Chestnut Brass Company, 25 Years and Still Growing:
An Interview with Jay Krush
By David Graves
DG: How did Chestnut get started?
JK: We had an unusual beginning. We started out as a street band, playing at 17th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. There was an abandoned storefront, and we would settle in there. Most of the people in the group were freshly out of college and there wasn’t a lot of work. It was right after the bicentennial in Philadelphia and most of the arts money had been spent the previous year. Somebody got the idea of calling five players and putting together a quintet and “busking” (as they call it in Europe) out on the street. I had just moved back from Chicago where I had finished up my master’s. It was a nice sunny day when they called, and I figured, “What the heck, I’ll go.” I had never met any of the players in the group prior to showing up on the street corner. We played four hours a day, five days a week through a whole summer and actually became well enough known that we were hired to play on some local concert series, by people who had heard us on the street. The name of the group came about because someone wanted to hire the group to play for a party. They asked, “What’s the name of the group?” and one of the trumpet players looked up at the street sign and replied, “Uh . . . we’re the Chestnut Brass Company!” That’s where the name came from. After about a year of playing together, we decided that we liked it so much we’d try to find management and see if we couldn’t tour. We borrowed an art gallery froma friend, brought in about a hundred cohorts as an audience, and staged a concert for a manager who subsequently took us on. We started going out on the road the next year.
All photos are by Art Hovey.
DG: How did you get the idea to incorporate historic instruments?
JK: A number of people who were in the group at the time were already interested in historical instruments. Bruce Barrie and I, who are the two who have been with it since it started, both had already done a lot of research into the history of our instruments. Bruce could already play natural trumpet and cornetto. We started locating instruments in junk shops, pawn shops, and so forth. Bruce found an over-the- shoulder E-flat saxhorn, and we started using that in the editions of the American Brass Band Journal that the Empire Brass Quintet had published near that time. Then we found a keyed bugle in another junk shop, and we just started experimenting by stirring old instruments into the mix. We didn’t really know that much about it, other than the fact that they were old and they were from the nineteenth century. We just lumped them together. The more of them that we found, the more we started research-ing the music and the performance practices of the time. We started trying to make it so that we were using exactly the right instruments for a particular piece.
DG: So you used these in both rehearsal and performance?
JK: When we were playing out on the street, we started putting a few of them into casual performances. During our first year, shortly after we stopped playing on the street, a local early music group experienced some financial trouble and had to sell their sackbuts. After we pooled our money and bought the set of sackbuts, we retired down to one of the player’s basements with the cornettos, sack-buts, and a couple of six packs of beer, to learn how to play them. We actually taped that first effort. I don’t know where the tape is, but it would make a great party tape! We gradually took the instruments home and started practicing them. We rehearsed a lot together and started trying to make the different sets of instruments work. Even-tually, they basically divided up into a renaissance and baroque set (which included cornettos, natural trumpets, and sackbuts), an early nineteenth century set (which was geared around keyed brasses), and a later nineteenth century set (which was geared around the valved brasses, particularly the over-the-shoulder saxhorns).
DG: Do you remember the first tune that you performed on the period instruments?
JK: I think we started on the Renaissance instruments with dances by Susato and Adson and on the nineteenth century horns with the American Brass Band Journal.
DG: How did you go about learning to play the instruments well?
JK: Well, there are some surviving methods for some of the early instruments. You can find ophicleide methods in various libraries, and serpent methods . . . but they’re all very different from each other. Really, what you would do is sit down and kind of figure out how it worked empirically. When you have to sit down and figure out the mechanism of an instrument by trial and error, you really remember it. I spent a lot of time early on with a tuner, because the hardest thing – though people think the hardest thing is memorizing the key positions, fingerings and slide positions — is really getting them to play in tune. Also, knowing that it looked like I was going to start playing a whole lot of early and mixed-size instruments (I had an apartment with a very big living room), I would encircle myself with the BB-flat, CC, E-flat, and F tubas and euphonium, F bass sackbut, serpent, bass trombone, and ophicleide, and try to play the same Blazhevich or Rochut etude on all of them without stopping and without getting tangled up. Obviously, it sounded better on some than others, but that made me practice getting used to all of the different fingerings without getting confused – remembering where all of the pitch tendencies were, which vary so much from instrument to instrument, and also because I try to use period mouthpieces, getting used to going between all of those weird mouthpieces without getting thrown.
