The resurgence of brass band music in the Crescent City—ever since Danny Barker organized the Fairview Baptist Church band in the 70s and taught the younger generations how to re-invent the tradition for themselves—has been one of the utter glories of modern-day New Orleans.
Spurred by Leroy Jones’ Hurricane Brass Band and Tuba Fat’s Chosen Few—and further inspired by veteran ensembles like the Treme, Algiers and Pinstripe Brass Bands—the new brass movement reached its early peak when the Dirty Dozen marched out of Treme and onto the world stage in the 80s.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band burst onto the scene with a stunning combination of brilliant musicianship, deep roots and a genius for fusing diverse elements of the historical and contemporary idioms into a boiling, blistering, relentlessly funky brass band sound that demanded to be danced to.
Soon the teenaged ReBirth Brass Band joined the parade, creating its own brand of musical delight and sparking a genuine renaissance of brass band music within the next generation of players which has resulted in the emergence of great new ensembles like the Soul Rebels, Li’l Rascals, New Birth, Coolbone, the High Steppers and the Looney Tunes.
These outfits share a common origin in the streets of Treme and the Seventh Ward and in the communal musical tradition of New Orleans, where the sounds of the brass bands permeate the city’s African-American neighborhoods and provide a pulsating backdrop for eating, drinking, dancing, partying and every sort of activity from birth to death. There is a naturalness and ease to the music that’s found nowhere else in this godforsaken land, a sense of everyday functionality that has disappeared from almost everywhere in American except in the Crescent City.
“Brass band music is a minute-by-minute, second-by-second experience,” tuba virtuoso Matt Perrine enthuses. “It comes from a space that I really love—it’s a very joyful kind of thing. Yeah, that’s it—that’s what I love about it. I feel very fortunate to be living in New Orleans and to be playing brass band music because of the joyful space that it comes from and its historical significance, and the fact that, in my opinion, it’s going to be reaching a much wider audience as time goes on.”
Perrine himself is a perfect example of that “much wider audience” that’s come to embrace the brass band sound from a long way away from Treme. Like so many local youths from the neighborhoods, this California native drew his inspiration from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but he had to follow the music he heard on their recordings back to its source in the Crescent City’s African-American community.
“The largest part of why I moved down here,” Perrine recalls, “was to play brass band music. Before I heard the Dozen, I had resigned myself to being a bass player for a living, because I didn’t know where else I could play the tuba the way I wanted to play it. So I was playing be-bop gigs and funk gigs with electric bass and things like that. Then I heard the Dirty Dozen, and it was like Kirk Joseph calling me home, so now I could consider being a tuba player again.”
Now Perrine’s not just a bona fide New Orleans tuba player but the musical director and a key arranger, composer and producer for the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, an all-star ensemble assembled by some of the city’s brightest rising traditional and modern jazz stars—mostly of the Euro-American persuasion—who have committed themselves to exploring the contemporary brass band idiom in all its splendor.
The Nightcrawlers eponymous debut album for Rounder Records shows off the band’s initial efforts in fine form and serves notice that there’ll be plenty more to come from this new-fashioned purveyor of street-level New Orleans funk.
“The thing about the Nightcrawlers,” trumpeter/arranger Keven Clark points out, “is that it’s different because of different people. It’s not better, it’s just different. I mean, you can put on the Soul Rebels and put on the Nightcrawlers and notice the difference.”
Perrine adds, “A lot of jazz musicians take themselves too seriously and it sops them from realizing that the purpose of an artist is really to provide perople with what they’re looking for—what they need. Some people want to go to a place and be challenged; other people want to go to a place and forget about everything. That’s why I like to play at places like Donna’s, where it’s all about dancing and having a good time.
“A lot of the Nightcrawlers are not from New Orleans,” Perrine continues, “so sometimes it’s difficult to get that same kind of feel that the other brass bands have. For example, a lot of the guys in the Nightcrawlers had not been in a band before where it was appropriate to jump up and down and shake your butt and yell something just because you feel like singing it.”
“In fact, the Nightcrawlers started out as kind of a writers’ workshop,” Clark explains. “It was me, Rick Trolsen, Matt Perrine and Tom McDermott. We were just going to use it as a vehicle to write.”
Perrine adds, “I knew Tom McDermott from the Maison Bourbon, which is where I was working with Steve Yocum’s band. And when Kevin Clark came to town—it’s such a small community—we just kind of met each other. So when Tom and Kevin were talking about a hand, they came to me, because they knew I was interested in a brass band and I had written arrangements for brass bands that I wanted to try.
“So we just called on the guys we thought would be interested and started getting together and trying the stuff out. None of us really had any expectation that it would go this far. I knew instantly that this is what I wanted to do, but you never know when you start a group if this is going to be the thing that’s going to reach the other side.”
“I guess the story is that I always loved the Dirty Dozen,” McDermott remembers, “and I was able to do one arrangement on their Jelly album. I got involved toward the very end of it—I suggested ‘New Orleans Joys,’ and that’s the one that got recorded.
