“Hey, you’re back!” is a greeting repeatedly heard around New Orleans these days. “Well, not really,” is too often the reply, followed by, “I’m still in…” fill in the blank—Houston, Atlanta, Austin. Musicians have scattered around the country since Katrina, but those who are close enough to do so are returning to town as often as they can despite skyrocketing gas prices and grueling hours on the highway.
While most people would consider driving into New Orleans from Houston for a job a really, really long commute, Lumar LeBlanc, the leader/bass drummer of the Soul Rebels, views it as the group being on the road. “That helps us put ourselves in a mental fix,” LeBlanc says. “It’s like we’re the Dirty Dozen or Rebirth or something. We look at it like we’re on tour to do a New Orleans gig every week.”
The band’s Thursday destination is Le Bon Temps Roule, and it has played there weekly for the last six years. When the club called the Rebels after Katrina and told LeBlanc that it wanted to help pioneer the return of live music in the city, the group immediately committed to traveling in for the gig. The hard-hitting ensemble returned to blow its singular brew of brass, funk, hip-hop and jazz at the Magazine Street club in early October in front of a very appreciative crowd. Those were the days when the crowd spilled out on to Bordeaux Street because Le Bon Temps had no neighbors, and the National Guard might step through the doors with weapons on display to enforce the 2 a.m. curfew. The Thursday night gig has become the core around which the band books other jobs in the New Orleans area. On Saturday, August 5, the Soul Rebels will close the Nola.com Brass Band Stage at Satchmo SummerFest at 5:30 p.m.
At the end of June, the Soul Rebels racked up an impressive seven gigs over a four-day period with stops at the Bon Temps, the Louisiana Music Factory and d.b.a., along with dates in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. “It was a profitable weekend,” LeBlanc says, even considering that gas alone rings up at an intimidating $200 for a round trip that, without traffic tie-ups, takes five to six hours each way.
LeBlanc puts the tip money aside to cover travel expenses but sometimes, when the band’s schedule isn’t quite as hefty, the group will take a gig and dedicate the money to gas and vehicle maintenance. Nonetheless, the leader sees the bright side of the experience. His aim has always been for the Soul Rebels to evolve further as a road band in the mode of the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands.
Because the majority of the members—all of whom boast college degrees—had day jobs including careers as teachers and counselors, traveling used to be prohibitive.
“I’ve always wanted to gravitate the Soul Rebels to a place where we’re ‘legitimate’—the members just to be musicians. Because of the storm, we were forced to do that,” says LeBlanc, who before Katrina was a teacher in the Orleans Parish school system and a psychiatric technician with Ochsner Hospital, where he remains on call. “It’s helped me to finally get the band focused on touring. It’s really helped the Soul Rebels mature as a touring band.” The band is also enjoying more out-of-town exposure than it ever has in its 15-year history. Albums such as last year’s explosive Rebelution sell quickly off the bandstand, often scooped up by those digging the band for the first time.
Because the Rebels enjoy a busy schedule and his wife’s job at Tenet was transferred from New Orleans to Houston, LeBlanc says the income from playing music is all he needs to survive. But, he quickly adds, “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think we would have made it.”
Damion Francois, the Rebels’ tuba player, displays more frustration than his bandmate with the situation. He is one of the band’s three members who now live in Houston, and he says of New Orleans, “The city doesn’t give a damn about musicians.” He would like to see the city offer some sort of gas card to the New Orleans musicians that are now commuting to gigs from Dallas, Houston, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and other points outside the city. “They really need to consider the importance of the musicians in New Orleans and try to work with them to ease up the pressure on us so we can feel comfortable to produce what we need to produce. When you come to New Orleans, you’re so stressed out and beat out from just trying to get there. The amount of money you’re spending is really becoming a deterrant.”
Both LeBlanc and Francois praise the work of Bethany Bultman of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, as well as Tipitina’s Foundation, Jazz Fest, MusiCares and the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. The clinic donated the 1986 Ford truck with a camper on the back that carries LeBlanc, Francois and trumpet player Marcus Hubbard and their equipment to New Orleans each week.
“The people are the reason we come back,” Francois acknowledges. “You come back because you love the people—our family members and our fans. LeBlanc agrees, saying, “We’ve committed ourselves to our fans and we’ll do it as long as we physically can.”
“Living on the road now, it’s different; it’s crazy,” says trombonist Corey Henry. As leader of the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band and his own swing/jazz/R&B/hip-hop group, the Young Fellas, he is jumping between Houston, New York City and New Orleans. “It ain’t the greatest but we manage to make it,” he says, explaining that in Houston he’s usually playing with the Fellas, in New Orleans he meets up with his family and the scattered members of the Rascals and in New York he visits his girl while trying to book some gigs with cats living there. He still plays when he can with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers, and he will lead the Rascals at Satchmo SummerFest at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 5.
