Obituary: Kerwin James (1972 – 2007)

With the death of New Birth Brass Band tuba player Kerwin James last month, New Orleans lost another of its trademark musicians. James’ merry bass brass beats provided the underpinning for the ambulatory joys of New Birth’s spirited take on the floating party at the center of this city’s music culture.

“I miss him, I miss him so much you don’t even know,” says Philip Frazier. Philip and fellow Rebirth Brass Band member Keith Frazier are Kerwin’s older brothers. Philip, a tuba player himself, remembers Kerwin doing what little brothers have always been known for—trying to get in on the fun. “But it was never like we told him to go on home and not bother us,” recalls Frazier. “He was my baby brother. It was good for him to come out with us.”

When Rebirth would go to play street gigs in the French Quarter, James would tag along, entertaining the audience with his dancing. “The only time he would play with the band is if I couldn’t make a gig and he would take my place,” says Frazier, “although one time at the Maple Leaf bar I put him on bass drum and Keith played snare because our snare drummer couldn’t make it. That’s the only time the three of us ever played on stage together.”

James was playing tuba by age 11 and played with the Jr. Olympia Brass Band and the All-Stars in addition to New Birth.

“When he started to pick up that horn, he was a natural,” says Philip. “It wasn’t school training.”

That’s James’ monster tone that opens up the first eight bars of New Birth’s 1997 debut, D-Boy. His tuba sound was monumental, powerful through the bass range but with a well-defined top that pushed the music along as well as anchoring it. He was clearly influenced as much by electric funk bass lines as traditional brass sounds, as his powerful ostinato riff on the title track demonstrates.

James can be counted among the incidental victims of Katrina whose health was compromised by the deadly conditions and unrelenting stress that followed the storm as well as the absence of quality health in its aftermath.

“He was definitely a Katrina victim,” Frazier says. “He was really worried about mama during and after the storm. He was worried about his band, about us, he took it really hard and then he got sick.”

James suffered a severe stroke in 2006 that left him incapacitated, and his passing was a result of complications from the stroke.

Even in his death, Kerwin James remained a powerful symbol of the street music he loved so much. During an impromptu second line in his brother’s memory, Philip Frazier watched in disbelief as fellow musicians Derrick Tabb and Glen David Andrews were arrested by New Orleans police for parading without a permit, a moment that recalled the New Birth song, “Who Dat Called Da Police?”

Published November 2007, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 20, No. 11.