City of Trees Brass Band takes it to the streets

The New Orleans-inspired collective gives Sacramento kids a New Orleans-styled urban musical core

City of Trees Brass Band: Jedi masters learning the Force and teaching jazz.

City of Trees Brass Band: Jedi masters learning the Force and teaching jazz.

photo by lauran fayne worthy

Catch the City of Trees Brass Band on Thursday, February 5, at 8 p.m. at Starlite Lounge, 1517 21st Street. The cover is $10 per person, or an instrument donation, which covers admission for up to two people. For more information, visit

When faced with choosing between a nightclub or a street corner, the members of the City of Trees Brass Band will gladly take the open-air venue.

It’s in the spirit of New Orleans, where live music literally floats through the air at all hours of the day.

In Sacramento, you might spot them marching by the MARRS Building or on K Street, tooting their horns and screaming the words to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

In San Francisco, where a troupe of eight musicians playing second-line jazz on the streets might be a little less shocking, the band heightens the performance. Trombonist Josh Cambridge, for example, started hiding in the crowds in the middle of songs—only to reappear during an epic call-and-response bit between him and the rest of the band. Then he started running down BART escalators—in the opposite direction—to resurface above ground at just the right moment.

Cambridge laughs about it. Bandleader Ben Hillier spills out compliments.

“I don’t know how he does it,” he says. “It’s the kind of showmanship you can’t even do in a club—you need resourcefulness and a city.”

Even though the band—a shifting collective of sorts, with about eight core members right now—constantly celebrates New Orleans, few members have actually been there before. Instead, the city represents an ideal, an ethos.

“The culture—people literally waking up and going on the streets and playing—you don’t see that in any other city,” says Cambridge, who visited for a couple of weeks while playing in the United States Marine Band years ago.

So the City of Trees Brass Band plays the streets—one form of spreading the gospel. The other is exposing the next generation of brass players to the style.

Starting in February, the band is launching its first Educational Outreach Campaign. Every month for six months, it’ll hit a new destination and host free clinics at school band classes. February is dedicated to visiting Sacramento-area schools, but later on, City of Trees will head to Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Portland, Eugene and more.

These clinics aren’t entirely new. The band’s first took place at Dyer-Kelly Elementary last April. In the fall, City of Trees took its instruments to El Camino High School and Arcade Middle School.

“We’re trying to get kids to play music outside of the classroom, because we think that’s the first step in getting kids to stick with music the rest of their lives,” Hillier says. “The ultimate takeaway is that music is fun, and you can do it—you just need to pick up your horn.”

How does Hillier convey that sentiment? By performing for the kids—and clearly having fun while doing it.

And City of Trees knows its audience. At Arcade, the band performed a song from Super Mario 64, “Prince Ali” from the Disney movie Aladdin and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk—the latter all jazzed up and funkified. And to be extra kid-friendly, bandmates shouted “puppies” instead of the potentially inappropriate phrase “get lucky.”

With jokes, self-deprecation and moments for crowd participation sprinkled in, the students were clearly digging class. El Camino High School band teacher Kevin Glaser says his students, too, received the message.

“I often bring older people to speak at my classes,” Glaser says. “The kids can’t really imagine themselves at that age—they don’t get the big picture. But these musicians were so young, and they could see how good they were already. It was inspiring.”

The youngest member of City of Trees is 21-year-old saxophonist Isaac Negrete. The oldest is 51-year-old saxophonist Bill Bua. It’s quite the range—but most members are in their twenties and met while studying at American River College in 2011.

Back then, they called themselves the Brasstronauts and played around town casually for about year. They dispersed, reassembled and fully dove into their collective New Orleans influences. While still keeping a funky, West Coast flair, they opted for a name change—something more traditional, but still reflective of their California roots. In summer of 2013, City of Trees Brass Band was officially born.

Funny—but not surprising—is that every member of the band is classically trained. Their stories are similar in general—picking up different instruments in elementary school before landing on the clear winner by junior high. Cambridge says he started too late to become truly great—he settled on trombone in eighth grade.

“When I think of a musician, I think of them as Jedis. You gotta start them out nice and young, train them up,” he says. “And when they get older, they realize, ’Oh, I wanna do this,’ then you get people like Anakin Skywalker. A little bit older, but they still learn the Force, which is what we’re all here to do.”

In this metaphor, part of learning the Force is playing by ear. City of Trees members all started off reading music, but channeling New Orleans means going off the page. Learning a piece of music used to take a month or longer, but now, Cambridge says it can be done within one rehearsal.

Their rapid progress has inspired the brass players to think big, and fast. On top of the upcoming Educational Outreach Campaign, Hillier wants to start fixing up old instruments and giving them to students for free.

Bua is a saxophone technician, and Cambridge will enroll in an instrument repair program in Washington this fall.

“Almost all of the students we’ve found play flute or clarinet and want to learn the alto sax or trombone,” Hillier says. “They want to pick up the instrument but they can’t.”

Enter the City of Trees Brass Band instrument drives, which begin with the band’s outreach campaign kick-off party Thursday, February 5, at the Starlite Lounge. The cover is $10 per person, or free with the donation of an old instrument, the latter of which covers admission for up to two people. Hillier says he hopes to replicate that model for all future big Sacramento shows.

That said, Sacramento gigs are likely to become less frequent—probably one every other month. In addition to focusing on education, the band is gearing up to release its debut album in April. Expect an eclectic mix of New Orleans standards, arrangements of video game soundtracks and pop songs with a hip-hop, funky flavor.

Otherwise, you can probably catch City of Trees out on the streets somewhere.