On a recent Friday night, brass music echoes throughout the glass-encased Galleria at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It’s 9:30 p.m., and patrons are exiting shows at Boettcher Concert Hall, the Buell and other theaters in the complex.
As they make their way toward 14th Street on this crisp fall night, the music grows louder and more distinct, the notes of trumpets, tuba, trombone, saxophone and drums forming the unmistakable melody of the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.”
An older man ambles down the stairs where the DPAC meets the sidewalk on 14th, passing the Brothers of Brass, the Denver-based group responsible for the music. He squints distrustfully at the group while couples start gathering on the periphery, nodding their heads along with the beat. Pretty soon, a semi-circle has formed. Phones start materializing; people just have to get this on their ’gram. The crowd multiplies like bacteria in a Petri dish until nearly 200 people have squeezed up against the musicians.
The band moves on to a brass cover of Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” that hot lick from 2001. The mostly white spectators begin swaying, clapping and awkwardly dancing, as white spectators do. The band they’re watching is more diverse, with African-American, South Asian and Hispanic representation. “Tip them, honey!” says a woman to her grinning male counterpart. He dutifully pulls out an Andrew Jackson and deposits it in a collection bucket — as do many others. By this point, the Brothers have raked it in, and the music really has people going. One lady is so taken by a Michael Jackson cover that she tilts her head back and closes her eyes, as though in the midst of a religious experience.
Then, out of nowhere, an elderly woman with frosty white hair and a giant scowl steps in front of the group and begins waving her arms frantically at the Brothers of Brass.
“Stop!” she screams at the musicians. “Stop it right now!”
The woman wheels around, then tries to focus her anger on the nearest spectator. “Shame on you!” she shouts, wagging her finger at a pair of twenty-somethings. People are looking back at her, confused — but also amused.
The woman eventually realizes that she’s not going to prevent the brass band from playing, and she retreats down 14th, away from the group. Defeated, she shouts an explanation of her actions to no one in particular: “I live over there and can’t sleep!” she says, gesturing to a nearby tower. “They’re so loud!”
The sleep-deprived senior is hardly the only enemy that the Brothers of Brass — arguably the most popular street musicians in Denver at the moment — have created on account of their volume. They are loud.
As the group has grown in size and popularity — not to mention boldness — over the past three years, it has increasingly chafed against residents and businesses surrounding the spots it takes over on the 16th Street Mall and next to the performing arts complex as often as six times a week. In fact, the very morning of November 16, the same day the woman had yelled at the musicians, they had been in a meeting with representatives from the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Denver City Attorney’s Office and downtown hotels and businesses to address noise complaints against them. The group has even gotten into turf wars with other street musicians because of its overpowering volume.
Despite the growing number of complaints, however, few will deny that this band is talented. Many people love the Brothers of Brass. But their performances have become problematic for downtown residents and businesses, some of whom argue that they’ve lost customers because of them. Still the musicians play on, and their performances have had a corollary effect of raising larger questions about free speech, class conflicts and gentrification.
Although the Brothers of Brass now call Denver home, what started as a horn collective actually formed in Atlanta. “We were three college dropouts,” recalls bandleader Khalil Simon.
Back in 2014, he and two friends — David Williams and Eryk McDaniel (neither of whom are in the band anymore) — started playing music on the streets of Georgia’s capital.
With two trumpets and one trombone, the three players regularly busked, playing for donations in public spaces for hours at a time, slowly honing a repertoire that combined traditional New Orleans brass tunes with covers of popular songs from the likes of Bruno Mars, Jay Z and Kanye West.
One day, the trio had the idea to play in front of Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves’ former stadium, when baseball fans were leaving the game.
“We made the same amount of money from that one game that we would have made playing all day in downtown Atlanta,” Simon recalls.
This was nothing short of a revelation for the new band. The three friends started playing every single Braves game, and when the baseball team went on the road, so did the musicians, playing sports game let-outs in other cities across the country. That’s how, in the spring of 2015, Simon and company came to Denver for the first time.