DG: Of all the instruments that you play on any given performance, which is the most difficult to maintain your chops on?
JK: I think the serpent is the weirdest, though it’s an instrument that does wonders for building up your will power! It’s an instrument that very much—even though it has optimal suggested fingerings that often work—works on the old Professor Harold Hill “think system.” That is, if you really want a note badly enough (on the serpent), you can get it to come out to some degree with whatever fingering you’re using. It’s an instrument where you really, really have to concentrate and establish a connection between your inner ear and what’s coming out the bell.
DG: I understand that many works have been composed for the Chestnut Brass, several of which have been commissioned. What was the first work actually composed for the ensemble?
JK: The first work actually composed for the ensemble was by Theodore Antoniou, whom many tuba players know for his solo tuba work, Six Likes for Unaccompanied Tuba. Theodore taught at what was then the Philadelphia Musical Academy. We learned the Gunther Schuller Brass Quintet for a concert of the works by Schuller, and, as a thank you for partici-pating in the concert, Theodore wrote us a wonderful piece called The Do Quintet. It’s a very avant-garde work—it’s modules and a score. The players all sit in a circle around the audience, and there is a constant rotating clockwise motion of notes—it’s very hypnotic—and it’s done in semi-darkness. So, the first piece that was written for us is a really wild one, but it’s a great piece which I would recom-mend to any quintet that wants to be adventurous.
Jay with the original prototype sousaphone (loanedby J.W. Pepper Co.) at 92nd Street “Y” in NewYork in a concert called “Made in America.”
DG: How did the Grammy winning Hornsmoke recording come about?
JK: Even though people think of us as a group that plays early instruments, perhaps the most important thing to us is playing contemporary music and com-missioning new works. We’ve commissioned music from a really wide variety of composers. We’re really not advocating any one style; we’ve had avant-garde things, we’ve had twelve-tone pieces, tonal pieces—as long as we think that they have integrity. We always liked the original works that Peter Schickele wrote (he’s best known as the alter ego of P.D.Q. Bach). He’s also a terrific composer in his own right. We approached Peter about writing a work for us, and he wrote a piece that we’re really delighted with called Brass Calendar, obviously, in twelve movements. He had written a lot of other brass pieces, for the Canadian Brass and for other groups, and there was more than enough to fill a compact disc. We talked it over with one of the record companies that we normally work with, and they gave us the go-ahead. In addition to our quintet’s playing, Peter also plays piano and narrates on a couple of the pieces. He also acted as a kind of “tone meister”—a co-producer. We had a very challenging time when we recorded it—not only getting all five of us, the recording engineer, and Peter (who is very busy) all in the same place at the same time—but also the fact that we did half of it, and when everyone was set to come back, the blizzard of the century hit, and everyone was snowed in at different parts of the country, so we had to reschedule it all. When we were finally able to reschedule, the recording engineer arrived, our producer arrived, we arrived, Peter arrived, and . . . the crew to demolish the building next door to the hall arrived, with backhoes and cranes. So, about half of the recording was actually done in ten-minute chunks, during the time when they would have loaded up a dump truck. The dump truck would go over the hill, and there was about ten minutes of quiet before the next dump truck drove in. We’d record for ten minutes and then sit while they knocked down another wall, and then play for ten minutes . . . it was quite a challenge.
DG: How have you been able to procure so much funding from such a wide variety of sources over the years?
