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On November 23, 1883, a son was born to John A. and Odeil Pope. To herald the event, the proud and ecstatic father formed a band. This was the birth of the Excelsior Band in Mobile, Alabama on the corner of Scott and Selma Streets.
John A., born in Mobile in 1863, attended the Creole Catholic School in the downtown area and later became President of the Creole Fire Company.
Originally, Pope's Excelsior Band had eighteen members. Among those members were people such as, "Cootie" Williams, Leo Battiste, Alex Terez, Ted Collins and the band's founder, John A. Pope who played the B-flat trumpet.
The Excelsior Band, perhaps best known for its participation in Mardi Gras, plays various music styles including Dixieland, jazz, blues and pop.
According to the band's present day (1988) director, James M. Seals, Jr. the band playes at a variety of events all year long.
When John A. died in 1951, the younger Pope had long since taken over the reign as director of the band. In 1902, John C. became leader of the band at the young age of 19. Ten years after his father's death, he was quoted in Sketch Magazine as having said: "Most Mobilians remember the band when it played for dances at the old Brookley Park. We played many times with the Sam Morgan and Po Celestine Brass Bands from New Orleans. We called the two-band affairs 'Double Rushes' because when one band stopped playing the other aggregation got its cue to start playing.
Pope also commented on the band's popularity in Mardi Gras parades. He said that more often than not, the band marched at the end of the parade "because people would follow and dance behind us all over Mobile."
In 1972 John C. Pope was recognized by the Mobile Jazz Association for his contributions to jazz music in Mobile.
Pope, who owned and operated a small diner in Mobile's Southside area, on the corner of Dearborn and Selma Streets, died in 1972 at the age of 88.
Members of the Excelsior band include, James Matthews and Phillip Moody on drums; Ernest Coleman on tuba; Robert Petty on trombone; James Seals, Herbert Dillard, and Hosea London on trumpet; Joe Morrison, Hubert Standfield and Joe Lewis on saxophone. The band also has several substitute members, including William Burks, Ray Packer, Theodore Arthur and Leon Rhoden.
New Times Weekly
Feb. 11, 1988
By Angela D. Davis
Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
The Excelsior Band has a very rich history. It was founded by John A. Pope to celebrate the birth of his son, John C. Pope in Mobile, AL on November 23, 1883.
The Excelsior Band has marched the streets of downtown Mobile for over 100 years in various Mardi Gras parades. Additionally, The band, which plays Dixieland and conventional jazz, is available for weddings, receptions, jazz funerals, conventions, and parades.
The band performs regularly along the Gulf Coast and is recognized for providing the unique sounds associated with the carnival season in Mobile, AL, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States.
The Excelsior Band is a ten piece marching brass band that consists of three trumpets, three saxophones, one trombone, a tuba, bass drum and snare drum. The group also performs as a quintet, as requested for smaller events, e.g. birthday parties, wedding receptions, conventions. The Members of the Excelsior Band come from diverse occupational background and all are highly touted in the Mobile area for their many years of musical contributions throughout the city.
The musical hodge-podge that makes up the Excelsior medley floats in the swing of Carnival cheer with such favorites as “Margie”, “Hello Dolly”, “St. Louis Blues”, “South Rampart Street Parade”, and, of course, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
video at: http://youtu.be/Vk_UWCheZA8
Mobilians truly appreciate music, observed Hosea London, leader of the city's famous 10-member marching brass band, the Excelsior Band.
"I think they do, probably not as much as musicians think they should, but I think they pretty much do," London said. "They really like the Excelsior Band."
Carnival and city leaders and the public will show their appreciation for the Excelsior Band at a church-attire celebration from 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday at the Mobile Carnival Museum, at 355 Government St.
The occasion -- a free, open-house event for the museum -- marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of the band most identified with Mardi Gras in Mobile.
It will be a "milestone celebration" for the city, said Judi Gulledge, executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association.
"People in Mobile like history, so they really, really like the band and they support the band," said London, a Winterhaven, Fla., native whose own history as a trumpet player in the Excelsior Band goes back to 1977, two years after he moved to Mobile to work for the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
London, now an elementary school music teacher in Moss Point, has been the ensemble's leader for the last several years.
According to popular local lore, the Excelsior Band was founded in 1883 by trumpet player John A. Pope to celebrate the birth of his son, John C. Pope.
Excelsior began marching in Mardi Gras processions in 1884.