They played a set in front of Coors Field after a Rockies game, and that was some good busking. But while they were here, Simon figured out an even more lucrative busking tactic, when the group performed in front of the Pepsi Center one evening after a rock concert.
“We were like, ‘Wow! Playing for live-music fans is even better than for baseball fans,’” says Simon.
And so the Brothers of Brass switched up their strategy, traveling around the country in the summer of 2015 in a beat-up car, playing let-outs alongside national music tours, including those of Garth Brooks and Imagine Dragons.
As 2015 came to a close, trombonist McDaniel left the band. Simon and his remaining bandmate, Williams, returned to Colorado and discovered the Denver Performing Arts Complex and the 16th Street Mall. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical was playing at the DPAC, and Simon and Williams, both on trumpet, learned a bunch of Christmas tunes to perform during the musical’s let-out each night.
“We made, like, a thousand dollars our first night. And this was just two people — me and David,” Simon remembers. “I quickly saved up enough money so that, on Christmas Day, I bought myself my first tuba. I realized we could make better music if we had a bass voice and a high voice.”
Simon took a break from busking in 2016 to go back to school at Alabama A&M University. But he missed performing in public so much that he started traveling up to Nashville, a two-hour drive, most nights after class to play on the streets there.
He eventually concluded that busking was his calling, and when Williams announced that he was joining the Marines, Simon decided to start over fresh with a new band. He thought back to some of the street musicians he’d met in Denver and how he might recruit them to form a full-fledged brass and drum group here.
In the summer of 2016, Simon teamed up with two Denver-based musicians: saxophonist Armando Lopez and drummer Jacob Herman. Lopez was already seasoned when it came to busking; he’d started performing in his home town of Hollywood when he was ten. And although he’d racked up student debt to obtain a chemistry degree from the Colorado School of Mines, Lopez — like Simon — found busking so exhilarating that he wanted to try it out as a full-time source of income.
Today, Lopez says, “for four of us, busking is 100 percent of our income.”
He declines to provide specific dollar figures: “Some months I’m able to make it work, some months one of my payments will go unpaid for a while or I’ll be in debt.”
The group has zeroed in on two specific locations and times for its performances in Denver: the 16th Street Mall between Champa and Curtis streets around lunchtime, and in front of the main entrance to the Denver Performing Arts Complex between 9 and 10:30 p.m. on performance nights.
In true 21st-century fashion, the Brothers of Brass also use social media to live-stream their performances, and they’ve built an online following. Fans leave enthusiastic comments under the band’s videos on Facebook and YouTube:
“Loved every time I came out of a show this summer and you guys were there!”
“Man, you guys are the best! I’ve been seeing you all over the country the last couple years — New York, New Mexico, Boulder, Washington, Dick’s, even out front of the DPAC after the Symphony. You crush it every single time! Proud to share a city with y’all. Keep up the good work!”
“We were just in New Orleans this weekend and I thought about Brothers of Brass every day. I love you guys!”
“Watching from Puerto Rico!!!”
The impact and popularity of the group has only grown as its ranks have swelled: In 2018, the Brothers of Brass added three members, becoming a full eight-piece brass band (including a snare and a bass drummer).
“Since we did that, we’re getting a lot more traction with a lot of different things,” Lopez says. “Our volume has definitely increased. And that’s good…and bad.”
Busking is a long-held tradition around the world and in the United States, with performances held everywhere from the street corners of New Orleans to the subways of New York City. And efforts to regulate street performers are perhaps as old as busking itself.
In the past, municipalities have created ordinances aimed at limiting (or even eliminating) street performances, whether by musicians or other types of artists, such as dancers or comedians. But when such ordinances are challenged, courts usually conclude that they are partly or wholly unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
In 2010, for instance, a federal judge blocked a permitting system created by Los Angeles for the Venice Beach Boardwalk, determining that the city’s lottery that allowed some musicians to perform while denying the right to others was a violation of the First Amendment. It was also unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson ruled, for the city to bar the use of musical instruments or amplified sound in public areas.
A body of case law dictates that city laws regulating busking must be narrowly tailored to “eliminate perceived evils” — itself a subjective term — and can only limit the time, place and manner of performances. And even then, municipalities must leave open “reasonable” alternative venues.
