Listening to a brass band on Bourbon Street in New Orleans while accompanying the UConn Pep Band to the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship a decade ago started Marvin McNeill ’97 (SFA), assistant director of athletic bands, to thinking about whether there is a place for such a band on campus.
McNeill knew most college students, especially in this part of the country, would not be familiar with the style of music performed by brass bands, which trace their roots in the United States to the innovative marching brass band sound originated by John Philip Sousa when he was the director of the U.S. Marine Corps Band in the late 19th century.
But McNeill also knew the energy and beat of New Orleans-style music — powered by the sousaphone, a marching-style tuba — invites direct involvement by the audience. He kept the idea on the back burner, waiting for the right combination of student musicians he
thought would embrace such a musical challenge.
Two years ago, McNeill thought he had found the right combination of musicians in the UConn Marching Band (UCMB). He sent emails out to a select group of students who played the instruments that make up a typical brass band — sousaphone, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, base drum, and snare drum — asking if they would be interested.
“It took a while to find the right combination of kids,” McNeill says of the birth of the Funky Dawgz, which quickly established a following throughout the region. “They not only had to be talented with their instrument, but they also had to have a great personality. Everyone has to perform. We also sing, because that’s the tradition of New Orleans.”
The band is now preparing for the release of its first recording of original material, the result of winning the SoNo Battle of the Bands at the Norwalk, Conn., Oyster Festival last summer, which included studio time at The Factory Underground, a recording studio in Norwalk.
This weekend, the band can be heard at the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Conn., where they will perform throughout the weekend among national touring acts such as Dispatch, Ziggy Marley, John Fogerty, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Rusted Root, and Dark Star Orchestra.
It is a path they have been on since the fall of 2012, when the Funky Dawgz began traveling, visiting New Orleans to study and play with leading brass bands in The Big Easy, and performing at venues in New York City, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and Providence.
Like the UConn Marching Band and the Pep Bands that play during men’s and women’s basketball games, the Funky Dawgz are composed of a few students studying music, but most are pursuing other academic majors. The 10 members of the band and their instruments include Christopher Choeun ’13 (CLAS), trumpet; Aaron Eaddy ’14 (ENG), trumpet; Devon Farquarson ’15 (CLAS), percussion; Michael Marsters ’17 (SFA) trombone; Josh Murphy ’12 (SFA), tuba; Tyler Reese ’13 (CLAS), trumpet; Jon Singngam ’13 (CLAS), percussion; Colin Walters ’15 (SFA), alto sax; and Tommy Weeks ’13 (SFA), tenor sax. Steve Jack on percussion continues to play with the group after transferring to another school.
“I didn’t know what a brass band was, so I told Marvin that I would do some research,” says Weeks of his initial reaciton to McNeill’s email. “After looking into it, I immediately fell in love with the music. Then I became more curious about the background behind the brass bands and the traditions of New Orleans. I ended up doing a research project on that. I am now obsessed with everything about the city. It is a delicious culture.”
Reese, who majored in mathematics and now is pursuing a master’s degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, says his first thoughts about New Orleans-style music brought to his mind images from the Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog,” which takes place in the city. He watched YouTube videos of brass bands and heard how diverse their sound can be, including rock, funk, and reggae styles.
“From there I was hooked,” he says. “Both very excited to join the band but also astounded that I’d spent my entire musical career blissfully unaware of the high-energy and brass-heavy genre. It’s as much about the spirit that you bring as it is the notes that you play.”
Murphy says the group is not certain what the future holds, but the members want to continue playing together.
“We just started asking people if we could play and now we’re playing all the time,” he says. “It’s just a blast. It’s what a lot of us look forward to at the end of the day and on weekends.”
McNeill says that even with most of the Funky Dawgz having completed their undergraduate degrees, the band remains in demand and will continue to perform with bookings through UConn and with a priority for performances requested by the University.
“We want to have that connection,” McNeill says. “We’re going to stay as the Funky Dawgz affiliated with UConn.”
Late in the fall semester, McNeill also plans to begin organizing a new brass band to perform regularly on campus since the original group is not available during the week.