On his first day off following a Jazz Fest whirlwind of some 20 gigs, ReBirth Brass Band’s Philip Frazier sat in my kitchen a bit worse for wear from his exhaustive schedule. It’s not surprising that his resistance was down after days that included he and the band flying to three separate gigs and performances that started at 2 and 4 in the morning. At Café Brasil, the ReBirth blew until 6 a.m.
“That was great,” ReBirth’s leader and tuba player assures, “but people weren’t going nowhere. I was like, ‘Why don’t y’all go home?’ The louder we got, the crazier the crowd got.”
The ReBirth Brass Band has been funkin’ it up for crazy crowds since 1983. Last year the ensemble partied down in commemoration of its 20th anniversary. On May 28 and 29 it returned to the scene of the hoopla at Tipitina’s to celebrate the release of ReBirth for Life on the Tipitina’s Records label. The band has a double reason to rejoice as also new on the shelves is a compilation disc, Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band, that bounces with three new cuts.
Fans expected that ReBirth’s next CD would be a live recording from the anniversary extravaganza. We find out from Frazier why there is only one cut captured from that night.
The year 2003 was a period of happiness and sorrow for the ReBirth band members—a time of celebrating their accomplishments and a time of mourning the passing of friends.
The ReBirth has been through a lot since then-teenaged Philip Frazier and fellow Joseph S. Clark High School student, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins teamed up to form a little band. At times through its history, the group appeared to incorporate a revolving door that spun musicians in and out with the Frazier brothers, Philip and bass drum heartbeat Keith at its core. The present membership, heard on the invigorating ReBirth for Life includes the Fraziers, snare drummer Derrick Tabb, trumpeters Glen Andrews and Derrick Shezbie, trombonists Herbert Stevens and Stafford Agee plus guests. Byron Bernard has since stepped into the saxophone spot and Shamarr Allen on trumpet.
The ReBirth Brass Band is a resistant bunch that confidently declared on its first recording that it was Here To Stay.
Who came up with the name ReBirth?
We were calling ourselves The Group Brass Band. My momma gave us that name. She said, “You ain’t nothin’ but a group. Call yourselves The Group Brass Band.”
Uptown in the St. Thomas housing project there was this organization called ReBirth. This guy, Bobby Leonard, was trying to save kids on drugs—you know, it was like a teen program to help kids. One day he happened to see us playing at the St. Thomas project—we were on a little gig. He said, “I’ll manage y’all if you change your name to ReBirth because y’all are young.” I said, “Okay.” So we changed our name to ReBirth. He wasn’t a good manager so we dropped him and kept ReBirth. That happened to be the perfect name.
I’ve always heard about how helpful your mother was to the band when you were starting out—some people called her Mama ReBirth. Can you tell me about a specific instance where she came to the rescue or that would demonstrate the way she supported you?
I remember one time in 1984 when we were living on St. Ann Street and we were going to Atlanta. It was the first time the band was actually going out of town. We all got consent forms for our mothers to sign. Well, Kermit and Eyes [snare drummer Kenneth “Eyes” Austin] got into a little confrontation because Eyes was like, “I’m not gonna sign anything.” And Kermit is like, “That’s not right.” So my mom was standing with Kermit on one hand and Eyes on one and she says, “No, we’re not going to do this. We’re going to bow our heads and pray.” She was a strong force back then. We were all teenagers. We were just acting crazy then. She kept the peace.
So did she travel with you?
No, she won’t travel. Actually, we were lucky. We started traveling on our own as young teenagers. Like we were thrown to the wolves. It paid off though. That was in the beginning before we started getting agents and people started booking us.
Now, ReBirth did have a quite reputation out there on the road.