The Brothers of Brass are no strangers to the laws protecting them, and they frequently cite court cases in their own defense.
“I feel like we’re kind of a vanguard for First Amendment rights and busking rights in this city as it grows,” says Lopez.
The band, as he sees it, is forcing existential questions upon Denver that bring into relief broader concerns around homegrown art scenes and gentrification. “Are artists allowed to come to Denver and support themselves in the street?” Lopez asks. “Or are they going to be unfairly treated in favor of business interests?”
The Brothers of Brass started getting serious institutional pushback in 2016, when they were playing along the 16th Street Mall. That summer, the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District (BID) — a consortium of over 400 commercial property owners that’s overseen by the Downtown Denver Partnership — began to fight back against street musicians. According to the partnership’s guidelines on its website, no musical performances of any kind are supposed to take place along the 16th Street Mall without a permit, and performers must adhere to the city’s sound ordinances (which limit volume to 70 decibels after 10 p.m.).
But neither the permitting requirement nor the city’s sound ordinance are enforced much on the mall. What had been enforced until recently, it seems, was an additional “one-hour” rule drafted by the Downtown Denver BID that required musicians to move after playing in a particular spot for an hour. The Brothers of Brass viewed the rule as arbitrary, as well as legally toothless, since a private entity was forcing its own rule upon a public space.
The Downtown Denver Partnership drew concerns from legal watchdogs, including the ACLU of Colorado, when it hired its own private security force in 2016 to patrol the mall after businessmen working in the area got into a number of scuffles with groups of young transients whom Mayor Michael Hancock famously labeled “urban travelers.”
Over the past two years, the BID’s private security guards and the Brothers of Brass have routinely gotten into standoffs over the one-hour rule when the band has been asked to move. Knowing that the rule was likely unconstitutional, Lopez says, the band would stay put. Time and time again, security guards would call in officers from the Denver Police Department’s District 6; only then would the band move, under threat of a citation for disobeying a peace officer.
“We got to know the District 6 officers pretty well,” Lopez recalls. “But they’ve actually stopped bothering us this year. Our band recently won a victory with the city in that a director with Parks and Recreation came and said we can play on the mall.”
Lopez is referring to a day this past summer when the Brothers refused to move after being asked to by security guards. As the argument escalated, Scott Gilmore, Denver Parks and Recreation’s deputy manager, happened to pass by.
“I think he likes us,” Lopez says. “So when the District 6 cops were called in, [Gilmore] said, ‘They shouldn’t have to move.’
“To my knowledge, he then talked with the BID and got them to completely dissolve the one-hour rule, so they don’t come after us anymore,” Lopez continues.
The Downtown Denver BID did not respond to multiple requests by Westword for comment. Gilmore confirms the band’s retelling of what transpired that day, though he denies any involvement in the matter beyond helping them continue playing that performance.
“They were by a restaurant, and it seemed like everybody was enjoying them,” Gilmore says. “I was just walking by.”
Theater tenants at the Denver Performing Arts Complex have also taken issue with the group. Brian Kitts, spokesman for Denver Arts & Venues, which oversees the DPAC and other city facilities, does not mince words when it comes to the Brothers of Brass.
“There’s a difference between court cases and bad manners,” Kitts says. “They’re loud and they’re disruptive. Just because you have the right to perform on city property doesn’t mean you’re not disrupting what’s happening on stage inside of the buildings. That has been a complaint from performers. There’s this kind of — I think unintentional — effect of [the group’s] music being so loud that it’s affecting what’s happening on stage.”
While Kitts doesn’t have examples — nor has a DPAC show ever been halted on account of the Brothers of Brass — he notes that one of the ten venues in the complex, the Garner Galleria Theatre, is close to 14th Street and is only separated from the outdoor walkway by a thin glass partition. “The sound travels through that,” he says.
He continues, “This has been going on for more than two years. And, look, nobody begrudges their talents, nobody begrudges their ability to make money. It’s just that there’s a time and a place. And that’s how we ended up in mediation.”
