When Detroit Brooks walks through a door—of a church, a club, a coffeehouse—he’s greeted with smiles, hugs, handshakes and kisses. Though the New Orleans native is renowned as a fine guitarist, banjo player, vocalist and composer, Brooks also boasts a reputation for being just a really nice guy. When asked if he has any enemies, he humorously answers, “I don’t seek ’em,” and quickly adds, “I don’t know anybody who has or should have anything against me—if I done anybody wrong, I’m available to apologize to them.”
Brooks, 65, grew up in a musical family with a foundation in gospel music—he and his siblings all sang in church. In the secular music world, of which he is also a part, his best-known relations are his sister, the late vocalist Juanita and brother bassist Mark Brooks.
Primarily heard performing both traditional and modern jazz, Brooks recorded with such diverse artists as pianist/vocalist Eddie Bo and, along with clarinetist Michael White, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. In 2010, he released an album as leader, On My Way Back Home, that was filled with guest artists. Organ trios are a Brooks specialty as he often gets the call for gigs with two kings of the B-3, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Ike Stubblefield. Brooks’ very rhythmic guitar style is reminiscent of his personality—laid-back, warm and solid—and often backs up major New Orleans modern jazz men including saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. and drummer Herlin Riley.
Interviewed for this article in December, Brooks was extremely busy putting the finishing touches on the third edition of the Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival (January 12–15, 2017), which he produces. “I can’t keep my phone charged, I’m getting so many calls,” he complains, while loving people’s interest.
Brooks, who regrets never having the opportunity to play with Barker but gladly took and went to him for advice, not only acts as the festival’s ringleader but also performs in respect and love for Danny Barker.
How did you choose to play guitar?
My dad’s gospel group needed a guitarist. I used to play bass—I played bass before I played guitar. He would always have these guitarists come and play for his group and every time some other group like the Zion Harmonizers or another local gospel group would come and take them and he was without a guitarist. Mark came along and I gave the bass to Mark and he started to learn how to play bass and I learned how to play the guitar. So my dad would always have a guitar. Eventually, I started venturing off to secular music with Juanita and other people. I started liking that.
Did anybody in your family or church disapprove of you playing secular music?
My aunt, she was my godmother, she didn’t beat me down about it but she would always say you can’t play both musics. You need to stop playing that. Like I tell people today, just because you drive a liquor truck, don’t mean you’re an alcoholic. If I’m playing this music and it’s my profession and my career, I still go to church. I find that playing this [secular] music, I have the opportunity to go and talk more about what I believe in. How we live is more important than what we do.
Do you still sing in church?
I attend the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church—a great church. I’ve been thinking about joining the music ministry or the choir. I feel like I want to serve the church in some way. A lot of the people know that I play and they’d be like, ‘Why are you sitting upstairs? You need to be down there playing or you need to be with the choir.’ So that’s what’s motivating me. I just wrote a song to give to the choir to sing.
It seems you participate in a lot of benefits for musicians. Did your family do benefits for your church when you were growing up?
I do benefits now when somebody is really in need of money for whatever it is. If it’s just some organization that is putting on a benefit where the people [the beneficiaries] don’t get the money, I won’t do them, I’m sorry. If I know it’s for a good reason, I don’t care who it is, I’ll be there.
When I was at St. James Methodist Church, we—my whole family—would always do benefits to reach out to people. Sometimes we would get together and buy bibles and put them in the church for people.
The Guitar Extravaganza series, which began in 2002, was an entity of its own though it sort of led to the establishment of the Danny Barker festival. Had you previously ever produced an event?
No, the Extravaganza was first. That was something that [guitarist/banjoist] Carl LeBlanc and [guitarist] Anthony Brown and I would always talk about—musicians getting together and instead of competing with each other that we’d be together and share our gifts and give ideas to one another. We were all friends. We decided we wanted to play and all get on stage and have a good time. The band would get paid and the front guys would get a stipend. That’s why I love those guys.
Eventually, we decided we wanted to honor someone and Danny’s name came up. I started looking into it. We would talk about the things that Danny did other than play guitar and banjo. We talked about his contributions and his view on what the music meant. I decided to take it [organizing the festival] on and see what could happen with it. I decided I would go with it.
From the beginning of the festival—as well as for the Extravaganza series—the programming was very ambitious especially since they were, for the most part, run by you, a one-man wrecking crew. The festival always included concerts, school clinics and panel discussions.
Yeah, we had a whole host of guitarists at the Extravaganzas—King Bee from Russia, Mark Whitfield, Henry Johnson out of Chicago, June Yamagishi, Vasti Johnson from Mississippi, Mem Shannon, Steve Masakowski, Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington and more.
Yes, it could have been ambitious. But I was trying to involve some of all that Danny touched on and also bring to the attention of young students who Danny was. His whole thing was to make sure that kids would be educated not only on school subjects and music but in their conduct—how they live, their culture, and have an understanding of how to present their culture.
What has surprised you most about the first Danny Barker festival? Do you have any favorite moments through the years?
The biggest surprise was that everybody showed up, participated and played their hearts out. Even through there were some gripes about scheduling, it all went wonderfully. It all depends on how you equate success, and as far as I was concerned it was a success.
I have to say Bullet’s—Bullet’s had a different vibe from everything. Bullet’s was like sitting in your living room with your friends and family and you’ve got musicians sitting there and you’re close enough that you can touch. The crowd was participating with the music. It was strictly participation from both sides. People were just having fun.
Has the festival grown in its short history? How important is it that the spotlight has been shining on Barker with the recent republication of his autobiography, A Life in Jazz as well as last year’s release of the album, Danny Barker—New Orleans Jazz Man and Raconteur?
I think the festival has grown. We’re getting the attention of people who really see the vision and they want to participate in the vision. I think the audience is also catching on. People are looking forward to the festival happening again. I think it’s going to be great.
It all supports what we’re doing. The Historic New Orleans Collection [which published Barker’s book and is a sponsor of the festival], we’re all on the same page. It’s a boost to what we’re doing and vice versa. Books and albums will be available at most events.
The HeartBeat Award isn’t about musicianship but honors those who live their lives with a spirit of humanitarianism, kindness and generosity. Danny could have received one in, well, a heartbeat. How do you try to emulate his spirit?
Danny came back to New Orleans and he could have done like Louis or Bechet and formed a band and took off on the road and done exactly what he wanted to do. But he opened himself to teach kids—he gave himself to kids and the world. He saw something bigger than just playing music.
I hope that I am emulating him by what I’m trying to do with this festival. We don’t want this to be just another music festival. We want people to look at it as a component that brings the attention to what he did—what he tried to bring. It’s like picking up the torch.