The Original Pinettes Brass Band: Brass-Pop

The Original Pinettes Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Original Pinettes Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

L-R: Dionne Harrison, trombone; Janine Waters, sousaphone/assistant band leader; Natasha Harris, saxophone; Jazz Henry, trumpet; Dee Holmes, trombone; Nicole Elwood, trombone; Tylita Curtain, trumpet; Veronique Dorsey, trumpet; Christie A. Jourdain, snare drum/band leader.

It’s Friday night on Frenchmen Street, almost 10 p.m., and a crowd is starting to gather in strength at Maison. Christie Jourdain, snare drummer and leader of the Original Pinettes, stands at the front door greeting fans and checking out the scene while the rest of the band collects at the banquette in the back of the club. Judging from the crowd, the Original Pinettes appear to be gathering a dramatically younger group of fans than their brass-band peers, and when the group takes the stage moments later with a hip-hop call- and-response chant, the reason for this demographic is immediately obvious.

These young women have a pop formula that works hand-in-hand with their brass-band style, a vocal group panache that is tried-and-true hit material going back to the days of the rock ‘n’ roll girl groups of the early ‘60s. The catchy chants are crisp and joyful, a studied use of crowd-pleasing elements that run from Cab Calloway to Lil’ Wayne. It’s part show business, part community identity and the crowd chants along without prompting from the band.

The band plays “Ghostbusters,” and when they chant “Who you gonna call?” the crowd roars back “Pinettes!” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” becomes a raucous sing-along. The pattern repeats all through the set as the band chants and the audience responds.

Jourdain clearly remembers a time when those crowds would show up for other brass bands but not hers. “We played a lot of shows where there were maybe one or two people in the audience,” she says. “We’d be opening for Rebirth and the place would be empty when we played, then it would fill up when Rebirth came on.” It was just about a year ago when Jourdain started noticing the numbers grow at Original Pinettes shows.

“We had a really good show at the French Quarter Fest last year, and people were really excited about it afterwards. Fans were coming up and asking, ‘When will you play Jazz Fest?’ We had been playing Jazz Fest since 1991! We used to walk down the street and nobody knew us. Now people stop and say ‘You’re the Pinettes!’”

The Original Pinettes Brass Band at French Quarter Festival 2011. Photo by Golden Richard III.

Nicole Elwood (trombone) and Janine Waters (sousaphone) at French Quarter Fest 2011. Photo by Golden Richard III.

It might seem strange that it took 21 years for the band to catch on like this. But it’s been an extremely long and bumpy road for these ladies. The Pinettes were actually organized by Jeffrey Herbert, the band instructor at St. Mary’s Academy High School, back in 1991. Herbert, who was a member of the Pinstripe Brass Band, had a brainstorm to organize part of the marching band at St. Mary’s into an all-girl brass band and name it after the Pinstripes.

Jourdain was alternate snare drummer in the 16-piece unit, and Herbert taught her lessons in discipline that she still applies to the band today.

“When I came up under Mr. Herbert,” she says, “his motto was ‘No one is indispensable.’ He didn’t only say it, he showed me. I learned my drums and I remember thinking I had everything under my belt and I didn’t go to practice. Then we had a big parade and I showed up with my drums and he says ‘Whatcha doin?’ I say ‘I’m gonna walk the parade.’ He says ‘No you’re not.’ I’m like ‘Why not?’ and he says ‘You didn’t come to my practice.’ I thought, okay he’s not gonna enforce that because half of the band didn’t make the rehearsal. Then I saw him walk up the street with maybe like 30 kids, and none of them played that weren’t at the practice. He showed me that you’re going to respect what I’m doing here and that’s what I tell ‘em now.”

Herbert’s students were well-schooled in the fundamentals and prided themselves in playing as a unit, but it was hard to build continuity because once members graduated they were no longer in the band.

“People would leave town to go to college or whatever, and Mr. Herbert would have to find a replacement,” explains Jourdain.

That’s exactly how tuba player Janine Waters got into the band back in 1993. “People were living their lives, getting married and having kids,” says Waters. “At the time I got in the band the tuba player (Dee Holmes), who is actually one of the trombone players now, had graduated and was out of the band, so Mr. Herbert got me to play the tuba and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Over the years, a core group of St. Mary’s alumni gradually took over the band, and when Herbert took a teaching position in Baton Rouge the girls had to fend for themselves.

“We made a transition just before 2000,” says Waters, “trying to see where everybody was, making sure everybody was on the same page. We had to figure out how to do things on our own. When Mr. Herbert was over it he did everything for us. We didn’t have to do anything, just showed up with our instruments, got paid and that was that. But once you’re in charge it’s totally different.”

For Jourdain it was the beginning of a full-time commitment to the group.

“When I started I couldn’t commit,” she says, “because I was a freshman in high school and Mr. Herbert wanted us to be available for all the practices. I came up with some bogus reason not to do it because I wanted to be on the street, to be honest. But eventually I got into it, and when we started back in 2000 I was totally into it.”

The band struggled to find its identity beyond simply being an all-female brass band, but was well supported by other New Orleans musicians.