Oh yeah. We had a reputation of being wild on the road. Yes, there have been some stories of stuff happening but some stuff is kind of exaggerated a little too far. Like that we burnt down a hotel. Dirt [Derrick Wiley] was smoking a cigarette and dropped it on the mattress and burnt a little hole in it. I remember one time in Nice, France our first time meeting Nancy [Jazz Fest’s Nancy Ochsenschlager]. Eyes—Eyes, Eyes, God bless the day, oh Eyes was a little bad kid—he was messing with Reginald [Stewart] and some kind of way he wanted to punch Reginald and Reginald ducked and I think he made the mistake of hitting Nancy. That was like 1987. I don’t know if she still remembers that. I hope not. Sorry, Nancy.
That was a lot of freedom for teenagers to be out there and having hotel rooms and all.
Yeah, and I tell you we was young. We had a lot of freedom and that was new to us. I never thought I would leave New Orleans and coming from high school way to Europe. That was a trip. We had some stuff that happened but nothing happens now. Everybody’s mature now. That’s all over with there.
Let’s talk about the ReBirth for Life album a little bit. Before I got it, I thought the whole disc was going to be your live 20th anniversary show that was recorded last year at Tipitina’s.
When we did the live recording at our anniversary we were having so much fun—we had band members coming in and out. It was organized but unorganized and we were just having a good time. We didn’t want to put a bad record out there. A lot of people said we still should have just released it. But you can hear us laughing—we were having fun on stage. The people were enjoying themselves but I think we were enjoying ourselves more. So some people were off the mike and stuff like that. It was chaotic. So we said, “You know what, we’re going to go back and do the CD and find the best song from that night and put it on the album.” The first song we played was the best song because everybody was focused. After that, the party kicked in! When the videotape comes out, you’ll see what I mean. You can see we’re really enjoying ourselves.
I realized that this was recorded more recently because of the references in several songs to the passing of Tuba Fats.
I think it felt in place since Tuba had passed we were like we can do something for Tuba. That’s why there’s that first song, “Tubaluba” for my boy.
I love that name, “Tubaluba.” It just rolls off your tongue. Who came up with that?
Like always with the ReBirth Brass Band in a parade on a second line we hear a chant and there it goes. That’s what we’re known for. We hear something out there on the street, we’re going to make a song out of it. “Tubaluba” was written about a year ago and we’ve been messing with it.
“The Law” was a song that me and Kermit wrote in 1987 and we never actually recorded it. The Soul Rebels used the bass line on one of their songs. They said, “You ain’t never did anything with it.” So I figured it was about time that we go back and put that song on wax.
We got “Gemini Rising” from the Dozen [recorded by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, written by Tony Dagradi]. Everybody who knows me knows that I am one of the biggest Dirty Dozen fans—Dirty Dozen Brass Band fans. I still love the Dirty Dozen but I’m hooked on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I can’t let that go. I figured I’d record that and do something different and go into “Who Took the Happiness Out?” See they do them separate. [“Gemini Rising” is on the Dozen’s Voodoo album and “Happiness” is heard on Live from Montreux.] I said if we’re going to record these songs we’ve got to make a statement with it. When we do a show, I love doin’ it and see Roger [Dirty Dozen baritonist Roger Lewis] smiling like, “I like what y’all did.” It’s like a tribute to them too because that’s been one of my ultimate bands for years.
We wrote “Talkin’” on stage in Seattle—live, you know. The beginning of the live cut [the bonus track “ReBirth 20th Anniversary”] is not a dirge but a concert practice piece that we all learned in high school. The kids that play in bands know what that is right away—“Wait a minute, they’re playing concert band clinic.” Everything has a reason.
You’ve also released another album, Ultimate ReBirth Brass Band.
Yeah, that’s like a collection of songs from the ReBirth Brass Band and we recorded three new pieces on it. One song on it is “Busting Loose” by [guitarist/vocalist] Chuck Brown. That’s funky go-go stuff. He killed at Essence [Festival] and you saw some of the [ReBirth] band members sittin’ in with him. And we recorded “Carnival Time.” I never yet heard a brass band play “Carnival Time”—at least none of the young brass bands. We played “Apple Tree” [“I Ate Up the Apple Tree”] but we had never recorded it. The rest are from Hot Venom, Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,Do Whatcha Wanna and Live at the Maple Leaf.