The Jazz Foundation in Houston has been instrumental in setting up Henry and the Fellas at performances in schools, universities, museums and homes for the elderly. And though he’s done his share of trucking back and forth between cities, the trombonist often catches a flight to connect with members of his various ensembles at a destination.
“Houston is good and New York is good but there’s something about New Orleans, you can’t get it anywhere,” says Henry, who is also trying to “get something started” in Austin. “I’m making a living.”
The New Orleans brass band scene is a close-knit community and has long involved a mix-and-match of musicians. Rebirth and New Birth once completely swapped their front horn lines. It’s natural that on occasion, Henry has added his sweet-toned trombone with members of the New Birth Brass Band (SummerFest, August 6 at 5:30 p.m.), who are also based in Houston. Combining forces led to the emergence of another group on the New Orleans scene, the Free Agents Brass Band. Though the group was formed just prior to Katrina, after the storm it brought musicians together who were in need of work. It has also filled a void when other bands like the Hot 8 (SummerFest, August 6 at 2 p.m.) or New Birth were out of town or unable to take a job.
“I consider myself a free agent, so that’s where the name came from,” says leader, bass drummer Ellis “EJo” Joseph, who was headed to France with the Pinstripe Brass Band at press time. “We’re all trying to be generous to everyone to make sure everybody has work.”
The group’s first gig after the storm was the funeral for Chef Austin Leslie in Atlanta and on its return, the band picked up a house party job from Rebirth. With most of its musicians in town, the membership of the Free Agents has recently become more stable. However, Joseph, a cousin of Rebirth’s Frazier brothers, points out that with people going back and forth to visit and check up on relatives in various states, “everybody is still on the road.”
All of these guys have become the mortar cementing the New Orleans brass community—the musicians and followers—together. They do, however, express a deep concern for the building blocks that will secure the future of this city’s brass band musical heritage. It has been a tradition that the music and culture be handed down from generation to generation. The music blossomed and was nurtured on neighborhood streets and stepped out of school marching bands. With those links weak or missing, how will the tradition survive?
There are some young groups such as To Be Continued (TBC), the Truth—whose members range in age from 15 to 20 years old—and All For One brass bands, but they could suffer from lack of tutelage.
“We have enough musicians but not enough quality musicians,” Free Agent’s Joseph observes. “Learning the tradition is what completes you. Actually, that should be first.” He says that there are musicians who have extended a hand but for many, just making gigs and trying to keep things together is already a challenge.
“Young kids would be around and piggyback on what we were doing every day,” LeBlanc says of those budding musicians who would pick up licks and tunes from the Rebels. He, along with other members of the Soul Rebels, have made it a point to put horns in their own children’s hands in hopes of keeping the music vital. “The storm has definitely affected the younger generation’s ability to be involved. You don’t have the neighborhood genre like you did before.”
Banjoist/guitarist/author Danny Barker saw the decline of the brass band tradition when he returned home from New York in 1965, and he took action. Approached by the Fairview Baptist Church’s Reverend Andrew Darby, who was looking to establish a church band, Barker began gathering up young musicians. He started with a then 13-year-old trumpeter Leroy Jones who lived nearby, and enlisted trumpeter Gregg Stafford, trombonist Lucien Barbarin and numerous other now well-known names. The Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band played its first gig in 1971 and its members have filled the ranks of jazz bands ever since. We sure could use Barker right now or someone with his dedication.
“I think the music would have died if it wasn’t for Mr. Barker creating interest in people like myself,” Stafford once declared.
With their kids in good schools in Houston, their wives working, and the Soul Rebels gigging enough to meet expenses, LeBlanc and Francois don’t envision returning to live in New Orleans any time soon.
“I have to see what happens after the storm season,” says LeBlanc. “Nothing’s going to stop me—but the Lord—coming to New Orleans and doing my work every week. New Orleans will always be home. I’m home every week. I think I have my family in a safer place until the city gets back on its feet. What’s been interesting in Houston,” he continues, “is we’ve been able to do jazz funerals.
Unfortunately, there were some people from New Orleans who died here and they had jazz funerals. So when the funeral parlors saw what we do they said they’d like to offer that to other families. You’ve got a lot of our culture seeping in here. People are amazed at how we are like professionals on partying.
“I try to get the positive out of everything,” he says. “When the storm hit, we kept in touch. I told the band, ‘Don’t give up because the only thing we have right now is the music.’”
When playing out of town, Corey Henry says, “It’s almost like we have to educate the people on what’s really going on with the music.” He hopes to return to his hometown as soon as possible. One reason: “In New Orleans, we just strike up the band and everybody just parties automatically. In New Orleans, we just do it like that.”