“I’m good friends with Derrick Tabb, Trombone Shorty, and Philip Frazier,” says Jourdain. “One day, I was in the studio where Troy [“Trombone Shorty” Andrews] was working and he said, ‘Come on, let me show you something.’ He said ‘You’re doing pretty well, but I’m about to show you how to really do it.’ He sat me down for hours and said, ‘Let me show you how to play this correct.’

He sat me down and taught me how to phrase, taught me how to approach the music. When I got into this I didn’t really know what I was doing. He’s such a great musician. Philip Frazier was also always very helpful, looking out for us. I was very fortunate he took me under his wing. He would say, ‘This is a business and this is how it goes sometimes. It’s not always gonna be nice, but you can’t cry about it.’ Bo Dollis was another good friend who really helped us. He always hooked us up. We toured a lot with the Wild Magnolias because we had the same manager for a while. He was like an older brother.”

The Original Pinettes Brass Band at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2011. Photo by Golden Richard III.

The Original Pinettes Brass Band at Jazz Fest 2011. Photo by Golden Richard III.

In a story that has been repeated so many times by so many New Orleans musicians, the group was starting to make real progress when Katrina came through on August 29, 2005, and the next day a massive levee failure flooded the city.

“Once Katrina hit, the band was scattered everywhere, as you can imagine,” says Waters. “The two girls who were running the band couldn’t get to New Orleans. Christie and I were in Houston. She was gonna give up, but I said if you want to try and run the band I can help you, whatever you need I can help you out. So we were coming to New Orleans every weekend, driving down from Houston, trying to find people who could be in the band, because at the time we only had a back row, just tuba, bass drum and the snare drum. So we were down here looking at high school marching bands and trying to put a band together. We started finding people member by member, and we grew to the band we are today.”

Jourdain and Waters were aided by a strange accident of fate. The high school marching bands after the flood were decimated. At Mardi Gras in 2006, there were far fewer young black males in New Orleans and the marching bands featured many more female members than usual.

“I don’t know why that was,” says Waters, “but we did find a lot of females in the marching bands. We wanted to get them while they’re young. Once we get a little older they can keep the band going.”

The kids of the Original Pinettes Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The second generation of the Original Pinettes Brass Band. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Jourdain and Waters had reformed the group, but it took them two years to return home.

“We rode home every weekend and tried to play a gig,” says Jourdain. “We weren’t making any money, we just wanted to do it. It was hard, we couldn’t even get gigs on Frenchmen Street. We would play private parties. There wasn’t much because we still didn’t have a fan base.”

The group encountered another problem when other former Pinettes returned to New Orleans. Suddenly there were two different groups using the name Pinettes.

“Instead of fighting over the name,” said Jourdain, “we just changed the name and copyrighted it. We are the Original Pinettes Brass Band.”

With the new name came a new approach to the music.

“When Mr. Herbert was over the band, the girls were kind of uniform,” says Waters. “They didn’t play many solos, where you go off on your own and figure things out and come back to the band with new ideas. I figure they just didn’t know [how] or they were afraid to, but now it’s like everyone comes in with ideas. Everyone in the band brings something to the table. Now you’re going to get at least three solos every song. A couple of years ago we didn’t have that; you might hear one solo.”

The spirited chanting was another one of the new ideas the Original Pinettes adopted.

“That started about a year ago,” says Waters, “because the girls were pretty timid about getting on the mic, but once we realized that this is how you get your crowd into it, people love to hear you on the mic chanting and they like to chant with you. The audience loves loves loves that when we chant and they chant with us. When you’re on a job you see what works for you, and you just add on to that. Once we started chanting and the audience went crazy that was it. From then on we just continue to do it.”

Jourdain, who grew up during the MTV era, understands the pop element of her band’s approach and sees it as a natural outgrowth of her own taste in music.

“Brass band, that’s in its own category,” she says. “There’s nothing like it, it’s always going to be part of being born and raised here in New Orleans, Louisiana, but what we try to do is bring our own style to it as the Pinettes Brass Band—bring a little R&B, bring a little hip-hop. I was raised on MTV, so that kind of works its way in there. We already did ‘Ghostbusters’ but I wanted to do ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ or Amy Winehouse. I like that because pop—to me pop is no color, it’s a diverse music. You have Prince, you have Michael Jackson, you have Cyndi Lauper, you have Bruce Springsteen, it didn’t matter if you were male or female, you could have a ZZ Top-like audience or you could have groups like the Bangles or the Go-Gos. That’s the target I’m going for. I’m not trying to be different, I just do what I like, and that’s what makes us different.”

When the Original Pinettes hit the stage Saturday night in the Essence Festival’s Coca-Cola Superlounge, festgoers will be treated to the band’s unique brand of brass pop.

“We always have something we’re gonna pull out of our sleeve, and we’ll do that at Essence Fest too,” says Waters. “We’ll try to keep it a secret for now, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the crowd reacts. I love to be up there on stage and seeing people’s faces. At first when they see us, they’re like, ‘Look at these girls, let’s see what they can do.’ Once we start to play they’re in shock.”

Before long they’ll be chanting along themselves, won over by the girl-power style of the Original Pinettes.