Let’s do some looking back. When was the first time ReBirth played the street? A club? How did the gigs come about?
January, 1984—the street, 6th Ward High Rollers. We stayed on Conti Street when I was still in high school but my mother decided to move into the 6th Ward on St. Ann Street. Once we moved there—and you know the band practiced by my house—everybody was coming around. They were like, “There’s a new band around here.” And Tom—Terrible Tom, God bless the dead, old Tom—was a one-man gang. He was the one that hired us. Twelve [James Andrews, Sr.] and Lois [Andrews] used to be in that club. They got us to do our first second line.
Also in 1984 was the first time the ReBirth Brass Band met Danny Barker. We were auditioning to get into Super Sunday [parade] at Hunter’s Field. Fred [Johnson, a founder of the Black Men of Labor organization] said, “Let’s see how y’all sound.” And you know, Danny Barker used to practice with the kids there. Well, we struck up and we played two songs. And Danny said, “Stop. Fred, these guys don’t have to play no more. These guys are good. Where ya’ll come from? Let them people in the parade.” And at that Super Sunday parade that’s when we wrote “Here To Stay.” We made the song on the spot. Thanks to Danny Barker.
We started at the Alpine Club—it’s not there anymore—on Chartres Street. We were playing the French Quarter for tips and the guy came over and said, “Why don’t you come over and play the club?” He’d pay us a little salary. He liked how we sounded. It was like 120 bucks but that was a lot of money back in 1984. I think we had about seven members.
Do you remember what it felt like to play that first second line parade?
Oh, yes. It was cold and rainy that day. We started from Armstrong Park. It was really fulfilling—I knew I was in the right business then. I’d been to second lines. The difference was more control and being in the spotlight.
And recording the first album?
That was Here to Stay recorded [in 1984] at the Grease Lounge which is now the Candlelight. Jerry Brock hooked that up with Chris Strachwitz [of Arhoolie records]. We felt like we were stars recording that album. We were still in school. The beginning stuff, seemed like everything felt like heaven.
ReBirth has played and/or recorded with many big name musicians—Maceo Parker, George Clinton, Ani DeFranco to name a few. Do you remember your first reaction to meeting artists of this renown?
I’ll tell you what if felt like when we got a chance to see Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton all of them in one spot [at the North Sea Jazz Festival]. And they are actually sitting down and eating breakfast with us. I was like, “Is this true? Are we actually doing this with these mega jazz stars?” When I talk to the young guys in the younger brass bands, I say that the thing that I’m sorry y’all are going to miss is how when we were coming up we got a chance to go on the road with the Dirty Dozen and Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton and people like that. We got a chance to be in their surroundings whereas a lot of these young guys probably won’t ever be able to touch that experience. Once you experience that it opens your mind and your heart to whole different types of things.
It sort of humbles you…
What were some of the most fun gigs you ever played?
I’ll go international first—the North Sea Jazz Festival. It was so fun because all the stars from around the world were there. And they’re watching you perform. It felt great to see them out there in the audience.
Locally one of the fun-est places was the Glass House and Kemp’s Lounge falls not far behind. The crowd, the intensity of the dancing and you know local New Orleans. Small places sound real good for the tuba because the sound bounces off the walls, bounces off the people and it sounds deep. When a place is too big you have to amplify. We weren’t amplified at the Maple Leaf for a long time—we’ve been there 15 years [every Tuesday night]. I guess now, since the band is more professional and people actually want to hear what we’re singing we started using microphones. We just started just a year ago. The crowd is so big now.
When did the bigger venues like Tipitina’s start hiring you?
