There are two things in uptown Charlotte that consistently will make pedestrians stop, make them smile or cock their heads to the side, make them pull out their camera phones.
One - the "Firebird" sculpture in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art - stands still. The other - a street band that goes by the name Brass Connection - never stops moving.
If you've been to a performance at the Belk Theater in the past three years, or at the Knight Theater within the past two, there's a good chance you've seen them afterward. If you've seen them, you haven't forgotten them.
It's a big, bold, collaborative effort. Seven members at least, 10 at full strength, playing horn-heavy covers of songs by everyone from Motown artists to today's hip-hop hitmakers. They sway in unison, and sometimes rove around in wide, wild circles when their souls are most stirred.
Meet the band
The oldest is Bill Jones, 50, a huge man who goes by the nickname "Big Daddy" and plays drums. The youngest is Mike Taylor Jr., 6, who is dwarfed by the trombone he plays.
Mike's dad, Michael Sr., started the band about three years ago with a couple of relatives. Brass Connection has since more than tripled in size, but it's still basically all in the family.
See if you can keep up here: Bill Jones (band manager) is the uncle of Michael Sr. (band leader and lead trombonist). Jones has four sons in the group - Bernard, 30 (jam blocks), Jamaal, 19 (backup trombone), Kyle, 15 (flugabone) and Calvin, 13 (backup trombone). Jones' nephews, Carlos Perry, 21 (Sousaphone) and Rashad Fatson, 20 (backup trombone). Jones' grandson, 15-year-old Addae Tyhimba, also plays backup trombone. And don't forget little Mike.
How they started the tradition of springing themselves on people coming out of Blumenthal shows is far less complicated. It was born on one of their first nights playing at The Square at Trade and Tryon streets.
"We saw a load of people coming out (of the Belk Theater), and then they came and started enjoying us down this way," recalls Michael Taylor Sr. "So we were like, 'Let's take it up that way, and see if they enjoy us up there' ... because we were missing some of the people that were going the other way."
Now it's like clockwork. Unless it's raining, if there's a big Blumenthal show, there's a Brass Connection concert outside after it.
"What's really fun are the nights we have shows at all three campuses," says Blumenthal vice president of programming Douglas Young, referring to the Performing Arts Center, Spirit Square and the Knight. "They start at whatever show lets out first, perform until the crowd is gone, then pack everything up in their van and move down the street to the next campus to do it all over again. You have to really love performing to have that kind of dedication."
The band on the road
Though the band is a steady Tryon Street staple, Taylor and Jones have recently tried to extend its reach. The ACLU invited them to play at an event tied to the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., in October. Around the same time, Brass Connection was invited to perform "The Wendy Williams Show" theme song during a fall episode.
The NBA lockout has prevented the band from doing more work with the Bobcats - it has played halftime shows there several times - but the guys have started hitting the road, traveling to Raleigh, Savannah, St. Petersburg, Fla., and their former hometown of Miami. They'll just show up, hunt down a popular street corner, and then start performing on it.
Wherever they play, people seem to be compelled to pay attention. To stop. To clap. To dance. To sing along. Crowds can grow as large as 100 people or more, and the wallets and pocketbooks open wide.
It happens organically and spontaneously. On a recent December night, a middle-aged guy in a New York Rangers sweatshirt strolled by, asked them to play a Temptations song, dropped a couple bucks in the bucket, and continued down Tryon Street.
Brass Connection fired up the horns, quickly drawing a crowd that included half a dozen young African-American men and women, as well as a white couple with a toddler. When the band moved on to a contemporary hit, a female bar-hopper stopped to dance with Mike Jr., then begged him to pose for a photo with her and her friends.
By the time a father requested "Happy Birthday" for his balloon-toting daughter, 30 people had gathered; Michael Sr. led the group through a jazzy, swaggering rendition that had the dad beaming and the girl blushing.
"They're just unique," says Bubba Stehmeier of Charlotte, who frequently brings his three daughters out to hear the band. "They don't play from sheet music, they dance, it's their own version of songs. They know where the hotspots are, they know what time things are gonna be happening, so they go and hit it."
Band leader Michael Taylor says the bucket they put out can fill with hundreds of dollars depending on the night, and if they work a long enough day-into-night stretch, in hot-enough spots, that figure can top $1,000.
When you consider Taylor and Jones have no other significant sources of income, it seems difficult to believe band members when they say they don't do it for the money. But they insist. "The money don't really matter," says Rashad Fatson. "If it were about money, we'd be out here playing right now."
Over a 31/2-hour stretch, they performed only about 45 minutes' worth of music.
Around 9:30 on this chilly evening, Brass Connection moved its beat-up Ford Windstar minivan, the players and the equipment up the block from The Square - where they had been camped out for hours - to the corner in front of the Belk. They were waiting for the ideal moment to start playing, and at 10:02 p.m., that moment arrived.
Everyone piled out of the vehicle, unloading themselves and a collection of instruments that can't possibly have fit inside. Calvin Jones set out the bucket. Michael Sr. and the other trombonists put the mouthpieces back on their horns.
A minute before the crowds started coming out of the Performing Arts Center, another street performer passed by, carrying his own bucket, a guitar slung over his shoulder.
Before he disappeared down Tryon Street, he called out, to no one in particular, " 'Big Daddy' on the drums! The brass band, doing what they do best. ..."