The Excelsior Marching Band, Mobile


The Excelsior Marching Band (2013)
Article by Joey Brackner

The Excelsior Band of Mobile, Alabama, celebrates its 130th anniversary this year.  This marching brass band is best known for its Mardi Gras performances but also plays other engagements such as weddings and jazz funerals. The group, which sometimes performs as many as 300 times a year, also can play as a quintet for smaller events. The current members of the band are: Hosea London, Danny Moseley, Jr., and Leroy Bosby, Jr. on trumpet; Leon Rhoden and Jerome Bryant on drums; Charles Hall on tuba; Marion Ward, Carl Cunningham, Jr., and Patrick Pettaway on trom- bone; and Theodore Arthur, Jr. and James Moore on saxophone. This year’s Alabama Folk Heritage Award honors these fine musicians and also honors the institution of the Excelsior Band.

Excelsior Band Members 2009

The Excelsior Band of Mobile, Alabama, was founded on November 23, 1883 by Creole Fire Company president John Alexander Pope to celebrate the birth of his son John Clement (Clemon) Pope. The  original band consisted of Pope, Ted Collins, Tilly Laurendine, Leo Battiste, “Cootie” Williams, Alex Terez. Terez was also a member of the Creole Fire Station No. 1, thus leading many to suppose that the original group, among other activities, functioned as the fire house band. John A. Pope, the son of John M. Pope, a free person of color, was born in 1863 in Mobile. John C. Pope later led the band that was founded in his honor. The Popes were primarily undertakers and tinsmiths by trade, but these men and their colleagues built a musical institution that has come to embody Mobile’s cultural heritage.

Brass band music was a beloved genre of nineteenth- century American music. Military regiments, towns and fire brigades all developed brass bands. Some noted groups toured the United States during the antebellum period. The availability of brass instruments led to many regional variations on this music, not the least of which was Dixieland jazz. While New Orleans is most noted for this genre, it was popular throughout the Gulf South. Any public commemoration would likely involve a brass band. On July 31, 1859, The Mobile Press Register described a Democratic Party function which featured “Gass’ German Band” and the “Creole Brass Band.” Mardi Gras parades, funerals, baseball games, weddings and various political events were accompanied by the big, bright sound practiced and perfected by local musicians.

Excelsior Marching Band in the 1940s

During its history, the Excelsior Band has served the City of Mobile and the state of Alabama as master artists and ambassadors, maintaining a tradition of excellence, respect, and musical proficiency. Only the finest of veteran musicians are invited to join the band. Hosea London, a retired elementary school music teacher, has been the ensemble’s leader for the last several years. “People in Mobile like history, so they really, really like the band and they support the band,” London told the Mobile Press-Register in 2008. The Excelsior Band plays various music styles including Dixieland, jazz, blues and pop. Some of their most popular tunes include: “Margie,” “Hello Dolly,” “St. Louis Blues,” “South Rampart Street Parade,” and, of course “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The band’s sound is much the same today as it was decades ago. Tunes like “‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’—those have been around since forever,” Hosea 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.”

Membership in Excelsior has been the highest achievement among Mobile’s musicians. “Nobody ever leaves,” according to Hosea London. “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.” Recent past members have included James Seals, Phillip Moody, Ernest Coleman, Herbert Dillard, Joe Morrison, Joe Lewis, William Burks, James Moore, Joseph Morris, Sr., Robert Petty, Sr., James Matthews, Sr., Hubert Stanfield and Ray Packer. The band does not use sheet music and because they perform so often together that they rarely rehearse as a group. New members are recommended by existing members; therefore, the group continues by adding and training new members. In the infrequent times that a new person is added to Excelsior, “we kind of teach them from what we know, and they kind of catch on.”

Excelsior was a 2012 Inductee to the Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival Hall of Fame. They are featured in the music gallery at the Mobile Carnival Museum and on the Year of Alabama Music website developed by the Alabama Tourism Bureau. A clip of the band marching and performing during Mardi Gras is in the 2001 documentary film, Coat of Many Colors: A Tapestry of Alabama Artists by the Center for Television and Radio, University of Alabama and sponsored by the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Members of Excelsior have taught in the Alabama Folk Arts Apprenticeship program. The group has also been featured in posters, prints, postcards, paintings, and other signature works of art and memorabilia of Mobile’s Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations.

The Excelsior Marching Band at Alabama Folklife Festival in Montgomery
The Excelsior Marching Band at Alabama Folklife Festival in Montgomery -  Photo by Mark Gooch

During the Carnival season, the Excelsior Band leads many if not most of the parades, starting at the Mobile Civic Center. In the parades, they serve as a marching brass band playing jazz music. The band has secured a unique place in Mobile heritage, serving both blacks and whites during the festival. As such, they are Mobile’s official band, providing music for all occasions. Their trademark black suit, white shirt, hat and tie is an important part of the tradition and represents the band’s respectability.

The longevity of their work, individual skills and talents, and the many contributions of the members to Alabama’s music education and heritage make them a leading band that has had, and will, continue to have a long-term impact on musical genres locally and nationally. Excelsior marched in its first Mardi Gras parade in 1884, the first carnival season after its founding. It marches to this day!

Listen to an example of The Excelsior Marching Band

Anne Harrell, “Here Comes the Excelsior Band,” Mobile Press Register, Sunday, April 5, 1981.
Angela D. Davis, “Excelsior Band” New Times Weekly, Feb. 11, 1988
Mike Brantley, “Celebrating Mobile’s Excelsior Band’s 125th Year” Mobile Press Register Article November 13, 2008