It had to like late 1984 or 1985 we played Tipitina’s—it sure looked different then. We were playing on stage and we had a five piece—Kermit, myself, my brother [Keith], Eyes and Reginald Stewart. The Dirty Dozen was coming on right after us. We listened to the Dirty Dozen because we used to go to the Glass House so we were playing some of their songs. And I remember Mr. Benny [Benny Jones, then drummer with the Dozen] asked Sonny [then Tip’s talent buyer, Sonny Schneidau], “Who’s that band on stage playing like they are the Dirty Dozen?” I remember that story. [Philip laughs.] Then they came on stage and we were like… Hear this? There were like whoa!
ReBirth has played hundreds and hundreds of social and pleasure club anniversary parades – maybe more than any other band. Do you have any stories?
I’ll give you three—true stories about the streets of New Orleans. I remember our first Lady Buck Jumpers parade. They started uptown in Gert Town and the Tornado Brass Band was behind us. We had no crowd behind us. Everybody was behind the Tornado Brass Band. I said, “That will never happen again.” They taught me a lesson on how to control the street. You have to keep the music continuous and go from song to song to song. Once you’ve got ’em dancin’, keep ’em up there.
At one time we were playing every Sunday. It’s kind of hard to do that when you’re traveling. We were once playing all night in Tennessee and we were driving back to do the Step ‘n Style parade. A half an hour before we got to New Orleans the car broke down. We were calling to try to get rides so somebody would pick us up so we could make it to the parade. Within a half an hour a tow truck came and towed us all the way to the parade. We got out of the car and just played.
The first time we played for the Young Men Olympian in the Furious Five Division that’s when we started the ReBirth motto: “It ain’t gonna rain on the ReBirth Brass Band.” It stormed the day of the parade and we played 25 songs in a row without stopping. That’s kind of what made our reputation. That was 1985.
One of the things that distinguishes ReBirth is that the name is in bold letters on your tuba. You’re easy to spot. When did you start doing that?
Kermit started doing that. He had The Group on the tuba. That was Kermit’s idea. Every parade Kermit wanted to change it up, change the tuba, he liked doing it so much. It was in black tape but he tried it one time in red, white and blue tape but it didn’t have that look. Then during Christmastime, he put ReBirth “Jingle Bells” and holiday balls on it. He used to take his time cutting the black tape. But now, I cheat a little bit—I go to Home Depot and get the letters.
When you’re out in the world what is the most common question people ask?
About jazz funerals. They want to know what they’re like. I always try to describe it to them. I tell them that the best description I can give is that we start out playing a slow dirge and after we cut the body loose, it’s like a big party on the street. I say in New Orleans we do it right. We rejoice when somebody dies. Then they ask how many funerals we’ve done. I tell them that back in the late 1980s we were doing a lot of crack jazz funerals—when it was bad, a lot of them. A lot of people were getting killed; a lot of people were OD-ing. That scene was bad in 1987-88. That summer, every week we were doing a funeral. The biggest one we ever did was for Adidas Slim. It started at the St. Thomas project and came all the way down to the 6th Ward by the Louisiana Funeral Home. When we got there, the rain came down and we were playing “Blackbird Special” in front of his house. I remember people riding on top of his coffin and throwing Adidas in the air. That was a big funeral. We were doing a lot of them—we don’t do as many now. I think it’s getting better. We do more repasts now.
What is the most ridiculous question they ask? You know, silly questions because they’re not familiar with brass bands.
Oh, “Does that thing weigh a 100 pounds?” It weighs about 26 pounds.
How many horns have you owned through the years?
What’s their usual fate?
One time I bought a smack brand new gold horn. But it was too light. New Orleans streets tore it up—putting it in the back of a car and going gig to gig. I had one horn that I sold to a school. I had one horn stolen out of my car. It ain’t never showed up. That was a good horn—I wish it shows up one day. That was like nine years ago. They take a licking.
You’ve had a lot of great times but you’ve had a lot of sad times too. I’m thinking about the deaths of those to whom ReBirth for Life is dedicated [ReBirth saxophonist James Durant, friend and mentor Tuba Fats and friend and collaborator Soulja Slim plus Philip’s stepson James Tapp]. How does ReBirth as a group deal with these sorrows?
