Andrew Hall met David Bowie on just one occasion.
“Wild, that was,” says Hall, sharing with textbook British dry wit the story of Bowie’s after-party for the 1970 “Night in New Orleans” concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre, which featured headliner Dr. John plus the Meters on a bill that also included Hall’s Preservation Hall-inspired Society Brass Band. “It was when [Bowie] had his hair in all different stripes of color. His wife had the exact same coloring. They hosted the party at the Café Royal on Regents Street. Everybody came—Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney. The only time I met any one of them was when they came to see us play. Amazing, that was.”
Wearing pressed dark slacks, button-down Oxford shirt and tweed jacket, Hall talks while seated in the parlor room at Rose Manor, a bed-and-breakfast his friends own in Lakeview. He turns 73 in October and his voice arrives altered by the removal seven years ago of a vocal chord in a surgery to remove cancer cells. Hall is at Rose Manor to talk about the Society Brass Band, which he formed in 1967 in Nottingham, England—50 years ago, and three years before he would move to his adopted hometown of New Orleans.
“It’s quite funny,” Hall responds when asked what first brought him to New Orleans. “I was upstairs in a pub in Birmingham, England. This is 1966. There was a band from London in there playing and I went in and sat in on piano. They said, ‘You sound just like Billie.’ I said, ‘Who’s he?’ They answered, ‘Not he. She. Billie Pierce is a woman.’ They were talking about Billie Pierce, who was the main attraction at Preservation Hall for years. I went and found their record the next day and I said, ‘I just have to go and meet these people.’ And so I did and I stayed 35 years.”
Hall’s 35-year mark in New Orleans was met by Hurricane Katrina, which forced him back to the home he still owns in Newark, England. During his childhood there, Hall’s first instrument was piano, beginning when he started school, before he joined a cadet band at age 12 and started drumming. “The snare drum—that’s what got me into the brass band music,” he says. “I became exposed to it by listening to records and talking to people that I knew that had been to New Orleans. I heard it and thought it was different than any music I heard before.”
Also raised on the rock ’n’ roll sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and, of course, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Hall started the Society Brass Band as a 22-year-old in Nottingham. “The response was good,” he says. “We played some carnivals—not as flamboyant as such things here—some museum openings, weddings. The personnel, the instrumentation were based on the New Orleans sound.”
Upon arriving in New Orleans in 1970 to find his Preservation Hall heroes, Hall thought, “‘I need to get a band together that does the old style of music,’” he recalls. “By the mid-’70s, my band was doing very good. We played the Maple Leaf the day it opened—February 23, 1974. We were regulars there until 1981. We still play there the Friday over every French Quarter Fest, going there after we play the opening parade that afternoon.”
Present-day drummer (and fellow Englishman) Barry Martyn moved to town and joined the Society Brass Band in the mid-’80s. Martyn “brought a lot of experience in brass bands, got us organized, and happened to have the musical scores from one of the bands—Eureka Brass Band, maybe, or Onward Brass Band—that in the 1950s were playing funerals the same way they played funerals in the 1800s. Every French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, we’ll play one or two numbers that same way, too. A lot of that tradition comes from the way of doing things in Sicily. It all kind of blends together here in New Orleans. Everything goes in.”
At French Quarter Fest, Hall will be joined in the Society Brass Band by Martyn (drums), Clive Wilson (trumpet), Marla Dixon (trumpet, Shotgun Jazz Band), Tom Sancton (tenor sax), Lucien Barbarin (trombone) and Tommy Fischer (alto sax), and will be led at Friday’s parade by their grand marshal, Andrew LeBoeuf. Hall points out with noticeable pride past Society players in Jesse Charles, Reginald Cola, Albert Walters, bass drummer Charlie Barbarin and Kid Sheik.
“I’m surprised it lasted this long,” Hall says of his brass band—the band gold-stitched SOCIETY for his hat, which also makes 50 this year. “The sad note, if there is to be one, is that so many of the guys I’ve played with are dead. Because I had some of the best brass band musicians play with me for years and years.”
The Society Brass Band plays French Quarter Fest at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, April 9 at the Old U.S. Mint.