Late last year when committees began to consider who was eligible for New Orleans music awards nominators were faced with a puzzling dilemma. How could a Best Album award in the brass band category be given when there were virtually no newly recorded releases in 2007? This lack of new material from a city known for its brass bands was a troubling sign that the post-Katrina musical recovery in New Orleans might be built on a fragile foundation that could easily disappear before anyone realizes it.
When assessing the damage sustained by the New Orleans music community after Katrina, brass bands appeared to be among the hardest hit institutions. Many of the music’s elders, the keepers and teachers of the tradition, have passed away or been incapacitated. They didn’t have to die in the federal flood to be mortally wounded by the loss of home, relatives and the city’s poor post-Katrina health care.
The new generation of brass bands, made up of younger performers, have a better survival rate (although some of them have passed as well), but many of them have been displaced to other cities and have to commute back to New Orleans just to meet their live performance obligations, while others are living out of suitcases in FEMA trailers or with friends. When you have to hustle to put a roof over your head every night, making your next album may not be your first priority.
The biggest factor threatening the future of New Orleans brass bands is the widespread destruction of the neighborhoods that nurtured them. Without New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and parts of Uptown, and with the traditional music community of Treme being overrun by gentrification, the young people who represent the future of the brass bands, and African American culture in general, have been marginalized or are largely gone from the city.
As if to add insult to injury, two prominent members of the brass band community, Glen David Andrews and Derrick Tabb, were arrested last year for leading a second line parade through the Treme neighborhood in memory of their departed colleague, New Birth tuba player Kerwin James. The police were called in when those same gentrifying neighbors who are pushing the musicians out of their traditional homes in Treme complained about the noise.
“It’s a fact of life here for brass band players,” says Andrews. “Ten years ago I got arrested for playing too loud in Jackson Square with Tuba Fats. The main thing a person in my situation has to realize is how easy it is to get into the penitentiary.”
None of these problems will be immediately apparent to the average tourist attending this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band, the city’s best known brass bands, are both scheduled to play, as are the red-hot Soul Rebels, who have been scorching Frenchmen Street crowds with their weekend shows at the Blue Nile. The Hot 8 Brass Band, still recovering from the shocking murder of drummer Dinerral Shavers early last year, will also perform. The TBC Brass Band, which played in its usual spot on the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets the weekend before Katrina and has returned to Bourbon Street since the storm, will bring the raucous spirit trumpeter Jason Slack has encouraged since forming the band with classmates at George Washington Carver high school a couple of years ago. The woman of the Pinettes Brass Band will be on hand to prove that brass band culture isn’t just a man’s game. Dr. Michael White and Glen David Andrews will each lead their versions of the traditional brass band sound, as will the Preservation Hall band. Whether onstage or leading a second line, most significant brass bands will perform in one way or another during Jazz Fest.
One of the most intriguing brass band-related showcases at Jazz Fest will be the tribute to Tuba Fats, a show which is being organized appropriately enough by Rebirth’s Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier, who recorded the 2004 tribute to Tuba Fats, Rebirth for Life.
“We’re going to have a lot of people involved,” says Frazier. “We’re going to have five tuba players; the tuba player from the Pinettes Brass Band will be one of them. Trombone Shorty’s going to join us up there. It should be a lot of fun. We’ll do some of the material from that album, like ‘Tubaluba.’ But it’s not just going to be a tribute to Tuba Fats; it’s also going to be a tribute to my little brother Kerwin James.”
The fact that so many brass bands are still working at all is a testament to the sacrifices the musicians involved are willing to make to ensure that they are heard, and the good news is that at least one important new brass band album is scheduled for release around the time of Jazz Fest while several others are in the works.
The Rebirth Brass Band was one of the first groups to return to New Orleans after Katrina. It played three gigs on October 29, 2005, opening the truncated Voodoo Music Experience, playing a daytime gig in the Quarter, and a marathon show at Tipitina’s that night. Tuba Phil Frazier was chosen to be the subject of last year’s Jazz Fest Congo Square poster. The beautiful poster symbolized the spirit of recovery in New Orleans music and has become a kind of rallying point for the brass band movement.
“They called me to get my permission because I had to pose for the artist,” says Frazier. “I was really excited. I was so happy because it meant so much to me and all of my family and friends. To be on that poster meant that I was going to represent New Orleans. It made everybody feel proud.”