JK: Often, the costs of recording projects are simply covered by a record company. However, for recording projects that have high costs or are more non-commercial, fund-raising becomes necessary. We function as a non-profit organization, much like a symphony orchestra. That status allows us to apply for grants to do such things as commissioning works, recording projects, and, oftentimes, school residencies. It requires a lot of patience, because the rejection rate in grant writing is very high. It also requires keeping in touch with foundations and other support groups, such as state art councils, so they know your work and you have a good working relationship with them. A good example of how hard the fund raising is, though, is that we did a recording early in our career of music by an African-American bandmaster from the early nineteenth century, Francis Johnson. He was a Philadelphian, bugle virtuoso, and a prolific composer. Among other things, the members of his band played as a brass quintet. We thought this was our Philadelphia heritage, and that we should do a recording. It required twenty-one performers to do the whole thing, so it was very expensive. It took five years plus one hundred and seventy grant proposals to fund that recording project. So, sometimes, a lot of it is a matter of tenacity. It’s also a matter of really researching who you’re going to approach for assistance—making sure that it’s something that is within their purview, and in which they’re actually interested. Writing grants scattershot is a waste of time. You have to really target them and plan carefully.
The Chestnut Brass Company on tour at the International Brass Festival, Cheju, Korea
(L–R: Bruce Barrie, Marian Hesse, Jay Krush, Larry Zimmerman, and John Thomas).
DG: How is it that you’ve been able to stay together for twenty-five years?
JK: We’re starting our twenty-sixth season coming up. We’ve put in a huge amount of time together. Up until fairly recently, almost all of our traveling was done by van. Literally thousands of concerts over the past twenty-five years— all night drives through blizzards in Wyoming and things like that—and we’ve still been able to stay together. Like any other group, we’ve had some personnel changes over the years—we have two original members from when the group started. Except for one new member, everybody’s been in the group for more than ten years and even the “new guy” had played extra with the ensemble off and on for many years. We’ve been able to stay together because we share a common set of priorities. It’s a very idealistic group. We want to leave a legacy of commissioning new works, researching the past of brass instruments, and providing not only entertainment but also education, hopefully leaving some good work behind. We try to pursue interesting directions without merely duplicating the work already done by others. Also, we really like each other. Despite periodic disagreements that you’ll have in any kind of a group that works closely together, we enjoy each other’s company. We are friends, and we visit each other. When we’re out on tour, we spend a lot of time together: we eat together, we go hiking/exploring, and doing things like that. We’re fortunate to have found a group of five people who have personalities, ideals, and goals that match.
DG: What would you consider to be the most important aspect of the group’s mission?
JK: I think the most important aspect of the group’s mission is expanding people’s knowledge of brass instruments and their literature, both from the past and also expanding that into the future. Also, doing this in such a way that it relates music to other things that were going on in history—that you learn about the instruments and you also learn about the politics of the time. You learn about the technology of the time, because music doesn’t exist in a vacuum—neither old music nor current music. Basically, we do as much as we can do in many different directions with brass music.
DG: How are your tours booked?
JK: The Chestnut Brass Company has traditionally always worked with a booking agency. Currently, we’re with SMG Artists. They attend arts booking conferences around the country—this is pretty much standard procedure. They also run ads in various journals that concert presenters would read, send out mailings and emails, and usually, they will come up with one or two concerts in a particular area and then build a tour around those. When we started out, we would be on the road for as long as six, seven, or even approaching eight weeks at a time. But now that we’re older and have a little bit more in terms of responsibilities, we usually fly, and we try to keep the tours down to at most, a week and a half. We tend to do short, intensive trips rather than long, sprawling ones.
David Vining (ophicleide) and Jay Krush (serpent and
ophicleide) backstage at a concert preceding the recording
of The Music of Francis Johnson and His Contemporaries
DG: Given the fact that you guys are spread out all over the map, how do you find time to rehearse?
