“We do our own style of New Orleans Treme funk, that consists of funk, New Orleans brass band music, a little bit of hiphop–inspired music, a little bit of soul and R&B.”
Trombonist Corey Henry continually celebrates all that it means to grow up in a musical family and in the rhythmic and melodic incubator that is New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. It was a spot where a musically curious and lively young man could catch brass bands rolling down the streets and share the experience with his equally eager young friends.
“I was living right next door to my cousin Kabuki [trumpeter Derrick Shezbie] on Treme Street and with the whole Rebirth family—Miss Frazier—lived on the next block,” Henry explains. “You can imagine what that two or three block radius was like. It was crazy. The whole of St. Philip Street was like a party every day.”
The world of brass band music and traditional jazz remains inherent in Henry’s style even as he has moved on to incorporate other grooves as leader of his own Treme Funktet, which just released its hard-hitting debut CD, Lapeitah. (More about the title’s special origin later.) The trombonist also brings his own sound when blowing with the jam/funk/rock band Galactic.
As a teenager, Henry had the opportunity to play with and listen to some of this city’s greatest musicians. So early on the trombonist understood the importance of musicianship and the tonal quality that today defines his mastery of the instrument.
“When I was probably 15 or something like that, Unc [his uncle, drummer Benny Jones] took me into the Treme Brass Band and I think that was one of the biggest things that could ever happen to me. I was surrounded by super, super bad musicians, some of the baddest musicians in the world—saxophonists Frederick Sheppard, Fred Kemp, Roger Lewis and Elliot ‘Stackman’ Callier. During the ’90s he threw me out there with all those bad cats.”
Henry, who celebrates his 41st birthday on July 14, began playing drums like his Uncle Benny and grandfather Chester Jones. At about age 10, he and a couple of his friends would head to the French Quarter to perform together or by the side of the great Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen in Jackson Square.
“When we first started out we were little kids just kind of hustling for tips,” Henry remembers. “It was almost like going to a university playing with Tuba Fats. You’d be sitting out there learning so much music. He’d call so many songs that you probably never even heard of but he was doing it on purpose because he wants you to learn them—it’s part of the learning process. He’s just dropping more and more information. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we were trying and learning at the same time. He always gave us little tips about playing and would encourage us as little young musicians to keep going in the right direction and [tell us] that we were doing a good job. It was an honor and inspiration to be playing with Tuba Fats.”
Henry was aware of Lacen even before he got to know him better in the Quarter. One of his uncles (his father’s brother), Michael George, played bass drum with Tuba Fats’ Chosen Few Brass Band.
“It was pretty often I got to see Tuba Fats in my neighborhood whether he was playing music with his band or the Olympia Brass Band or just hanging out,” Henry recalls. “He was this 500pound man, so that was a big attraction for a little kid.”
Lil Rascals Brass Band
It wasn’t long before Henry organized the Lil Rascals Brass Band and then about two years later he switched from snare drum to trombone.
“It was a hot instrument,” he simply offers as the reason. “A lot of funky trombone players were doing a lot of good things on the instrument so it made me really want to play trombone,” he adds, mentioning Keith “Wolf” Anderson and Charles Joseph, who were then blowing with the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen brass bands, respectively, plus those from the traditional scene including Waldren “Frog” Joseph, Lucien Barbarin and Freddie Lonzo. “I listened to all those cats. My dad got me a trombone. He knew I wanted to play trombone because he would see me walking around the neighborhood blowing a friend’s trombone. That started everything off right there.”
Though Henry was in band classes at both Joseph A. Craig Elementary School and Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, he didn’t participate in the marching bands and is primarily a selftaught musician.
“I wasn’t into the whole marching thing that much—I was into brass band and traditional music,” says Henry, who, after all, was a denizen of Treme’s historically rich street and jazz scene. Throughout his career, his method to learn the music has been to absorb the sounds around him and study those artists who caught his ear and soul. One such musician was trombonist Fred Wesley, perhaps best known for his work with James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and George Clinton’s ParliamentFunkadelic. “I heard a CD and [his playing] touched me in a way that nothing had ever touched me,” declares Henry, who had the opportunity to record with Wesley on the compilation album Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. “I became infatuated with Fred. He’s probably my greatest influence on trombone.”
The Lil Rascals made their professional debut sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s performing at what Henry describes as a “picnic event” in front of City Hall at Duncan Plaza. “That was our first real paying gig so you can imagine that after that we kind of felt like a band,” he says with a laugh. Henry continues laughing on recalling that the group wore airbrushed T-shirts that proclaimed “Rascals Got Fire” on the front and fisherman-style hats when they rolled on their first second line with the highly respected Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association.
In 1998, the Rascals released their first album, We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City. As the name suggests, it contains all traditional numbers. The disc includes classics like “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” and a Tuba Fats and [trumpeter] Milton Batiste original, the well-known street parade anthem, “Tuba Fats and Half 0.”
“Playing New Orleans traditional music was a big part of our upbringing so we definitely wanted to pay tribute to that genre of music though we were a young brass band and were more inspired by the modern-style music,” Henry explains. “We always knew that we learned so much through traditional.” Next up, in 2001, the Lil Rascals put out Buck It Like a Horse, which kicked into some hot funk on mostly original material. The disc included the first tune penned by Henry, “Rascals Got Fire,” which continues to be echoed on the streets today.
