When I was in third grade, my best friend’s parents took me to the Big Apple Circus in Manchester, N.H. At the time, it was like nothing I had ever seen — all spectacle and showmanship, full of the sheer elation of putting on a show just for the sake of putting on a show. Years later, after reading an article on the slow death of the traveling circus, I was surprised at how nostalgic I got when thinking about my trip to the big top. Here was a group of talented individuals whose main talent was spreading joy. They weren’t trying to make their audience think, they were just trying to get them up out of their seats, make them laugh and make them smile. The traveling circus may no longer be stitched into the fabric of American culture, but thankfully, we still have bands like the MarchFourth Marching Band to carry the torch and keep that carnival spirit alive. Mixing Sousa with ska (and everything in between), the rotating band of more than 35 musicians, dancers, stilt-walkers, fire-breathers and flag-wavers offers entertainment in its purest form. They are just here to make you happy.
“I think our biggest appeal is that we bring spontaneous joy to people,” says dancer and stilt-walker Nayana Jennings, a founding member of the band. “Everybody likes to be happy. We encourage everybody to cut loose and dance and boogie and celebrate with their fellow humans.”
The band has been spreading spontaneous joy since its conception in 2003 as a one-off for, fittingly enough, a Mardi Gras party. After the success of that show, the group decided to take the carnival on the road.
“We were just going to play this party. John [Averill, bassist and bandleader] thought we would just play the one night,” Jennings recalls, “but me, I had always hoped for it to have a much longer life than that. We played the party, and everybody had such a great time, we just kind of kept on going. I’d say half the people that were there that first night still play with the band.”
In a sense, the MarchFourth Marching Band has become the party that never ended. It helps that the group isn’t dominated by over-sized egos. There is no one main songwriter in the group, which contributes to the wide range of genres and styles that the band covers. If someone in the group writes a song, chances are pretty good that the band will at least try to make it work.
That same openness extends to the group’s policy on letting new members into the fray. While they often stay within their own network in recruiting new members, the band isn’t above taking new performers in simply because they saw a MarchFourth Marching Band show and wanted to join in on the fun.
“We get a lot of emails saying ‘I love what you guys are doing. I want to play with you guys,’” Jennings says. “In the early days especially, we would have people come up to us and say, ‘I play trumpet, can I join your band?’ And a lot of times, it has worked out perfectly, and it’s amazing, because we were looking for a trumpet player and they would just come in and join the band.”
It’s a refreshing way to run a band, and the idea that someone could stumble across a MarchFourth performance on their campus quad and then be touring with them shortly after (as was the story behind one horn player’s entrance into the band) has the same feeling of the old cliché of restless, wayward youths running off to join the circus. It’s also refreshing to see a band where every member is there because they love making music. Seeing the group march down the street before a show in their patented “amoeba formation,” wearing mismatched marching band outfits, and playing some twisted take on jazz or swing or New Orleans Zydeco is an uplifting and exuberant experience, one that cuts across generational barriers.
Whether you are 9, 29 or 59, there is no room for cynicism when you see the MarchFourth Marching Band’s merry procession.
“I think we’re fun and we’re easy and we’re accessible,” Jennings says. “People really like going to a show where they are going to enjoy the music and also their 5-year-old is going to enjoy the music.”
On the Bill
MarchFourth Marching Band plays the Fox Theatre on Thursday, March 24. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Harpoontang opens. Tickets are $8 in advance, $12 day of show, $2 fee if under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.