At the request of Arts & Venues, and through the assistance of the Denver City Attorney’s Office, the Brothers of Brass were assigned a mediator to work out an agreement with the former regarding how and when they could perform in front of the performing arts complex. The mediation process is designed to produce a binding agreement between two parties while avoiding costly lawsuits.
Negotiations between the Brothers of Brass and Denver Arts & Venues started in late summer and stretched into fall, and an agreement was struck in October. According to Kitts, the Brothers of Brass can only perform on the sidewalk outside of the DPAC, and not while any shows are taking place in any DPAC spaces, including the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Garner Galleria Theatre, the Buell Theatre and Boettcher Concert Hall, so as not to disrupt performers. (Lopez disputes that the Brothers of Brass can be heard inside most of these venues.)
“They can only play at a certain volume,” Kitts continues. “Sound is measured midway through the Galleria and can be up to 75 decibels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and up to 70 decibels during nighttime hours.”
There’s now a small LED screen — visible from the sidewalk on 14th Street — that’s mounted above the north side of the Galleria’s walkway that displays decibel readings. The decibel meter was installed a few weeks after the agreement was made between the Brothers of Brass and Arts & Venues.
If the group violates the agreement’s terms, penalties could include fines as high as $250 per violation. Kitts says that he considers the agreement a compromise.
“I think this is an attempt to let them do what they do without penalizing them,” he says.
Even as the Brothers’ conflicts with the city and city-owned venues have been toned down through negotiations and closed-door mediation, there are still plenty of businesses and residents in the downtown area that are fed up with the group.
According to Denver Department of Public Safety records, there was one complaint made against the band in March this year that rose to the level of a possible offense. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that other complaints haven’t been made,” says records custodian Mary Dulacki. “They just may not rise to the level of a possible offense.”
The musicians are the first to admit that there are business owners who don’t like them, including a jeweler located in a building along Champa Street. But their most vocal critic is neither a business owner nor a resident; it’s another Denver street musician.
“Brothers of Brass have been, to put it conservatively, a mild nuisance for at least two years,” says Bret Dallas.
Dallas has been playing guitar on the 16th Street Mall for the past ten years. He says that most street musicians in Denver are cordial toward each other and, like him, have worked out respectful relationships with restaurants and businesses along the mall. But not the Brothers of Brass.
As Dallas remembers it, his beef with the band goes back to one night in the summer of 2016, when he was playing outside the DPAC and the Brothers of Brass showed up unannounced and completely overpowered him.
“There’s an unwritten code among street musicians — not just in Denver, but all over the world — that if someone’s already working a block or corner with their performance, generally it’s rude to show up and play right next to them,” Dallas explains.
He says he relocated to the 16th Street Mall and that the Brothers of Brass followed him there and overpowered him in his new spot. “From the jump, these guys were very territorial and confrontational. That’s when I had my first inkling that Brothers of Brass weren’t just this enterprising group of young men with some horn power trying to make a buck on the streets. These guys were out to conquer the streets,” Dallas says.
The Brothers dispute Dallas’s account, claiming that on the night in question, they first encountered the guitarist on the 16th Street Mall and that Dallas incited an additional confrontation by leaving and setting up in front of the DPAC, where he knew the band would play later.
Whatever the busking drama that occurred that night, the Brothers of Brass and Dallas have been fighting a turf war over busking spots in downtown ever since, with both parties trying to overpower the other — what’s known as “volume battles” in busking culture — to force the other to yield space.
But since the Brothers of Brass grew in size this year, Dallas no longer stands a chance in volume battles, even with his high-powered amplifier. This has hurt him financially, he says.
He explains that he used to make between $50 and $75 an hour on a good night on the 16th Street Mall. But because the Brothers of Brass like playing the same block — between Champa and Curtis streets — he’s forced to either move when they show up or try to play despite their overpowering volume. In either case, Dallas estimates, his income is cut by two-thirds as soon as the Brothers of Brass arrive.
“I think that’s what has motivated him to start his online campaign against us,” Lopez says.
