CNY’s UniTY Street Band takes music where no one would expect it

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While waiting to perform with the Unity Street Band at the 2018 Providence Honk! Festival, Vanessa Ryder heard a small group of musicians playing “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé. Although she had never seen the sheet music before, Ryder knew the basic tune and decided to join in and do her best “to keep up.” More and more players from other bands joined in, and before Ryder knew it, the beat of “Crazy in Love” was echoing around the park.

“Without any rehearsal, just a nod to the person next to you. Someone will just call out ‘saxophones’ and everyone will play their part in the song, back off and someone else will jump in again,” Ryder said. “These are the fun experiences that come from a street band.”

Ryder is the saxophonist in the Unity Street Band (USB), which was founded in 2017 by trombonist Melissa Gardiner and piccoloist Donna Vallese. The band is made up of Syracuse locals who get together and play music on the streets of Central New York.

“(Gardiner) knew a bunch of people who wanted to be able to play instruments but really had no outlet to do it,” Vallese said. “I knew the structure of street gang culture and what had to be put in place to fit into that Honk band scene. And so it kind of started.”

USB follows the structure of Honk! A festival-style band that encourages individuality among its members. Instead of having a uniform, their purple theme serves as the group’s symbol, with each member wearing the color in their own way during performances.

Similarly, band music offers more room for improvisation than concert bands. Instead of performing the traditional brass and percussion marching band arrangements, many Honk! bands go a step further by supplementing instruments or vocalists.

The most horn! music groups exist for a specific purpose or as an advocacy group. Some perform primarily at activist events, but they are usually autonomous entities unaffiliated with another organization. Vallese said Honk! bands can bring joy to the places they perform and focus on improving society in some way and bringing light to the injustices in the world through music.

In the same vein, Honk! bands have performed in prisons, environmental demonstrations and educational rallies, as well as major community events. The Unity Street Band last performed at the Westcott Street Cultural Fair on October 1st.

Since 2006, Honk! group culture is a worldwide phenomenon, Vallese said. There’s a Honk! bands in Brazil, Australia and France, all of whom traveled to the US to play at the Honk! festivals. Festivals bring together a strong community of people who are all committed to changing the world through music.

The whole premise of a street band is that they are portable, so performers can put music in spaces where people never thought there would be music.

“We can walk through the park or we can walk down the street and go into a bar and play some tunes and have a drink and continue walking down the street if we want to,” Vallese said. “You can surprise people and just show places because everything is portable.”

This improvisational and relaxed style of music and performance provides relief from the rigorous rehearsal environment that professional musicians experience, Ryder said. She plays in the Baldwinsville Community Band and the Skaneateles Community Band, where the performers always strive to get every note right. No skill or experience is required in the Unity Street Band, as the band focuses on giving everyone a chance to perform.

“Not all of us are professional musicians. Many of us are from different walks of life and careers,” Ryder said. “When we get together, we’re all like a bunch of good friends who go out and play together.”

Ryder said USB is a special group because of the genuine joy everyone has when playing together. As a non-profit organization, the band has no motivation to make their music sound good. This helps take away a lot of the pressure that can come with playing in a professional band, she said.

“We’re not trying to make a record or do constant gigs everywhere like most bands try to do to make money,” Ryder said. “That’s what makes it work well for us is we have a good level of stress-free zone here. It really makes a big difference.”

When Stevie Ladd’s husband Chuck, who plays clarinet and saxophone, first joined the Unity Street Band, she initially watched rehearsals from the sidelines. After a while, some members of the percussion section didn’t show up and Stevie took the tambourine, which she said looked “ridiculous” among the other musicians.

“I was informed that if I just kept the rhythm right, that was my job,” Stevie said. “This is a very important thing. I love every minute of it. I like working with the other percussionists’ syncopations.”

Vallese said USB’s rehearsal style makes it easy for new members to adjust to the band and make their own take on classic marching tunes. While the band plays a lot from reading sheet music, there are also many songs they just learned by ear.

“When you have a song like ‘When The Saints Go Marching In,’ or another easy New Orleans-style tune, it’s easy to pick up and learn the tune, but then it gives people an opportunity to learn to improve on it,” Vallese said.

For the past six years, USB has been putting its own creative spin on classic songs to shine a light on the power of the CNY music scene. Whether marching through the streets of Westcott or hosting other street bands at their Salt City Honk! festival, USB’s unique sound is working to change the world.

“Our mission is to bring unity back to the community through the joy of music,” Vallese said.

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