One of the most recognizable and respected names in the storied history of New Orleans brass band music is “Onward.” Founded “some time before 1877” according to one source, the Onward Brass Band gained considerable popularity during the 1880s. By the time of the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, the ensemble had achieved a reputation as the number one marching band in New Orleans.
Following the war, cornetist Manuel Perez (a student of Onward founder Sylvester Coustaut) assumed leadership of the band. Onward Brass Band soon came to be regarded in the local music community as the most exciting of the city’s early brass bands. Its membership included many New Orleans music legends: in addition to Perez himself, names such as Peter Bocage, Lorenzo Tio Jr., George Baquet, Isidore Barbarin, and even, for a brief time, King Oliver.
Unfortunately, this band never recorded. Perez was Onward’s leader (on and off) from 1903 until the unit disbanded about 1930. The band seems to have fallen into decline during the Great Depression, and its history for the next three decades is obscure.
Around 1960 famed drummer Paul Barbarin, the son of Isidore, determined to reform the band and pattern it after its great predecessor. Under Paul’s leadership, the Onward included his younger brother Louis, nephew Danny Barker, Louis Cottrell Jr., Placide Adams and many other top New Orleans jazz musicians.