Outcasts Brass Band jazzes up Old Town with creative fusion of sounds

Outcasts Brass Band jazzes up Old Town with creative fusion of sounds
The Outcasts Brass Band has been playing outside city hall every weekend since they first started busking in winter 2018. (Photo/Outcasts Brass Band)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

If you have walked through Market Square on a weekend over the past two years, chances are you have heard horns blaring, drums beating and hands clapping.

That would be the sound of the Outcasts Brass Band, a group started by T.C. Williams High School musicians that has made a name for itself with a lively fusion of jazz, rock, funk and pop. From Herbie Hancock jazz fusion classics and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” to bouncy soul songs and instantly recognizable pop hits, the Outcasts want to get audiences moving.

“The goal for my band was to make something that everybody could appreciate, everybody could get something from,” drummer and bandleader Jared Molina, 17, said.

The Outcasts Brass Band has been performing in front of city hall every weekend since the end of 2018, with the exception of three or four months of quarantine-mandated downtime. But before the band became a part of the city’s soundscape, it was just a dream Molina had in seventh grade.

After getting exposed to jazz music in middle school, Molina knew he wanted to put a band together, one with a massive lineup of talented players who could riff and improvise with one another. Every year, he tried to put together a band, and then, during his junior year at T.C. Williams in 2018, he met his match in a group of T.C. jazz band players.

“We had picked up all the skills necessary to play our instruments at a proficient level, which is improvising and anything and everything in between the show, the moving around, the figuring out how to play songs,” Molina said.

With a lively combination of jazz, funk, rock and pop, the Outcasts Brass Band has struck a chord with residents and tourists. On a non-pandemic weekend, the band has been known to earn around $1,000 a night. (Photo/Outcasts Brass Band)

Molina’s goal for the band, which seems modest but was significant for a group of young musicians, was to win the T.C. Williams talent show. Like some of his favorite big band jazz ensembles, Molina assembled a group of about 14 musicians, wrote some songs and practiced them relentlessly.

And then the talent show got cancelled.

The band members decided to stick together, continuing to practice in the T.C. band rehearsal room for another month before the band teacher at the time told them they could no longer use the space. A few members of the band left after that, and the band became smaller and smaller until there were only six or seven members left. Things were looking dire for the Outcasts.

“At that point, we all looked at ourselves and said, ‘Are we going to just forget about this or are we going to keep going?’” Molina said. “The few people who remained were so committed to keep going that we just decided to see how far we could take this.”

The Outcasts’ commitment paid off when, in winter 2018, Molina entered the band into First Night Alexandria’s Battle of the Bands. The band made it through the preliminary rounds and ultimately won the whole competition. They were even invited back to perform in 2019, not as competitors but as a featured act.

From there, the Outcasts aimed even higher. The band started busking, first at the waterfront before moving to Market Square due to noise complaints, to raise money to travel and compete in a large-scale annual band trip competition. They eventually hit their funding goal but have continued busking.

The Outcasts Brass Band’s sound has been a huge hit with residents and tourists alike. On a pre-COVID-19 weekend, the Outcasts used to collect around $1,000 a night; now, it’s closer to $500 a night.

Although the band finds time to practice, the steps of city hall have been its proving ground. Playing together every weekend for years has helped the band become a cohesive unit.

“I can tell you in the beginning we did not sound that good. Just playing together consistently has helped us gel,” guitarist Patrick Kenny, 17, said. “… Playing with other people is one of the most important things you can do as a musician, just that kind of self-awareness [you get] with an ensemble.”

The band started out by mostly covering songs by The Lucky Chops, a horn-focused band that Molina is a fan of, before developing a broader repertoire of jazz, funk, pop and rock songs. Although they play songs spanning multiple genres, the Outcasts have developed a sound of their own through a commitment to their arrangements and improvisation.

Drummer and bandleader Jared Molina has wanted to create a band since seventh grade but wasn’t able to execute on his dream until the Outcasts came together during his junior year at T.C. Williams High School. (Photo/Outcasts Brass Band)

“Some of the songs are very simple and we just kind of blow them out and everybody solos a lot and it’s lots of improvisation and doing things on the fly,” Kenny said. “Some of the other songs different members of the band have arranged.”

Molina is the central force behind the Outcasts’ arrangements, which thread the needle between keeping the central appeal of a song intact while giving the musicians room to play, he said.

“A lot of the choices we make with that is to keep the musicians interested, to make every part be unique and fun to play,” Molina said. “… I try to write a coherent song as well as give everybody space to interpret their … unique style or have solos, make it interesting for them.”

At the beginning, the Outcasts’ songs featured simple arrangements with plenty of soloing, but now the songs are tighter while retaining just enough looseness so that Kenny and Molina can trade solos or, halfway through a song, the band can shift seamlessly into an entirely different tune.

The band is also known for incorporating audience recommendations into their setlists – after taking the time to refashion it to fit their style. Some audience-recommended songs have turned into unlikely hits: The Outcasts’ mash up of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” a horn-friendly R&B classic, and Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be,” a disco-infused rave song, is a fan favorite.

The Outcasts are now back up to 12 members, although membership is flexible, as some musicians have gone off to college and return only oc- casionally. Generally, the band has been a boon for young, local musicians and has even attracted high school musicians from Arlington.

In 2020, the band added Jeremy Fagen, an Arlington baritone saxophone player; two vocalists, Desi Hatzakos and Aishatou Coulibaly, from George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University respectively; Elizabeth Lo, a T.C. keyboard player and Amanda Araujo, a T.C. trumpet player.

This year, the Outcasts have had to adapt to far more significant changes than the addition of singers to their lineup. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Outcasts from performing for around four months. Only when Virginia started to reopen did the band try to get the city’s go ahead to start playing in front of city hall again.

During the pandemic, band members who can play music with a mask on, wear masks. The band also encourages audiences to socially distance and wear masks. (Photo/Outcasts Brass Band)

While some music venues like the Birchmere have started to open their doors to music lovers, live performances don’t look the same and probably won’t for some time. The Outcasts perform outside, but they have also taken steps to make their Market Square performances safer for audiences.

Band members who can wear masks while playing wear their masks, and all band members wear masks in between songs. They also stand farther apart from one another and encourage audiences to practice social distancing and wear masks.

In some ways, the lockdown period and pandemic have made the Outcasts’ music more meaningful for residents.

“It’s been positive because people really miss hearing live music and when they do, it’s pretty special for them,” Kenny said.

The Outcasts Brass Band is still going strong, making up for lost time by playing their hearts out every weekend. And while the future is uncertain for so many people right now, Molina and co. still have high hopes for the band moving forward.

They’re working on growing an audience through social media and the band will soon release a set of recordings they made at T.C. on Spotify, Kenny said.

Molina has more in mind for the band he envisioned back in middle school. He said he would like to see the band perform at music venues and festivals when crowds can once again gather safely. Molina wants the Outcasts to be anything but their namesake – he wants to see them perform anywhere and everywhere.

“That’s every musician’s dream,” Molina said.