it’s about 60 plus songs. So I don’t know if that’s a lot or not a lot.
Ally: I think we have more than that because we’ve, we’ve kind of retired some.
Alex: That’s true.
Ally: We’ve retired a lot of songs, like, especially from the first year. And then in the second year during COVID we were playing out in public so much, because people would hire us for stoop birthdays and parks and things and things just got kind of old. So I guess in a current rep of 60, that’s pretty good, but we definitely like had a more come through.
Dan: Well, that sounds like a lot to me. I mean, I know, and these, these aren’t necessarily short if they’re extended or you’re improvising, these tunes can go on, you know, longer than your typical pop tune. Even if you’re doing a cover of a pop tune, you probably, you guys probably stretch out and do things with it.
Alex: We try to make, we try, if we’re going to do a pop song, we try to really make it our own. And something that we like to do is like to put the New Orleans flare on it. So, we have some fun with it. Hopefully we’re not just doing straight up, you know, copies of, of pop.
Dan: No, I mean, I was listening to some of your stuff this morning and I thought, no, that’s I thought, okay, no, I hear the tune, but that’s definitely their take on it, which is, you know, perfect. That’s what you want. You want to, they homage to the original artist, but don’t just, you know, do the original artist, do something, do something with it. And I think that’s the whole spirit of where you guys come from.
Well, this is cool! I’ve actually gotten through all my questions and I just wanted, if you had anything else, you want to tell people while you have a chance, but I would also, where can people see you online and live in the next couple months since we’re recording this, if someone should watched this in the future, we’re recording this May 4th, 2022, but what’s coming up for you guys. And where do people find you?
Ally: I guess I’ll speak to our upcoming shows. We’re our next big show. I mean, we’re playing like a, you know, popup thing tonight, but our next big show is at Cafe Wa on McDougal Street. We’re actually opening for John the Martyr, who’s another great funk New Orleans band. They actually have members from New Orleans. They’re amazing and great friends. Right after that next we’re headed to Exit Zero Jazz Fest in Cape May, New Jersey. We have a few other things, but the next big thing is we’re headed out to Colorado for about five shows in three days. So that’ll be pretty fun. Nice, Nice. Me and the tuba player are actually sub tuba player is from Colorado. And so that’ll be really fun for us to go out there.
Dan: So you are traveling a little bit when it, when things come up.
Ally: Yeah, we play around the tri-state area.
Ally: And then yeah, we’re on YouTube and sometimes there’s live stream, but not so much anymore.
Alex: Yeah. Instagram’s where it’s at.
Ally: Yeah. Mm-hmm
Dan: So Brass Queens on Instagram.
Alex: Yeah. BrassQueensNYC.
Dan: BrassQueensNYC. All right. We’ll make sure to put that in the notes. Well, Ally, Alex, this was a delight! Thanks so much for doing this! And best of luck to you guys, we’ll be watching you and other people can now get to know you guys a little bit from behind the scenes and I appreciate your time so much. You guys have a good one.
Alex: Thanks for having us!
Ally: Thank you!
Dan: My pleasure!
Ally Alex: All right, bye
Dan: Bye bye!