It’s just after noon on a sunny day in early March. At the corner of Toulouse and Royal Streets tourists mill about. They pause to look in the antique shop windows, sniff soap samples and sip walking beverages. On the curb, Tuba Skinny are just finishing their lunch break. They eat the last few bites of bananas and sandwiches from Rouses. Tupelo, Barnabus the trombone player’s dog, eats leftover bacon. Shaye Cohn makes the traditional New Orleans call-to-arms with her cornet. Buh-bah! Buh-bah!
The seven members of the band slowly settle into their seats, which are arranged in a sweeping arc in the street. Tupelo lays down to nap next to the tip jar in the center of the arc. After some casual chatter and discussing a few business notes, the band is ready to start. With a motion from Shaye the horns hold two long, dramatic notes. Craig Flory cartwheels around them on clarinet. Jason Lawrence plays quick, fluttering strokes on the banjo. They stretch the notes as the tension builds until, suddenly, they cut out. Heads turn. Conversations stop. The street is now at attention.
The founding members of Tuba Skinny first began accumulating in New Orleans just before and after Hurricane Katrina. They came to New Orleans from all over the United States. Cornetist Shaye Cohn had come down with a friend from Boston; trombonist Barnabus Jones had come from Virginia, riding through on trains until he finally anchored himself in the city; vocalist/bass drummer Erika Lewis had come from New York’s Hudson Valley to visit wintering circus friends; Todd Burdick, the tuba of Tuba Skinny, left Chicago and had been traveling around before he came to rest in New Orleans; and washboard player/drummer Robin Rapuzzi came to the city from Washington State to find inspiration to write. Most of the band’s roster throughout the years have found themselves in the city that way. “A lot of us came down here without the expectation that we would be doing what we’re doing today, but we were all drawn to stay here because of the city’s rich musical legacy. We’re all transplants from different parts of the country, but we share a deep love and respect for this city. The vibrant brass band culture, the deep-rooted traditions of celebrating life through music, the fact that you can go out on any given day and hear something mind-blowing, something that sends you into a dancing frenzy—these are some of the things that make New Orleans one of a kind,” says Shaye Cohn.
Tracing when and how and why Tuba Skinny came together means sorting through a tangled mix of bands and styles and busking locations. In a nutshell: They started out busking in string bands such as the Dead Man Street Orchestra on Jackson Square. Even then, the idea for the band had begun to incubate. “We had this talk one day when we were with Dead Man Street Orchestra and I remember Shaye said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day we had a brass band,’” says Barnabus Jones. They eventually transitioned to playing traditional New Orleans jazz in various bands such as the Muskrat Ramblers and the Loose Marbles.
It was through playing with the Loose Marbles that many of Tuba Skinny’s members learned to play traditional jazz. “A lot of us who later formed Tuba Skinny got our start playing early jazz with them,” says Cohn. When Shaye initially came to the city, her background was largely in classical piano. “I played piano most of the time growing up, and then I quit when I was 19. When I met Ben and Michael [of The Loose Marbles] I started experimenting with playing jazz piano, which was new to me. I learned a lot by playing those tunes with them.” Eventually she transitioned to the trumpet. “I was staying at a house where there was a little collection of abandoned swamp [flood damaged] instruments. They were all messed up. Barnabus and I were trying to figure out scales on the trumpet together, and it was just so fun. I just got really hooked. I had never played a wind instrument before and it just felt really powerful, so I got to play second trumpet with [the Loose Marbles], sometimes they’d invite me to play with them.” Todd Burdick recalls the same kind of introduction. “I hadn’t really played much traditional music, just some punk and experimental stuff. I started playing percussion with them. They started teaching me chords. Barnabus had a guitar that he eventually gave me. It was like learning from the ground up with them.” Eventually, as various musicians cycled in and out of the Loose Marbles, new groups were created including Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns and of course: Tuba Skinny.
