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Friday, July 20, 2018

The STL Sanders Band, Named for Bernie, Wants to Be the Soundtrack for the Revolution

Posted By on Fri, Jul 20, 2018 at 6:21 AM

click to enlarge A love of Bernie Sanders brought them together. Protests and progressive causes keep them playing. - VIA THE STL SANDERS BAND
  • A love of Bernie Sanders brought them together. Protests and progressive causes keep them playing.

Cody Henry lives in High Ridge, which isn’t forever away from St. Louis, but is enough of a haul that he tries to economize his time as well as possible. On a recent weeknight, his planning skills are put to a serious test, with an interview preceding an hour of personal practice on the sousaphone, then another hour dedicated to finishing a song with Funky Butt Brass Band cohort Austin Cebulske. All of this before a lengthy rehearsal with Emily Wallace to prep for a weekend show at Jazz at the Bistro.

It’s on the fourth floor of that building — filled with rehearsal spaces, a small studio and even a computer lab — where Henry often juggles his musical efforts. This fall, he’ll be in his eleventh year teaching young players there how to work together in combos. His students “also get to check out shows at the Bistro for free, which is pretty sweet for them,” he says with a chuckle. “I wish that there was a program like this when I was their age.”

With all of the time that he spends working on his craft, an unusual project has become a part of his life in the last two years. The STL Sanders Band is an act that never rehearses, coming together only to provide music at marches and protests of a progressive bent.

“The name came from the #stillsanders hashtag,” Henry explains. “It was birthed the week before the Democratic National Convention, when it was a sure thing that Hillary Clinton would get the nomination. We still wanted to show the support that Bernie had, to help influence the party. It wasn’t about saying that we wouldn’t vote for Hillary. It was more like, ‘Keep these ideas in mind, or the worst will happen.’ And we all know how that turned out.

“So the March for Bernie was in July of 2016,” he continues. “I offered to put a band together. A lot of musicians had voiced support for the Sanders platform. A year later, with Trump elected, I noticed a lot of protests and marches; maybe I just hadn’t noticed them before, but the social media boom was picking up. We wanted to help, in some way, so we marched to have Donald Trump show his tax returns and starting adding to other marches that had progressive values.”

Along the way, the group found itself at a variety of events, from the March For Our Lives to the Families Belong Together march. This Saturday, it will play the Ready Room for Cori Bush's get-out-the-vote event with progressive rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Another event, though, reminds Henry why he organized STL Sanders Band in the first place.

“It wasn’t a march,” he says, “as much as a super-big protest, around the Jason Stockley verdict. It was really tense. There was a police line, all of them in riot gear. Friends I hadn’t expected seeing were pepper sprayed and all that stuff. When we were getting ready to play, we heard screaming and people running from the front row; the police had taken a step forward and it scared everybody. So we started playing and you could see the police loosen up a little bit. Protesters started loosening up, too, dancing in front of the musicians. The music was a peaceful weapon.”

The songs that the STL Sanders Band pulls from reflect the kind of tracks you might expect of a group of this sort, like Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and “One Love.” Trombone Shorty’s “Hurricane Season” finds itself played frequently. Because Sanders himself sang and recorded a version of “This Land is Your Land” back in 1987 it’s become another bit of the STL Sanders Band canon, even though Henry gets a laugh at Sanders’ vocals, which “were almost William Shatner-like. It’s awful.”

And at other times, the group just wings it, with Henry tossing out instructions like “let’s do a groove in b-flat. I’ll start out on the sousaphone and the drums fall in line. If you have the right players there, they’ll make it work naturally. And if you hear protesters around you doing a chant, like ‘this is what democracy looks like,’ we’ll just put a groove under that and enhance what they’re already doing.”

True today and probably true in the future, the STL Sanders Band is a mixed-group affair, with players coming and going depending on the times of events and their general availability. At different marches, the band has included members of MU330, the Grooveliner, Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost, the Hooten Hallers and, at the core of things, an amalgam of horn players from both the Saint Boogie Brass Band and the Funky Butt Brass Band. With Chris Tomlin of Saint Boogie as a frequent contributor, Henry will sometimes shift off of sousaphone, subbing in on trombone. It’s the kind of switch that’s built of both practicality and goodwill.

“Chris plays with the Sanders Band, but his main passion is Saint Boogie, just like mine is Funky Butt,” Henry says. “When I ask people to come help, they’ll come. There’s not a lot of competition in St. Louis; we all want each other to do well. There’s an idea of playing good music in the streets, with a lot of mutual respect between these different bands.”

Henry isn’t sure if the band’s namesake is aware of the STL Sanders Band, nor has he heard of a group of similar name elsewhere. (There is, though, the amazingly named Sousaphones Against Hate in Chicago.) He is sure that there’s a place for them in contemporary St. Louis.

“STL Sanders Band,” Henry says, “was influenced most by my seeing a Facebook live video of a Trump rally. He didn’t attend it, but his supporters were there and the opposition that came to meet them had a band. All the Trump supporters were yelling at the band and… oh! I thought that was brilliant.

“That’s what makes me want to do this more, seeing music drown out people that are yelling at the top of their lungs,” he continues. “You’re walking with people, raising everyone’s spirits. People are dancing around you and having a good time. We get compliments from people, like, ‘Hey, you made this a lot easier to do.’ It can make things a joyous occasion. I think St. Louis can be a happy place. We want to lighten things up and show ‘em how we do it here.”

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