Well, first of all start with me—I’m like the father, the mother, the brother. I’m the band’s old lady; I say I’m their everything. That’s how I just tell ’em. ’Cause the wives always give me trouble about that. They say, “You’re their old lady; they always be with you.” I’ve got to be the strongest point because I’m the leader of the band and never really break down too much. So if I can just hold it together everything else falls into place. And I’ve got some guys that are pretty strong themselves. ’Cause like most of the guys have wives and families and them being the leaders of the household makes them strong. But there have been some rough times. Loosing James, that was pretty hard. The week before he died we had a trip scheduled to go out of town. We were going to cancel the trip but we needed the trip. We went with a clear head but a broken heart. So we did two days in Texas on the Thursday and Friday and we drove back for the funeral the next day. We performed in Austin, Texas at the Austin City Limits Festival and that was one of the best shows that we did. That’s when we made everybody bow their heads for James. All bands go through things.
At one point it was almost like the ReBirth and the New Birth brass bands swapped front lines. What caused that?
It didn’t switch all at once over night. Well, Kermit left in 1993 and that’s when Kenneth Terry got in the band. When Prince left he was ready to move to California and then we had Roderick [Paulin] in the band. Kabuky [Derrick Shezbie] he started with us like in 1987—he was always there—and he was going through his teenager stage and he was trying to get himself together. You know he got the big contract with Quincy Jones. He always says that if he knew what he knows now, he would probably be a millionaire. He was young, really young but he could play a lot of horn. But he was not ready for the world back then.
Players came in and out. I have a motto: “I never fire anybody; you fire yourself.” Personal problems made the band change like it did. Things happen. I tell everybody we’re like the ReBirth University Brass Band. If you’ve played in our band and go play for somebody else, you’ve been educated through the ReBirth Brass Band on how to handle any situation. Technically, I think there’s a waiting list to get into the ReBirth Brass Band. Nobody really wants to say it, but underground there’s a waiting list to get into the ReBirth Brass Band. Everybody respects their bands so we kinda keep it hush hush.
Now I’ve got people kinda holding on to their spots. Shamarr Allen is the youngest member of the band—he’s 22 or 23-years-old. I look at him and the stuff he do, and I say, “We used to do that, yeah.” So I give him a little leeway.
And then the road, like I say, we’re one of the hardest working bands to hit the road. We hit the road a lot now. Some people couldn’t handle the road so much so that’s why the band switched too. Enough is enough for some people.
What’s the hardest thing about being on the road?
The hardest thing about the road is after we play say a 2 o’clock show in Colorado and the next day we’ve got to get up and drive to Utah. Then after that show there, we’ll drive to Wyoming. We do it in cars. We like that—you know, freedom. We put everybody in two big RVs. I think it’s time for us to go for a bus and get some drivers. I never thought it would come to that we needed a big entourage. But yes, it’s come to that. That’s like a star on my chest. We went from the streets to playing big venues out of town. The road is fun too. You get to see a lot of places and meet a lot of new people.
The things I’ve seen during my 21 years in ReBirth, I never thought I’d see in my life. Who would ever thought I’d go to Africa? It was one of the best experiences in my life. It was like coming back home. Playing with some of the African drummers was so soulful and spiritual. The saddest day we had was when we played on Goree Island. That was the last place the slaves saw. We were on that boat going to our hotel and everybody was full of tears. It felt like we were leaving our home. I will never forget that in my life. I say to everybody, “You’ve got to go to Africa, you’ve got to go home to see what it feels like.”
You know what got to me—Cuba. CUBA. I know if they ever open up the doors, like they say they will, it won’t be the same. I see why they want to kind of keep it like it is. They should open enough to help the people there get right. We had the time of our life. It was like going back in time—turn the clock back. Seeing the old cars. Seeing the people without much style and we’re comin’ in all stylish and stuff and people were living like in the past. Everything was so cheap. We did a parade there—that was a beautiful parade—and a festival. People didn’t speak much English and they didn’t understand what we were saying. They were standing there smiling so I just said, “You smile and we’ll smile back.”
