It’s a band that needs no introduction. When you see the suits, the horns, the sousaphone with 1883 painted stoically across its bell, you know the Excelsior Band is coming. In fact, this ensemble of 12 players usually leads the parades as they roll through the streets of Mobile. It is an honor bestowed on Mobile’s oldest band, perfectly setting the tone for the ensuing fun.
Surprisingly little is known about the band, despite its omnipresence and longevity. Because of a lack of photos, recordings or written accounts, it has been challenging for current bandleader Hosea London to fully trace the band’s history. Yet, we all know this band has been marching on these streets as long as any of us or our forebears can remember.
We do know that the band was founded in 1883 by John Alexander Pope, president of the famous Creole Fire Company No. 1. He attended Creole Catholic School in Mobile, and was an undertaker as well as a fireman. Legend has it that the firemen would gather in the upstairs rooms of the firehouse on North Dearborn Street in Mobile during their downtime and play music together. It was unofficial and unorganized until Pope had a son in November of 1883 and invited friends to his home for a celebration. The firemen formed the Excelsior Band to mark the occasion.
The band quickly garnered local acclaim, and before long, began travelling to the Mississippi Gulf Coast or hopping the train to New Orleans for gigs. They marched in Mardi Gras parades, including the King Felix III parade as early as 1909, according to historian Emily Ruth Allen. And while they may be best known to the public for parades, The Excelsior Band has also played to mystic balls and gatherings as well as weddings and funerals, the later of which is tied to Pope’s role as an undertaker.
In her dissertation focusing on brass bands in Mobile’s Mardi Gras, Allen shares an account from Eoline Pope Scott, the granddaughter of the band’s founder, about watching the parades as a child in the 1910s and 1920s. “Where we stood to see the parade was on Government Street, and we used to holler, ‘Hey Papa.’ My Daddy was in front of the Excelsior Band. He’d turn around and wave and keep going. He played the trumpet. He was the leader of the band, the Excelsior Band. And they had to put the Excelsior Band as the last band in the parade, because all the maskers would be behind his band.” Her father, John C. Pope, was the second band leader, after his father, and the band continued to grow and pass down through relatives and close friends only for some time after that.
It’s interesting to note that the band originally marched at the back of white parades, whereas today they proudly lead most. According to Allen, performing as a musician was one of the few ways people of color could participate in predominantly white Mardi Gras parades through the early years. Yet as Creole people of color, the band always occupied that interesting space between white society and other people of color, and it still has to carefully navigate race today. “When you walk into a room, you know that the people are already familiar with you, they like your music, they’re excited that you’re there. That’s a great feeling.” Being known — and known for one particular style of music — also works to their artistic advantage. “I don’t have anybody telling me to play ‘Brick House,’” he laughs, thankful.
By the 1950s, the band had expanded beyond the original Pope family and friends, simply looking for talented musicians. “Just about everybody in Mobile — African American who was a significant musician at one time or another — has probably played with the Excelsior Band,” says London. The band doesn’t rehearse and offers no training to new members. They just show up, jump in there and try to keep up. “Most of these guys have played in polished bands before, and we’re playing jazz standards that people know and love. Each one of our performances is an opportunity to learn something.”
Frank Ponquinette joined the band when he was 17 years old, and now, at age 95, is the band’s oldest member. The youngest, 18-year-old Aaron Covin, started at one of the band’s annual summer music camps for kids. Camps are a way for the band to give back to the community, get instruments into the hands of kids from across town and possibly build a pool of talented musicians to pull from one day.
The depth in their ranks allows any combination of players, from three to all 12, to attend functions and events. And, with plenty of older members in their roster, they are more likely to have someone available during the day or on the spur of the moment.
Current Excelsior trombonist Carl Cunningham Jr. remembers admiring the band as a kid along the parade routes. “They asked if I wanted to be a member of the Excelsior Brass Band. And, of course, I said yes. Because I’ve watched them my entire life and thought, ‘I’ll never be one of them.’ And now I’m one,” he told Allen. “Excelsior is big on presentation, tradition, upstanding men in the community. I guess I checked the boxes.” A lifelong musician with roots in Mobile dating to 1868, he certainly checked the boxes as someone who appreciates and understands Carnival. His family figures prominently in MAMGA festivities and traditions. Musicians like Cunningham are poised to continue the band’s legacy of excellence and take it into the coming decades.
London agrees that presentation is a big part the band’s image, with the dark suits and caps omnipresent. “In the ‘70s, I was a member of the musician’s union, and they called me and said someone needed a trumpet. And they said, ‘it’s a band, wear a black suit, and a black cap, and a white shirt.’ And that was it.” It was 1976 and London hasn’t left the band since, becoming the band leader and manager in 2002. It’s this professional appearance, he argues, that has endeared the band to conservative white audiences, and opened a lot of doors. With no sound equipment, there’s almost no setup and no hassle. Like a Dr. Seuss character, they can play on the go, here or there, anywhere to suit the occasion or location.
While the group clearly has local and regional admiration, they recently added national attention to that list. Last year, the Excelsior Band received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Only about a dozen of these awards are given each year nationwide, and Excelsior is counted among a very small number of Alabamians to ever receive it, including the quilters of Gee’s Bend, among others.
Along with the recognition comes a $25,000 grant that Excelsior is using to better organize the business side of the band, form an LLC and attempt to take some control of their image and likeness, which is used all over town. Through the years, they most often played from gig to gig, paycheck to paycheck. London hopes to leave his tenure as Excelsior’s band leader with a secure future, and a fully known past as well. He is working with the local archives to develop a space to display their history and educate future generations about the many musical accomplishments of Mobilians. Sometimes it starts with simply walking down the street, instrument in hand, and leads to an almost 140 year legacy. These musicians have lead some of the most important events in our lives, and we look forward to 140 more.