Kansas City's Fountain City Brass Band Returns Triumphantly From European Competitions

Dec 7, 2017

A Thanksgiving feast in a Scottish castle was the cherry on top when Kansas City’s Fountain City Brass Band toured the United Kingdom last month as America’s highest-ranked brass band.

Fountain City is one of Kansas City’s strongest musical ambassadors, with a second-place finish at the prestigious Brass in Concert competition at Gateshead, England (placing ahead of top-ranked Cory) and a third at the Scottish Open in Perth. On their own turf, our homegrown ensemble held its own against bands with traditions dating deep into the 1800s.

“I think we open people’s eyes,” says Joe Parisi, the band’s music director and conductor.

Parisi, a professor of music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, is one of the group’s founding members, having played in the cornet section when the band began in 2002.

“We brought what we do, that American energy," he says. "When I think of Fountain City, I feel like we try to be adaptive, like a chameleon, changing our colors based on what we’re playing – and I think that brought uniqueness.”

The Fountain City Brass Band performs at the Brass In Concert competition in Gateshead, England.
Credit British Bandsman / John Stirzaker ARPS

Founder and artistic director Lee Harrelson writes most of the arrangements for the 30-member ensemble of brass and percussion players, and performs as solo euphonium. Helen Tyler Harrelson, a renowned baritone player, is their connection to brass band traditions: She grew up in the UK and performed with two of that country’s most prestigious bands – Foden’s Band and Black Dyke Band – and runs Fountain City’s youth band program, which has earned top rankings in national competitions. Paul Bessetti is responsible for choreography and visual product.

While core members in Kansas City rehearse together regularly, others travel in from Washington D.C., Washington State, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Illinois. One comes all the way from Australia.

“It was started in Kansas City and its heart is in Kansas City,” Harrelson has told audiences, “but its membership is all over.”

The prestigious Brass in Concert competition is by-invitation, and the day after they arrived in England, jet lagged and all, Fountain City was up against the Norwegian and French champions and first-tier British bands. Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag, the Norwegian group, won first place (adding to a collection of major European titles), but Fountain City earned four additional awards: Best Programme Content, Best Performance in Entertainment & Presentation, Best Soprano, and Best Percussion Section.

For the entertainment program, they worked up a 23-minute set of music and movement, projections and lights, called “Icons of the Age.”

The Fountain City Brass Band rehearses in the Black Dyke Band's space in Queensbury.
Credit Courtesy Andrew Schwartz / Veritography

They had played a bulk of this repertoire at a preview concert at Missouri Western State University the night before they left, providing an area audience with a taste of what the UK was in for: tradition mixed with rock and big-band.

Along with arrangements of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Brian May’s “Who Wants to Live Forever,” the preview included a more traditional arrangement of Alberto Ginastera’s “Danza Final” and a newly composed piece by emerging American composer Derek Jenkins, whose “We Seven” is based on the experience of astronaut John Glenn, complete with light show and images from the first American orbit around the Earth. They ended the show with a face-melting, laser-focused “Brass Machine.”

A week later, they performed as the invited band for the Scottish Open Gala concert, with virtuoso tuba soloist Les Neish. The next day they played for the competition, placing third behind the four-time defending champions. (Back in 2009, during the band’s second tour, they unexpectedly placed first in the competition, the first American band to win a major competition in the UK.) Afterward, 4barsrest declared them the “outstanding standard bearer for the (United States’) emerging brass banding community.”

“I was utterly astonished to hear Fountain City Brass. What an extraordinary ensemble,” says Ian Bousfield, former principal trombonist with the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra, who judged the soloist category. “They combine musical excellence and technical brilliance with a show which is an amazing achievement. I hope to hear them again soon!”

Considering that the full band only had a week of intense rehearsals to prepare (while most of their competitors had worked on their pieces for months), Parisi was happy with the result.

“We got the right people to spend 18 days together,” he says. “We had the right energy.”

A member of the Fountain City Brass Band takes in the history of England's Black Dyke Band, which dates back to 1816.
Credit Courtesy Andrew Schwartz / Veritography

They went to compete but also to learn from the best in the tradition, reveling in stories of the days when nearly every town, village and hamlet supported a community band. These days, such local bands still participate in civic and festive functions and a fierce yearlong competition circuit.

Fountain City rehearsed in Black Dyke Band’s hall and toured the original rehearsal room, a nationally designated Heritage Centre, which retains the trophies, pictures, plaques of band history, as well as the old chairs and wooden stands, now whittled with autographs of former and famous members. Black Dyke, one of the oldest brass bands operating, was officially established in 1855, but its history dates to 1816.

“It was amazing to visit and rehearse in the place where brass banding started — a very powerful experience for us all,” says Parisi.

The last stop of their trip was in the town of Dobcross, which boasts a band history dating back to 1875, where they performed with the Dobcross Silver Band, which has its own performance and rehearsal space, an outdoor field, a sitting area, with a side room for snooker tables and, of course, a pub.

That sense of community was even more significant than the history. Fountain City’s hosts decked out the facility in American flags and stars and stripes bunting, and it seemed as if the whole village turned out for the show. Parisi says the room was packed and the audience thrilled.

“That was like a big community hug,” he says.

Members of the Fountain City Brass Band on one night of their tour through England and Scotland.
Credit Courtesy Andrew Schwartz / Veritography

Fountain City is working to secure that support and awareness in Kansas City.

Like most brass bands, it is an all-volunteer endeavor, but the musicians perform at a professional level and with a passionate dedication.

“They show up ready,” Parisi says, noting that one member drives from Washington State for each concert; another took a Greyhound bus to Kansas City and back home to Oklahoma. “The people in the group are willing to do whatever it takes to let the band succeed as a whole,” he says.

Being in England over Thanksgiving week meant they couldn’t defend their title as winners of the US Open Brass Band Championships. But they’ve won that competition eight times, along with six championships with the North American Brass Band Association, so their reputation is secure.

And yes, they did spend Thanksgiving in a castle, greeted by a bagpiper, the feast of turkey accompanied by a traditional presentation of the Haggis.

Fountain City Brass Band, 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, December 9, at MidAmerica Nazarene University’s Bell Cultural Events Center, 2030 E College Way, Olathe, Kansas, 66062, 913-971-3636; and 3 p.m., Sunday, December 10, in a shared concert with the Cameron Municipal Band at Cameron United Methodist Church, 201 N. Pine, Cameron, Missouri.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.