Brass Band Jazz, Part Two: A Modern Tradition

(The second of a three part series on Modern Brass Band music. Read parts one and three.)

Jazz historian and clarinetist Dr. Michael White is the author of “The New Orleans Brass Band in the Twentieth Century: Nature, Style, and Social Significance” a definitively important essay on brass band that offers the best definition of a brass band available. Writing in Volume 4, Numbers 1 & 2 of the Xavier Review (1984), Dr. Michael White states:

“When one refers to the brass bands of New Orleans, one generally means those marching groups of between nine and twelve musicians who around 1900 began playing improvised jazz forms, head arrangements, and adaptations of standard marches, spiritual, dirges, ragtime, and popular music. These bands often consist of two or three trumpets, two trombones, a tuba, a clarinet, two drums and other brasses or reeds. The year 1900 marks an important transitionary period because beginning then and up until the present, the main emphasis of the bands in terms of performances and expectations shifted away from written music to spontaneous improvised jazz.”

During the 1950s and early 1960s a number of Europeans (mainly English and German) emigrated to New Orleans to learn the brass band music from the legendary elders. Men such as clarinetist George Lewis, bassist Slow Drag Pavegeau, drummer Paul Barbarin and numerous others were actually the second generation of traditional New Orleans jazz musicians. They had learned directly from the first generation and were the most authentic players of the traditional style. At one point, it even seemed that as the older African-American traditional musicians literally began dying off in the mid ’60s, the European newcomers who had assiduously apprenticed with the old masters would become the new masters.

But then a new development hit the scene: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. These musicians are credited with turning the brass band music scene around. It was no longer a question of simply playing the way the “old folks” played. A new and more contemporary sound was introduced, a sound which drew on bebop and contemporary Black popular music for its new direction while retaining the format and feel of the traditional marching brass band. It was an innovation that attracted the attention of hundreds of young African-American musicians. The ascendancy of the Dirty Dozen directly spawned and stylistically influenced a generation of young brass band players and bands such as The Rebirth, The Allstars, Pinstrip, Treme, The Chosen Few and others.

Because of their prominence it is easy to mark the rise of the Dirty Dozen as the beginning of the contemporary brass band scene, however, it is historically correct to point to two important individuals who actually set in motion the whole youth movement among brass band players: Ernest “Doc” Paulin and Danny Barker.

Doc Paulin

Proud, intelligent (some say that he is the shrewdest businessman among the elder bandleaders), and a maverick (he refuses to join the musicians union—”You don’t need nobody to tell you what to do. If you’re the leader, you’re suppose to take charge.”), Doc Paulin is also the major mentor of sub-40 year old brass band players in this city.

Michael White, who worked with both Doc Paulin and Danny Barker, confirms the importance of his apprenticeship with Doc Paulin. “From time to time all of the other bands like Olympia, Onward or Young Tuxedo would hire young musicians, but you had to already know how to play in order to be hired. Doc Paulin was the one who would take a green musician, someone who hadn’t really learned to play yet, and teach that person how to play brass band music.”

According to Dr. White, the lists of Doc Paulin alumni is extensive and includes some of the best known of today’s brass band musicians. In fact three of the better known tuba players (Walter Payton, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, and Alton “Big Al” Carson), as well as Dirty Dozen trumpeter and business manager Gregory Davis and Young Tuxedo Brass Band leader and trumpeter Gregg Stafford, have all played with Doc Paulin. Additionally, a number of youngsters, such as saxophonist Donald Harrison, who would go on to play modern jazz also served time with Doc Paulin.

“I taught all of them. And not just music. I taught them how to be a musician. How to dress, how to rehearse, how to present themselves,” asserts Doc Paulin, the proud patriarch. Dr. White vividly remembers that band members were required to assemble at Doc’s house and pass muster. “He checked hats and shoes, the whole uniform. In fact, much of the lessons he taught me I use on gigs everyday as a musician and bandleader myself.”

Because Doc Paulin was not a union musician it was easier for him to use young musicians, most of whom were not yet in the union. It was also more economical because the young musicians were not paid union scale. The fact is that the majority of the youngsters would not have been able to get union scale anyway, not just because they weren’t in the union but also because they had not yet learned to play well enough for union bands to hire them. Doc Paulin offered a working apprenticeship teaching youngsters the rudiments of brass band music.

Danny Barker

Danny Barker’s contribution was qualitatively of a different order. Following up on a suggestion by Rev. Andrew Darby, a progressive, Baptist minister in the St. Bernard area who was concerned about the youth of his community, Danny Barker started the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band as a means of organizing kids around an activity they could do for themselves. He taught them music, but he was not actually in the band itself. Through Rev. Darby, the young band began to get a number of gigs playing for church affairs including groundbreakings, fund raisings, anniversaries, youth programs and the like. Eventually, the band began attracting youngsters citywide.

The specific difference between this band and Doc Paulin’s band, which used youth (including at least four of Doc’s own sons), was that in the Fairview Band, Danny Barker instituted the first all-youth brass band based on cooperative economics.