“I had written this other tune,” McDermott continues, “sort of an homage to Henry Butler called ‘Heavy Henry.” So I arranged that and gave it to Gregory Davis for the Dirty Dozen, but nothing happened with it. So I talked to Matt and Kevin and said, ‘Let’s see what we can do with it,’ Kevin contacted Barney Floyd, the other trumpet player. I wanted Eric Traub from the beginning but he wasn’t immediately interested.”
Perrine elaborates, “I knew what Eric Traub before I moved to town and when we first started the band, we didn’t think we could get somebody like Eric Traub involved—he’s just in another league. But Eric got a copy of our demo tape and called us up and said, ‘I would be interested in coming in and being a part of the band.’ We are very, very lucky to have somebody with his experience and heart.”
“We just kind of picked from friends of ours who played well and who would be interested musically and knew that it wasn’t a money thing, at least initially,” McDermott says. “Ken ‘Snakebite’ Jacobs is a guy that I have known since I came to town in 1984 and I’ve always liked his playing. And originally we had Evan Christopher, who is just an astounding clarinet player.
“Rich Trolsen was an old friend who plays great—a very advanced player who has his own band called Neslort. Jason Mingledorff was studying at UNO when Matt heard him and invited him to join. Craig Klein I’ve known for a long time, so he was a natural for the band. The drum section was originally Pete Kaplan, who plays with Neslort, and there was a fellow named Mark Morris who had just moved from Nashville, but then he left to work on one of the boats, and Frank Oxley was our replacement. Frank is from an old New Orleans music family; his dad played with George Lewis and many others.” McDermott adds, “We didn’t intentionally set out to have this be an all-white band. It worked out that way because the players we played with and knew were white, but Frank got in because he was available and he’s a good player. Evan, our original clarinet player, is actually Asian-American. You work with people that you know; we are definitely not out to make a point that way.”
“I think the nucleus of the band is strong,” Clark affirms, “and there are so many different approaches in the Nightcrawlers, too. I don’t think I’m alone in my vision of what I want, but the direction that I’m going to go is different than what Matt’s going to do. Eric Traub’s got a brass band tune on his computer at home. I’m really proud to be in this band.”
“Everybody in the band has been very generous with their time,” Perrine enthuses. “That makes me think they’re going to be willing to stick it out until it gets to the next step, which so many don’t ever get to that point. In fact, if the band wasn’t so good, there is no way it would have stayed together. We each go for the joy of playing with the others.”
“You know,” McDermott points out, “we still have played only about 50 gigs, and at this point it is still hard to get the full band together for a gig because everybody is working. Eric goes out with Dr. John and other people; Craig goes out with Leroy Jones; and Kevin is out with the Dukes of Dixieland. So, when the whole hand is there, it makes a huge difference. As it stands now, Matt has sort of taken charge of the music, and he really is the one guy who is pretty indispensible to the Nightcrawlers.”
To which Perrine adds, “Right now, we have a backlog of six or seven charts that we haven’t even started working on—all kinds of different things, a lot of 70s funk tunes and a lot of originals.
Kevin Clark brings another outlook to the Nightcrawlers’ book. “What I would like to do is write contemporary dance tunes. I have a real fondness for the funk era of the 70s, like James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament. I also have a real fondness for early metal bands like Led Zepplin and Arrowsmith. So what I’m trying to do with the band is get a really accessible tune, like the Santana tune I want to do, ‘Everybody is Everything,’ and ‘Black Dog,’ the classic Zepplin tune.”
“We’re trying to be as up-to-date and as funky as the kids that play down in Jackson Square,” Perrine confesses. “Every time I walk by there, I have to stop and listen to them. That’s something that is not going to happen anywhere else—that’s a real New Orleans experience.”
“We recorded this CD ourselves,” says McDermott, the band’s co-founder and executive producer who also serves as the CEO of the Nightcrawlers’ business entity. “It was complicated because we now have a two-record contract, including the first album, but we didn’t record this under contract with Rounder. Our first choice was Rounder but they passed for various reasons after hearing our demo tape. At some point, Scott Billington heard a couple of the cuts that we had recorded ourselves and he said, ‘I think I can see this to Rounder.’”
“It happened very quickly.” Perrine agrees. “Three days later there was a signed contract. We had expected to put it out on a smaller label, and hoped to attract Rounder for the second album. So this just brings it up a year, as far as our overall plan is concerned—such as it is.” (Laughs).
”’A lot of young musicians across the country are really getting influenced by this music,” Perrine sums up. “I taught at a jazz camp out in California recently, and many of the students have been listening to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for years, and have begun to get into Re-Birth. They are accepting it as a musical direction. And I just recently saw a CD by a Japanese brass band playing contemporary New Orleans brass band sounds. So that tells me it’s an international movement now, and
there are bands all over the world that are playing brass band music.
“There have been many bands in New Orleans that have influenced the style and there will be many more to come. All I can hope is that the Nightcrawlers will be one of them.”
The New Orleans Nightrcrawlers will play these gigs around town during October: At Donna’s on Oct. 3, 10, 17 &: 24; at Dream Palace on Oct. II; and on Halloween night Oct. 31) at Maple Leaf. •
John Sinclair is a poet, performer, record producer and WWOZ programmer who will celebrate the release of his fourth CD, Full Circle (Alive Records) featuring guitarist Wayne Kramer, later this month.