When Allison Miner began managing ReBirth did that pick up the pace of your travels?
Yeah. Ice Cube Slim was before Allison and he kind of opened the doors a little bit for us. He got us our first Japan trip. Ice Cube was buddy buddy with the band. He was one of the boys.
I remember I was playing with the Tremé Brass Band and I was standing talking to Butch Gomez by the Municipal Auditorium. He said, “You heard Allison Miner is back in town?” And I said, “Who is that?” And he said, “She helped start the Jazz Fest and she was with Fess [Professor Longhair] and she helps book bands. And I would love to meet her.” So who walks up but Allison. She says, “Hi, I’m Allison. Are you Philip Frazier? I want to talk to you. I’ve got a gig for you.” So Allison booked us a gig for some women in Baton Rouge. It was a great gig and we played right on the capital. So we kept in contact and she asked, “Do y’all need some help?” And I said, “Yeah, you can be our manager.”
She taught me a great deal about the business. Everybody always thinks that there was some bicker between us and Allison—man, I loved Allison Miner. She did things the right way with the band. Allison showed me how to put the money in the bank account and write everybody checks so the IRS will stay off your ass. Some people didn’t understand that that’s how it works. And she told me you always sign your own check; don’t let anybody else sign your check. She opened many doors for us. She traveled with us on the road. That’s the only thing. She’s a female and with all guys. That’s the only thing that was crazy—poor Allison. I know she caught a little hell with that. She was a real mentor for the ReBirth Brass Band and if she was here I’d thank her a million times.
Well, speaking of those who have passed, I know you were very influenced by Tuba Fats. Do you remember when you first met him?
I don’t remember the first time I met Tuba but I can say the reason why I was so amazed at him. It was 1977 or ’78 when he was with the Dirty Dozen he was playing at my cousin’s funeral, Billy White Shoes. The band stopped on Dumaine and St. Philip and they were cutting the body loose. That’s when they broke into “Blackbird Special.” Tuba had that horn hummin’. [Phillip starts singing the notes.] Every time I hear that in my head—seein’ Tuba Fats playing that and the drums was rollin’, it was rockin’. I was playing trombone in fourth grade then. When ReBirth started playing in the French Quarter that’s when we started socializing with Tuba Fats and Benny Jones and them guys. I changed to tuba at the end of my sophomore year. They were short of tubas and as I said, I heard Tuba Fats and the tuba had been in my head. I would go to bed and wake up with the tuba around me. That was my calling.
What do you see ahead for the ReBirth Brass Band?
I’d like to see the ReBirth Brass Band win a Grammy—after the Dirty Dozen. When they win one we win one. Either way, it would just be good because it would open the doors for everybody.
We’ll probably leave the streets when we hit 25 years. Not because we’d want to, but because of our bodies. We work hard. You can see on our web site, we’re just all over the place. It does take a little toll on ya. We’re still the people’s band, I just want to make them proud of us. If I can’t make everybody happy, I can try.
The gigs [at Tipitina’s] are like the end of the 20-year celebration—finally. But we ain’t never gonna stop partying. The ReBirth Brass Band is the last young brass band that has been in a second line with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Olympia Brass Band and the Chosen Few. It was in 1986 and the last year that Olympia played a second line. It was Tambourine & Fan. It went from Hunter’s Field all the way uptown over the Claiborne bridge and came all the way back downtown. So that’s also why I try to stay on the streets because when the Hot 8, the Lil Stooges and the Lil Rascals are in a parade with us, it’s like they touch the ReBirth who touched the Dirty Dozen, who touched the Olympia, who touched the Chosen Few. It’s like trying to make sure that they’re a part of that. It’s kind of like I’m doing it for them now.