“I didn’t take more money because I was the leader. I got them together and whatever we got paid we split up evenly among all the members. The kids counted the money themselves. The important thing was to get them involved in some positive and useful activity. After they left the Fairview, they were equipped to go out on their own as musicians and to start their own bands.”

This was a major development, never before had a band composed entirely of young people and based on economic egalitarianism been active on the brass band scene.

When the Rebirth Brass Band was filmed during a stint in the quarter, the “divvying-up” into equal portions of the money collected in the cardboard kitty box illustrated a direct manifestation of the principles that Danny Barker had taught. And less some think that the link between Danny Barker’s teachings and this example is a bit far fetched, I point out that the Rebirth Brass Band was tutored by Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen who served an apprenticeship with trumpeter Leroy Jones in Jones’ “Hurricane Brass Band,” which was a band that Jones formed from remnants of the Fairview Brass Band of which he had been one of the long-standing members.

It is impossible to conceive of the contemporary brass band scene without considering the contributions of Doc Paulin and Danny Barker. Although neither of these men actually played in the new style or taught the younger musicians to play in the new style, Doc Paulin and Danny Barker were the foundation on which the new music stylings would be erected.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

If Doc Paulin and Danny Barker are the foundation, the scaffold for the new departure in brass band music was bebop jazz. One has only to listen for a short while to the Dirty Dozen to hear their stylistic debt to bebop and jazz references and influences other than traditional New Orleans jazz. In order to fully understand the origin of their ideas, we must look at the “lost generation” of New Orleans jazz musicians—best exemplified by Red Tyler and Ellis Marsalis, but also including the likes of Harold Batiste, Ed Blackwell, Earl Palmer, Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan, James Black, Earl Turbinton, George Davis, and others too numerous to list in this context.

I call them the “lost generation” not because they are literally lost, but rather because they were for the most part lost to traditional New Orleans jazz, even though, at one time or another, all of them played some traditional jazz. Although pianist and modern jazz sire Ellis Marsalis played more trad jazz than most of his peers through long stints with Al Hirt and with other trad bands in the city, still, even in his case, his heart, just like his peer colleagues, was firmly planted in the modern jazz camp.

The young musicians of that period were overwhelmingly either enamored of bebop and wanted more than anything to play modern jazz (e.g. Ellis Marsalis, Ed Blackwell, the late Nat Perilliat, and Earl Turbinton) or else they ended up splitting their affections between major careers in R&B and side careers as jazz artists (e.g. Red Tyler, Harold Batiste, Wallace Davenport—who was Ray Charles’ musical director for a number of years, Dave Bartholomew—who has been Fats Domino’s band leader since the beginning of Fats’ success, Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton, and James Rivers).

An interesting footnote is Red Tyler’s contribution to R&B as a baritone saxophonist who translated the tuba-like bass riffs to the baritone saxophone on a plethora of 1950s and 1960s New Orleans R&B hits. This duality of playing both R&B and jazz happened partly because there has never been a rigid separation of music in New Orleans. Additionally, most professional New Orleans musicians are required to competently play in at least two or three different styles of music. Finally, the financial rewards were much higher in R&B than in modern jazz.

Reductively, if a young musician wanted to make a living as a musician in New Orleans during the ’50s & ’60s, the most prudent course of action was R&B. Although the trad revival was in full swing, most trad jazz audiences insisted on “authentic” New Orleans jazz, which meant music played by the older musicians and not by the young musicians. Compounding the “authenticity” aspect, was also the social climate of that era during which some musicians looked on traditional jazz as “old timey” at best and “Uncle Tom” music at worse. This is the context within which the Dirty Dozen Brass Band struck a new course.

While it is difficult and unfair to single out anyone individual musician among the band members to say that they were the major influence on the new direction of the music, undoubtedly Roger Lewis is a key figure in the band’s stylistic evolution. Roger Lewis was of that generation that had been turned on by bebop, and he also held down a full time chair as the baritone sax player with Fats Domino. Roger is responsible for advancing a bebop base for Dirty Dozen experimentations.

Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, the son of traditional jazz trombonist Waldren “Frog” Joseph, Sr. who played with Louis Armstrong, was directly influenced by Roger Lewis. Eventually, Kirk Joseph developed a style of sousaphone playing that is based not on the traditional New Orleans tuba style but rather on the rapid-fire bebop string bass line.

Kirk Joseph has noted that in order to play like he does he had to figure out new “breathing techniques and fingerings.” His technical competence is absolutely astounding as he plays with a swiftness even some string or electric bass players can’t match. Kirk’s sound is aggressive in all registers of the big horn, from the gruff bottom notes to pristine sparkling high note forays.

Mirroring the difficulties inherent in playing bebop for swing musicians, the Dirty Dozen’s departure from the old style was not only innovative, it also required a level of technique in terms of speed, stamina and mastery of chord changes that had pot previously been necessary in playing traditional brass band music.

I do not mean to imply that traditional brass band music is easy or does not require technical mastery. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, musicians who were not reared in this culture often find it difficult if not impossible to master the subtleties of trad jazz, which emphasize timbre, tone, attack, and collective improvisation more than dexterity and harmonic complexity. The point here, however, is that the Dirty Dozen have been singularly responsible for introducing the language of bebop into traditional New Orleans brass band music.