Frazier downplays the idea that Katrina stopped all the brass bands in their tracks.
“Not for the Rebirth,” he says. “When everybody was scattered about all over the place, we pulled it together weeks after the storm. We all made it back quick. Even my brother [bass drummer Derek Frazier] who’s living in Dallas, he was on the phone every day. We all got together and played.”
Perhaps in part because the band got back on its feet so quickly after the storm, Rebirth has completed recording its first release since Katrina, 25.
“It’s a two-CD release to celebrate our 25th anniversary,” says Frazier. “It’s got a lot of old things we did on it and some of the new things we’re doing. We’re going to release it independently and people will be able to order it at RebirthBrassBand.com.”
Though the album will cover a lot of the band’s history it’s all newly recorded.
“We wanted to show where we’ve been,” says Frazier, “but also how far we’ve come. All of it is new and it all works together. None of the new songs are about Katrina. We chose to avoid writing songs about Katrina and what happened after because after all everyone has been through, we just didn’t want to dwell on that anymore. We wanted it to be positive, like this is where we’re going now. We’re moving on.”
Nevertheless, post-Katrina hardships are a fact of life impacting most brass band players.
Glen David Andrews sat in with Rebirth at the Maple Leaf on a recent Tuesday night after his regular gig at Mid City Lanes.
“We were out there until 2:30 in the morning, then I went home to my uncle’s trailer,” says Andrews. “I’m up and out of there again by 8 a.m. It’s hard. My suit that I have to wear has to be folded up and put away in a suitcase every night because there’s nowhere to hang it. That’s a psychological problem. It wears on you over time.”
No band has suffered more than the Hot 8, which was in the process of putting together an album when Shavers was shot while driving his car early last year. Shavers was the third member of the Hot 8 to be killed by gun violence since Bennie Pete formed the band in 1994. Jacob Johnson, the group’s 17-year-old trumpet player, was shot to death in his home in 1996 and 22-year-old trombonist Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams was shot to death by the police in 2004. After Katrina, trumpeter Terrell Batiste lost his legs in a traffic accident in Atlanta when he was hit on the freeway while putting up cones to alert motorists that his car had broken down.
“We were putting an album together, a tribute album to Jacob Johnson and Shotgun Joe, when Dinerral was killed,” says Pete. “We had to step back from that, but we may continue the project and include Dinerral with the others in the tribute. Then we also had a long range plan to record another album for 2008 and promote ourselves around that. It was like 2008 is supposed to be our year—the Hot 8 in’08—y’know what I’m saying?”
The Hot 8 did record recently, contributing several superb backing tracks to the new Blind Boys of Alabama album, Down in New Orleans. Brass bands have shown a great adaptability to doing studio work with other artists, particularly the Dirty Dozen, which has recorded with many different musicians including a live album with Widespread Panic, who may well call them up to join in during their set at this year’s set at Jazz Fest.
One of the hottest recent brass band collaborations was the terrific work the Soul Rebels did with Galactic and Juvenile on the title track to last year’s Galactic release From the Corner To the Block.
“The Soul Rebels really did an amazing job there,” says Galactic’s Ben Ellman, who’s also a member of the Little Rascals Brass Band. “Juvenile came in and laid down his part but we didn’t have a chorus for the song. I called in the Soul Rebels and they came up with one on the spot that fit our concept perfectly.”
Jesse Paige, who runs the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street and often sits in as a percussionist with Trombone Shorty and other local acts, signed the Soul Rebels to a management contract after watching the group pack out the club week after week.
“We’ve had some of our biggest nights with them,” says Paige. “I have never seen them play an uninspired or disappointing set. Even if they’re sick or not feeling that into it, as soon as they hit the stage they put everything they have on the line. They’re such good musicians, and the rhythm section is outstanding. They’re in the studio now, the record won’t be ready for Jazz Fest, but it will probably be out later this year.”
Whether they record or not, Phil Frazier is convinced that brass band music is not only alive and well but has a great future.
“The music is strong,” he insists. “The world’s eyes are on New Orleans right now so this is our chance to step up. People are looking to the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen, and there are new bands coming along like the Hot 8, Free Agents, Small Souljas—there’s a lot of guys out there doing it, and there’s plenty more to come. It’s overflowing into hip-hop and other things. We got to maintain.”