Clad in traditional band uniforms during its earliest days and sporting black suits and caps with white shirts for much of its history, the band has marched the streets of downtown Mobile for so long it has become an institution inseparable from Mardi Gras.
But the group is a year-round organization, playing Dixieland and conventional jazz at weddings, receptions, birthday parties, jazz funerals, conventions and other events.
In a typical year, "we will do close to about 300 jobs," London said.
"We work a lot of weekends," he said, "and sometimes we have more than one job on the same day."
The Excelsior Band's full complement of 10 musicians consists of three trumpets, three saxophones, one trombone, a tuba, bass drum and snare drum. The group also performs as a quintet for smaller events.
At any time of the year and especially during the Carnival Season, the band can be heard playing such old favorites as "Margie," "Hello Dolly," "St. Louis Blues," "South Rampart Street Parade" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."
"There is still no written music," said London, who added that the musicians perform so often together that they rarely rehearse as a group. "When a new person comes in we kind of teach them from what we know, and they kind of catch on."
But the band -- with members ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s -- doesn't have to train new personnel all that often.
"Nobody ever leaves," London said. "It's not easy to get a spot in the band."
He said, "At the time I started over 30 years ago I was probably the youngest person in the band. Guys have stayed as long as 50 years, until they have become just unable to perform with the band."
The band's sound is much the same today as it was decades ago, its leader said.
"Some tunes -- like 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee,' 'Margie' -- those have been around since forever," London said. "They are timeless. We've added some new things, like 'Audubon Zoo' and things like that that came from the New Orleans style. But we never get away from what was working 100 years ago."
One Sunday afternoon, my father was driving our family around Birmingham. After pointing out various landmarks to his children, he drove a distance to a crossing where two streetcar lines intersected. He stopped the car and said, "This is Tuxedo Junction." I was a child, but I was familiar with the song of the same name, made famous by Erskine Hawkins, the well-known trumpeter and band leader. "This is the very place that inspired the music," my dad said.
Years later, I told my Yankee friends that Birmingham claimed Hawkins as a native and claimed the location of Tuxedo Junction.
In time, I came across the jazzy sound of the Hawkins song along with other Dixieland favorites in the repertoire of Mobile's Excelsior Band.
The group traces its history back more than 125 years and still impresses audiences with its artistry. It was founded by Mobilian John A. Pope in 1883 when he invited a few friends to join him for a musical get-together to celebrate the birth of his son.
"He didn't expect the group to grow as it has," said the current leader/manager, Hosea London.
But, it stood the test of time. Today, the 10-member marching brass band consists of three trumpets, two saxophones, two trombones, a tuba and two drums.
"The Excelsior is a group of gentlemen. That is a requirement of the band. The suits and ties are representative of the kind of guys we hire," said London. "We don't hire anybody, even if they can play well, if they don't look like they are comfortable in a coat and tie. ... We have no smokers. ... We are professional guys who are very conscious of our image. ... We hire quality people."
Tuba player Charles Hall, a long time band member, recalled that he always wanted to play in the Excelsior Band. As a child, enthralled by the group's participation in Mardi Gras parades, he determined to join them at some time. He earned a degree in music education from Jackson State University and pursued graduate studies toward an M.B.A. He is employed by the Prichard Housing Authority.
Hall, 65, said, "One of my proudest moments was when I did a couple of gigs in Panama City, Fla., with the Guy Lombardo Orchestra in 2000."
He is tuba section leader and president of the Mobile Pops Band.
Like Hall, other musicians of the Excelsior Band are well trained, talented performers and usually intend to make membership a lifetime commitment. As a rule, they don't rehearse and don't use sheet music, New members join by invitation and learn the band's musical style from older ones. Sometimes members stay for 40 years or more.
They perform at birthday parties, jazz funerals, wedding anniversaries, private parties and conventions where they often represent the city of Mobile. The Excelsior Quintet performs for smaller events.
"We have played in people's back porches, kitchens, living rooms, and corners," said London, a trumpeter. "The quintet can play almost anywhere, because we don't use electronics ... no speakers to hook up. Everyone brings his instrument and sets it up to play." The leader emphasized the band's determination to uphold the standards of its long tradition.
"In our contracts, we guarantee that we will be there and be prompt, dress properly, act properly, and we will produce good music. That's a given every time," he added.
My dad never lived in Mobile. He never heard the music of the Excelsior Band. I wish he had. He would have liked that unique Dixieland sound, those old favorites like "St. Louis Blues," "Margie," "When the Saints go Marching In" and "Tuxedo Junction."