Their name has always been a curiosity because of its obvious reference to revered Jackson Square musician Tuba Fats. Its origin has become part of the ever-building lore about the band. Todd Burdick remembers, “I’d be biking to the Quarter with the tuba and there was this guy somewhere in the Marigny who would yell, ‘Hey, look, it’s Tuba Skinny!’ He’d always yell this stuff. Then I mentioned it to some people and then some people started calling me that. So there’s a reference in name to Tuba Fats, but we don’t have any direct tie to him or anything like that. Over the years it’s been interesting because a lot of people tell me their stories about Tuba Fats, especially when we’re abroad because he toured a lot.” The significance of the name and the musician behind it are not lost on the band. “We do have an admiration for Tuba Fats because over the years we’ve heard how he kept music playing on the streets. Which is, of course, important to us. And we’ve befriended musicians who’ve learned a lot about New Orleans music by playing in Jackson Square with him,” explains Shaye. “He was like a folk hero for street musicians’ rights,” recalls Barnabus.
The band officially formed in 2009 and quickly established itself as a fixture on Royal Street. “Everything seemed to happen so naturally with us, we really just wanted to keep playing together and were propelled by the energy of playing for crowds on the street,” says Erika Lewis. As a crowd begins to gather around the band, they launch headlong into the 1923 Armand J. Piron tune, “Bouncing Around.” Robin keeps the beat alternately on the bass drum and washboard, gripping a drumstick between his teeth. Shaye, Craig and Barnabus whirl around the song’s rising and falling Ferris wheel melody. With a slight glance or a nod, Shaye directs solos. When the song finishes a cheer goes up, which only draws more attention from passersby. Robin stands and casually introduces the band and the song. He mentions its composers were from New Orleans. Money flows to the tip jar. A pre-teen girl buys all their CDs. For nearly a decade Tuba Skinny has grown steadily in popularity, releasing eight albums, frequently touring, and attracting high-profile fans from R. Crumb to Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman. They’ve garnered fans from all over the world—young and old, neophytes and niche-enthusiasts. There are a myriad of factors that lend to their appeal, but first and foremost is their music.
In the beginning they would borrow heavily from the Loose Marbles’ repertoire, but over time they’ve become known for seeking out and resurrecting long-lost tunes. They would find inspiration from Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Jim Robinson, the Mississippi Sheiks, Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, the Memphis Jug Band, King Oliver, Bessie Smith and Kit Stymie Stovepipe, among many more.
They’ve become a favorite with local traditional jazz players because of their faithfulness to the early style. “They play traditional jazz of the 1920s, which is an era that is often ignored in New Orleans,” says former WWOZ DJ, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and rare record collector Tom Saunders. “They aren’t a revival band. They’re pre-revival. It’s pure traditional jazz, as it was before phonographs were widely available and the music had spread around the world.”
One of the hallmarks of early New Orleans jazz is that much of it was arranged. This was a holdover from Creole tradition as Creole musicians were often classically trained. Tuba Skinny rehearses and arranges their songs, which is part of what distinguishes their playing and aligns them with the early style. For this to work, it requires a serious commitment, and wouldn’t have been as effective if the band had not retained the majority of its core players. “As casual as it all has been in some respects, we have also worked really hard to keep it together over the years,” says Erika Lewis, who still performs with the band at festivals and on tours, despite now living in Chattanooga.
While Tuba Skinny makes most of their decisions democratically, much of the musical direction has come to be conducted by Shaye Cohn. “You have one of the most educated musicians in the scene with this group,” says Peter Loggins, who is a trombonist and former member of the Loose Marbles and Shotgun Jazz Band. “She’s a rare, rare person and she applies her ear and training to this particular style.” Although she is very adamant about the egalitarian nature of the group, it’s clear she has played a strong role in its direction. “I like the way Shaye leads that band,” says trombonist Craig Klein, of Bonerama and the New Orleans Jazz Vipers. “She’s always very sure of what and when to play. I’ve liked playing with them because they are young musicians playing old music, which I love, and they are doing a fine job of it.”