JK: First of all we have a great advantage in that we all lived in Philadelphia for a long time, and our normal rehearsal schedule for many, many years was rehearsing for sixteen hours a week. We had an office space, and we had all kinds of microphones, strobe tuners, and facilities to listen to ourselves, so we were able to really cultivate a kind of mass mind. We always say it’s like the Borg on Star Trek—we have the Borg mind going among us. We’re surprised at how often we even say the same things at the same time. Now that most of the people in the group have responsibilities that are in other parts of the country, we spend two or three weeks each year in Philadelphia doing school concerts, rehearsing, having board meetings, and planning literature. We often arrive early or stay late during tours so that we get some rehearsal time. We also rehearse on free days during tours. We don’t have any trouble keeping the group sounding good; I think the group is sounding better than it’s ever sounded. The only negative effect the distance has had is to cut down a little on how much new repertoire we prepare. We used to try and change the major works for every tour. However, we still go through several new works and large-scale pieces each year. It’s working well. The arts climate in the U.S. has changed since we started. We’ve gotten older, and one of the things that’s helped keep the group together is we’ve all been willing to adapt in ways that are best for the individuals in the group but still keep the group going.
DG: Do you still have to practice the period instruments?
JK: Yes—a lot of the individual practice time that’s spent on the period instru-ments is working with a tuner. Having already achieved a level of comfort with the instruments, we (only) rarely do things that push the fringes of their technical ability. Now and then there’s something that you really have to sit and woodshed, but the primary thing is keep-ing the intonation lined up. When we rehearse with them, we spend most of our time doing the Verne Reynolds quintet intonation studies, playing chorales, working with various kinds of tuning devices, and really just working on pitch. That’s really the hardest thing with the early instruments.
Chestnut Brass Company and assisting musicians at the recording session for The Music of Francis Johnson and His
Contemporaries (Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey, 1988).
DG: Describe your personal arsenal for a typical Chestnut concert.
JK: My modern tuba is a Yamaha YFB-621, which is a fantastic quintet horn. I (and the rest of the group) really like it. In terms of period instruments, I will, on an average concert, also play a bass sackbut in F, which was made by Finke in Germany. It’s a model of a Baroque bass trombone, probably from the late 1600s. I also play serpent, and usually on tour I use an open Church serpent made of fiberglass by David Harding. I have a wooden one, but I’m reluctant to take that on airplanes, so the resin one usually goes with me on flying trips. The wooden one is a Christopher Monk 3-keyed English military serpent. I play a C ophicleide with eleven keys, made by Butler and Company in London around 1860. I also play a 4 Berlin-valve E-flat tuba from around 1850 with the valves arranged in two pairs. The first and second valves are in the left hand while the third and fourth are in the right. I used to use an over-the-shoulder saxhorn, but since 9/11, the baggage conditions have become more difficult. The case is big enough and cumbersome enough that it [now] only comes on driving trips. So, I usually play five or six instruments in a traditional concert. The trumpet players may play ten or twelve.
DG: When possible, do you use the same mouthpiece on different instruments?
JK: No, I always use the period instru-ment mouthpieces that go with the instruments. On my F, I use a Dennis Wick 4L, which gives a nice light, clean sound that helps bring the tuba up into the zone of the other four players. I use a Vanderheide sackbut mouthpiece that was made in the Netherlands, a Courtois ophicleide mouthpiece, and then for the tuba—it’s an anonymous saxhorn mouth-piece. They’re all very, very different. The sackbut mouthpiece is pretty uncomfort-able because it has a flat rim with a very sharp edge, but it gives that characteristic attack and sound.
DG: Would you elaborate on why you’ve chosen the YFB-621, when so many other quintet tuba players seem to be using either large bass tubas or small to medium contrabass tubas?
JK: I’ve gone through a number of instruments. When the quintet started, I played a Meinl Weston Bell model—it was my regular horn. They always thought that it was a little big for the rest of the group; they felt that there were the four of them, and then the tuba, lurking along in the basement somewhere. Then I went over to a three-quarter size Yamaha, which they liked a little bit better for their purposes. When I found the Yamaha YFB-621, they all really liked it. If they’re happy, I’m happy.
DG: What are the future goals of Chestnut?