When trumpeter and vocalist Kermit Ruffins left the Rebirth Brass Band to pursue a solo career in 1992, Henry was blowing with the Lil Rascals, the Treme Brass Band and a few others.
“I would go and sit in with Kermit and the Barbecue Swingers at some of the venues in the Treme,” Henry says. “I was just trying to learn the music and I was loving what he was doing in the style of Louis Armstrong. Eventually, he hired me for a gig and then I became a part of the band.”
The trombonist played, recorded and traveled nationally and internationally with Ruffins and the Swingers throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. He’s right there with Ruffins on the trumpeter’s second album on the Justice Records label, 1994’s The Big Butter & Egg Man, and a string of Ruffins’ Basin Street Records releases up until 2002’s Big Easy.
“It was always good because Kermit Ruffins is Kermit Ruffins. He loved Pops [Louis Armstrong] so much that he would do everything like Pops. He made it feel like Pops was next to you.”
“I learned a lot from Kermit,” Henry continues. “I learned to lead a band and be professional all of the while having a good time. That’s the thing about Kermit, he knows how to create a nice friendly atmosphere for everybody.”
Fans still reminisce about the special quality of the combined tonalities of Henry’s trombone and Ruffins’ trumpet. “We played well together,” Henry agrees, adding that because of Ruffins’ affinity for Louis Armstrong, he studied the styles of trombonists who played with Satchmo, like Trummy Young and Jack Teagarden. “We both became quite good at that kind of music. We kind of grew into our own through Louis and his band. I knew pretty much where Kermit was going, I just had to jump in and get my position.”
Henry’s Galactic connection began with saxophonist Ben Ellman, who when he first arrived in New Orleans, played with the Lil Rascals. In 2000, the Rascals opened for Galactic on a crosscountry tour. “Since then, we were pretty connected,” says Henry, who became a member and has recorded three albums with the band since around 2009. The discs include 2011’s The Other Side of Midnight, 2012’s Carnivale Electricos and its latest, 2015’s Into the Deep.
Being a member of Galactic, particularly because of the band’s heavy touring schedule, has expanded his horizons, says Henry. “Everything is pretty much a growing process,” he philosophically offers. “It’s music, you know, and I’m just comfortable playing music in whatever direction we go in. I just try to find my little place where I can fit in and contribute what I can contribute to the music.”
“We’ve been traveling around the world and playing in a lot of different venues and festivals, meeting a lot of great people and working with a lot of different artists. Playing with Galactic has given me more of a platform to do Corey Henry–style music as well.”
Henry put together the Treme Funktet in 2012, primarily to perform at the Candlelight Lounge when the owner, his cousin Leona “Chine” Grandison, wanted to expand the club’s music schedule and bring more live music back into the Treme. The following year, the Funktet took over Ruffins’ popular Thursday night gig at Vaughan’s.
“He turned it over to us and we’ve been holding it down ever since,” Henry says. “We appreciate that because that was a big step for us as a band—thanks to the great Kermit Ruffins.”
Henry incorporated his rich background plus fresh influences on his new release, Lapeitah (A Treme Cultural Dance). The unusual title, Henry explains, is a name given by the Royal Players’ leader, Anthony Bennett, to the style of steppin’ his father, Oswald “Bo Monkey” Jones, does when acting as a second line grand marshal.
“We’re mainly about horns blazing and funky grooves,” Henry says of the music heard on the album, which could be described as the Funktet meets New York. It was produced by Brian J of the Big Apple’s Pimps of Joy Time; the multi-instrumentalist also cowrote with Henry eight of the disc’s original tunes.
“We do our own style of New Orleans Treme funk,” Henry continues. “That consists of funk, New Orleans brass band music, a little bit of hiphop–inspired music, a little bit of soul and R&B. We try to mix everything and keep it real New Orleans.”
Plenty of talent from here and afar fills the tracks of Lapeitah, an album that stands as an ode to the Treme. New Orleans resident, vocalist Cole Williams possesses the right grit to take on the horns on tunes like “Tell Ya Mamma Nem” and “Baby C’Mon.” Corey Glover of Living Colour comes in for a soulful version Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” His passionate vocals are matched by Henry’s moaning trombone. Brian J brings on a burning guitar solo on this well-chosen cover.
The Henry/Brian J original “Get Funky” does just that, with the help of PFunk’s saxophonist Greg Thomas and some hip group vocals. Trumpeters Maurice Brown and Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill turn up on the street-ready “Treme Life” on which Henry’s rap references New Orleans’ classic people, places and unique customs without being overly clichéd.
The album, recorded over the last several years, is dedicated to Hill, a member of the Funktet who is heard on five tracks. He tragically died on May 4, 2015 at the age of 28.
“My parents and my grandparents, they pretty much set the stage for us,” concludes Henry, speaking of himself and others in his musical family. That family goes beyond bloodlines to all those who’ve been touched by the music and musicians from the neighborhood.
With all of the wild sounds goin’ on throughout the album—horns, vocals, keyboards, percussion and more—Henry’s trombone and presence stand strongly at the center of the mix. Lapeitah represents Corey Henry’s Treme universe, a world he’s always known, loved and shared.