For the majority of their career they’ve been known as a traditional jazz band and have firmly asserted their prowess in that field. “The fact that they maintain the same personnel, that they rehearse and arrange, that they are very faithful to the recordings and the original renditions of the music, as well as being creative is why I think they’re the best traditional jazz band in the city,” asserts Tom Saunders.
While excellent interpreters of traditional jazz, Tuba Skinny have not limited their choice of material solely to what is offered in the traditional repertoire. In fact, their goal is not to be boxed in by prescribed genres. “We started out playing mostly early jazz,” says Shaye. “Over the next couple of years we shifted towards jug band music, country blues, string band music and ragtime. Eventually we began to incorporate country songs and also some New Orleans R&B. Right now it seems we’ve returned to focusing on early jazz.”
“Tuba Skinny would never allow style to limit them,” says Peter Loggins. “A pop song in 1923 is just a song. They’re not just copying one band. They’re not just looking at what the jazz bands were doing at the time. The genres were mostly fabricated by the record companies, anyway. They’re taking back the music from those record companies. They’re making choices like a musician of that era would. They’re giving us a reflection of Americana.” Hand in hand with their musical prowess is the band culture Tuba Skinny have created. Some bands play in a style, some define a style, but few create a lifestyle. Part of what lends to their appeal is the allure of the way they live: traveling together, swimming, sailing, riding bikes, exploring, all the while sharing their music in the world’s streets. It’s the way most of us only dream of living.
“We began touring in July of 2009, when we bought plane tickets to France,” says Shaye. “We had a friend who invited us over to her seaside town of Meschers, and so we met up there and played music on the street and in the local tavern. Lulu, who played fiddle with us at the time, spoke French and managed to find a guy who was selling bikes for cheap, so we all got bicycles and set off on our first tour, down the coast of France toward Spain. We played on the streets of the towns we rode through, and found places to camp at night. Those bikes were not exactly road-trip worthy; a lot of them were old cruiser bikes! So it was an adventure, and quite a memorable time for us. Throughout the years we’ve gotten to swim in cenotes in Mexico, camp in the woods off the wild coast of Tasmania, stay at an olive farm in Italy, swim in salt lakes in Western Australia and in the crocodile-infested waters of remote Darwin in northern Australia. We recorded an album in an old fruit picker’s shack in Tasmania, and have run into unexpected street festivals in the Basque country.”
The band has also toured quite a bit domestically as well, and when they do they squeeze everyone into their band van. “We’ve had a van for a while, a six seater,” says Shaye. “Our first van was Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?’s old touring van. That was special. Now our friend still loves it and takes care of it. He drives his kids around in it.” Getting the whole band in, instruments and all, is tricky. “It’s to the brim,” says Barnabus. We are IN THERE. Eight people, dogs, tuba, bass drum, and then everyone has their second instrument they’re learning.” “And then their third instrument they’re learning,” adds Robin.
The crowd has now swollen in size to encircle the band and fill the street. Tupelo has moved to sleep behind Greg’s chair, tired of the spotlight. The band plays Blind Blake’s “Too Tight,” which Jason Lawrence leads off on banjo before Greg Sherman launches into the lyrics. The rhythm is jaunty and infectious. A white-haired man leaning against a drainpipe grins and claps out of time. The band follows with “Too Much Competition” which ends in a beautifully coordinated gliss that elicits an ecstatic groan from a man wearing convertible flip-up sunglasses. Everywhere there are cell phones and cameras filming and snapping. Two young Asian girls with intimidating cameras hover around the band, shutters clicking away. A girl ducks in to selfie. As each new wave of people walk up, someone will inevitably whip out a cell phone and start recording. Over the course of the set a total of 32 people filmed the band and far too many to count took photos.