JK: One of the most important things for us is to keep commissioning and record-ing. We meet regularly and discuss interesting recording projects. We have eleven CDs released, and a twelfth, featuring period brass band versions of Stephen Foster songs, is due for release on the Naxos label this spring. We’ve had a lot of discussions recently about composers that we would like to approach for new works. We also have a wide variety of recording projects that we’ve discussed. One that’s very important to us is a disc encompassing everything we do. Most of the recordings that we’ve done tend to focus on only one aspect. There will be one that’s all on Renaissance instruments or one that’s all on saxhorns—maybe a pops record all on modern instruments or a contemporary music record also all on modern instruments. Our first CD was called Pastime With Good Company, and it was a sampler. It had everything on it that we did, and we want to do another CD like that.
DG: Why is it important to know the history of our instruments?
JK: One thing that makes a brass player of today different from a brass player in almost any other era is that we are required to play five or six hundred years of music. People living in Mozart’s time generally would have only played music from their own era. Gradually, through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the classical music repertoire expanded to include more and more historical music. In a recital, most brass players will perform a piece of music going back as far as the Baroque or Renaissance, along with something that might have been written in the past year. So, it’s important to know what this music originally sounded like, what the players thought and, stylistically, what they did. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to do a historical interpretation, but it’s nice to have the information available and have some people looking into it, so it’s a resource when you’re choosing how to do something. We also feel that sometimes, brass instruments have been regarded by much of the musical community as second-class citizens—the bulls in the orchestral china shop. One of the things that we’re trying to show is what a long, noble, and continuous heritage brass instruments truly have, and also the capacity they have for really profound musical expression in modern styles and modern compositional approaches.
DG: So, it sounds as though you are equally interested in emphasizing the heritage and perpetuating the future of brass instruments.
JK: Yes, we like to feel that we’re right in the middle of a continuum. When things are going really well and you’re getting a lot done, you feel like the continuum is flowing through you from the past to, I think, a rather good future.
DG: What are some of your personal goals, aside from your work with the Chestnut Brass Company?
JK: The Chestnut Brass Company has been a lifelong commitment to most of us who play in it, and we’re very determined to keep doing it until we have to retire, but we do various other things. I teach at Temple University. I teach tuba, euphonium, and direct both the tuba and the contemporary music ensembles, which I enjoy very much. I have a very supportive and friendly place to work, and a lot of really good students that are a pleasure to see every week. I also play tuba with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, which is a very good orchestra. We have a great time getting to do lots of Prokofiev, so my other tuba—besides the F—is a big Willson, which I use for Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and things like that. I’m also active as a composer. I do a lot of arranging for the quintet, and I’ve written about seventy pieces of my own. Right now, I’m completing a band piece and a piece for brass quintet, woodwind quintet, piano, and percussion. I’m also making sketches for my third symphony.
DG: What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to a future as a professional chamber musician?
JK: Run away! Seriously, I think that the most important thing about being in a professional chamber ensemble is that you have to realize that it’s a tremendous amount of work. It needs to be more than just a job; it needs to be a cause. You must realize that you will have to do a whole lot of work besides just showing up and playing. To make the group work, you need to find not only high-quality players but also people who are like-minded and share the same ideals and goals as you.
DG: Thanks Jay and congratulations for twenty-five successful years with the Chestnut Brass Company.
JK: Thank you, and we’re looking forward to another twenty-five!
Jay Krush, a founding member of Chestnut Brass Company, is Lecturer in Tuba and Euphonium at Temple University and tubist with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra. An active composer with more than 60 completed works, he has received grants and awards from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His music has been performed by the CBC, Network for New Music, and orchestras in states including Alaska, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. Mr. Krush, who studied with Cherry Beauregard and Arnold Jacobs, is a graduate of Northwestern University (MM) and the Eastman School of Music (BM/composition).
About the author: David Graves, Lecturer of Tuba and Euphonium at Baylor University, also serves as principal tubist with both the Corpus Christi and Waco Symphony Orchestras. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, he received his bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Memphis and subsequently taught instrumental music in the Memphis City Schools for several years. Upon receiving his master’s degree in performance from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Mr. Graves enrolled in the DMA program at the University of Illinois before accepting a position with the USAF Band of the West in San Antonio, Texas. He currently resides in Waco, Texas with his wife and three children.Photo Caption: Jay in performance with the Chestnut Brass Company on tour in Brazil.
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