Dallas wrote a long post on the main Denver Reddit page describing the Brothers of Brass as “a troupe of bullies,” an action that Lopez claims has inspired real-world threats of physical violence against his band on the 16th Street Mall as recently as this past summer. That includes one afternoon, Lopez says, when a fan of Dallas’s came up to Lopez during a performance and started shoving him as he was playing. The man then waved a metal cane in the air menacingly until police officers arrived to break up the scuffle.
For his part, Dallas disavows any connection to threats or acts of violence against the Brothers of Brass. He did, however, post a video on YouTube in late October in which he launched verbal attacks against Simon and Lopez. In the video, Dallas claims that Simon has a criminal rap sheet and says he’s heard that Lopez once pulled a gun on someone in the street.
Explaining his rationale for including the personal punches, Dallas says, “I’m not doxing anyone; I’m not out to hurt anyone. I just want it to be understood that the characters of the people behind the band are less than palatable.”
The line about Lopez pulling a gun (a charge Lopez vociferously denies) came from feedback Dallas received on his Reddit post. Dallas says that a user wrote a comment claiming that Lopez had pulled a gun on a friend. Dallas messaged the commenter to vet the story, and that’s why he felt comfortable including the claim in his YouTube video.
“If they did make that up, my question would be why,” he reasons.
Still, the guitar busker maintains that his online posts about the Brothers of Brass are not meant to inspire anyone to attack the group or to file noise complaints against them. “There’s just a growing discontent with them among business owners and street musicians in this city, and I’m happy to be at the front of it waving my flag,” Dallas says.
As the Brothers of Brass finish up their Friday night performance in front of the DPAC, spectators beam, slap the bandmembers on the back and laud them with verbal praise. But Lopez is somewhat shaken by the elderly woman who yelled at them midway through the performance.
He’s still reeling from the meeting the group had that morning with representatives from the city, the Curtis and Four Seasons hotels, and a number of private residents who live around the DPAC.
“There was one lady who lives in the Four Seasons who was especially out for us,” Lopez says. “She was being pretty condescending the whole time. She was definitely the ‘Can I speak to the manager?’ type. The nicest thing she said was that she’s glad we’re not on welfare.”
There were more pointed complaints, too.
“The hotel managers said that people are complaining and that they’ve had to comp rooms because of us,” Lopez continues.
But unlike the mediation process with Denver Arts & Venues, there was no formal, legally binding agreement spelled out at the November 16 meeting. Lopez says the gathering was arranged mostly so that all the parties could get to know each other and exchange contact information to work out any future concerns.
The only comment that the Downtown Denver Partnership would provide Westword for this story relates to the meeting: “In this situation, the role of the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District is to convene all parties and facilitate conversation. We are working closely with the band, the City, and other stakeholders to reach a mutually agreed-upon resolution.”
Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere during the meeting, Lopez says the Brothers of Brass learned a few things that may help the band avoid more noise complaints. “The most useful piece of information that we got from them was that the drums are the loudest thing,” he says. “Our horns are directional, and we point them away from apartments, but drums are not like that, and they echo everywhere. So we said we’ll try to be quieter as it gets later at night and invest in some hardware so we can actually accomplish that.”
That hardware would include a smaller bass drum, drumsticks that aren’t as loud, and gel pads to put over the snare drum so that the sound is muffled.
“I have high hopes for the drum-volume solution,” Lopez says.
Still, neither he nor Simon — the two current leaders of the band — have any plans to stop busking six days a week and playing at the DPAC during let-out.
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“I get it — we’re loud,” says Simon. “But this is also downtown. It’s supposed to be a place where people can be artists and do their thing. So if the [Downtown Denver Partnership and the DPAC] want us not to play there and not hustle as hard, maybe they can connect us with some of their bigwig corporate partners.”
The band is trying to play more private events anyway, Simon says. In 2018, the Brothers of Brass played a few weddings and a show at Cervantes’ and at Breckenridge Ski Resort’s opening day.
“We want to be able to operate long enough to finally sustain ourselves off the streets,” Lopez says. “Our end game — our goal — is that we don’t want to be out there on the streets.”
He pauses before adding, “But we also aren’t trying to get pushed around or treated unfairly, either.”