Almost equally as impressive as the band’s playing and globetrotting is the way their popularity has spread. A YouTube search of “Tuba Skinny” will yield well more than 500 videos, many with 100,000-plus views, in a variety of languages. “We don’t do any of that,” says Barnabus. “We’ve never put up a video of ourselves doing anything.” Indeed, the group does not have a YouTube page—all of the videos of them are fan-made. They have a website, which they set up in 2016, and a Facebook page they post to once or twice a week. That is a shockingly bare-bones amount of effort for them to have that kind of digital exposure. Nonetheless, it is through the digisphere that Tuba Skinny have reached a majority of their audience.
One blogger, who goes by Pops Coffee, has established himself as an authority on Tuba Skinny. He has written countless blog posts about the band in meticulous detail on his Blogspot website, Pops Coffee’s Traditional Jazz, and has even published an ebook titled Tuba Skinny and Shaye Cohn. It’s impressive coverage, but here’s the kicker: He does it almost exclusively via YouTube videos because he lives in Nottingham, England. He’s been to New Orleans a few times and the band have met him briefly before, but for the most part, he gets his info about the band from YouTube. While this may seem extreme, and a singular circumstance, the numbers speak for themselves, and he is not alone.
“We’ve got six CDs on the racks by Tuba Skinny right now and they all just sell like crazy,” says Rusty Lien, who’s worked at Louisiana Music Factory for over 10 years. “They’ve been our number one seller for at least the past year. It’s the YouTube thing. It seems to be the older folks from out of town. They all want Tuba Skinny because they’ve seen them on YouTube. That’s how people get turned on to them.” Tuba Skinny only sell their physical CDs through Louisiana Music Factory, partly out of loyalty to the small business, and partly out of not wanting the hassle of dealing with larger companies. This rabid niche demographic of their fans are internet savvy enough to find the band through YouTube, but prefer physical CDs to digital downloads. Thus the deluge. “We’ve gone through things where bands have had upswings in popularity, but nothing like this,” says Dylan Goodrich, another long-time employee of Louisiana Music Factory. “At least half the mail orders we get are for Tuba Skinny and it’s been non-stop for five, six years.” The band also sells digital downloads, but only through their Bandcamp page.
No matter how well-known they’ve become or how high-profile their gigs have gotten, Tuba Skinny have always returned to the streets. This, perhaps above all else, is what has led to their sustained strength and widespread popularity. “There’s nothing like it,” says Peter Loggins. “They play a concert and then they go to the street. They do this to stay in touch with the culture and the lifestyle. The authenticity. There is no one doing that sort of band lifestyle. Street kids, yeah. But no one who is hitting on their level.” Playing the street also exposes them to a much broader fanbase. While playing in jazz clubs exposes bands to audiences who have more understanding of the music, it can limit their exposure to only niche enthusiasts. “We continue to play the street because it’s a public space,” says Shaye. “We get to play for everyone: old, young, rich, poor, people from all walks of life. It keeps things interesting because it’s organic and unpredictable. Some people that come by don’t know what we’re playing. They’ve never heard that type of music and would never seek it out. Sometimes they’re surprised and they like it.”
Over the years they’ve seen the scene grow and change. “When Tuba Skinny started busking in 2009, the street music scene was bustling and lively but not nearly as competitive. “People were not coming out at ungodly hours to claim a spot the way they are now,” says Shaye. Nonetheless, the musicians have worked out ways to share the space. “We usually split the day with another band,” says Shaye. “In the past we didn’t have to do that as much, but as it became busier, we’d just try and split with somebody.” Competition for spots isn’t the only threat to the ecosystem. “It feels like every year there’s a new threat from something,” says Robin. “Like businesses getting together, having a meeting, saying they want to shut Royal Street down to performers. Todd and I went to a French Quarter meeting with Greg because we were worried about how the construction on Bourbon Street might shut down street performance on Royal Street. I think we were the only street performers there that day.” The band cites The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) as a great support over the years and a driving force in facilitating productive communication between musicians, businesses and law enforcement. They heartily encourage all musicians to get involved with MaCCNO to help ensure that music stays on the streets of New Orleans.
FQFIQ: Thursday, April 12, Jack Daniel’s Stage, 11a