One of the many indelible musical things that seem to happen in New Orleans and seemingly nowhere else is the strong sense of community between musicians.
On any given night on Frenchmen Street, musicians who ought to be competing for gigs and audiences are instead sharing the stage.
But that spirit of camaraderie doesn’t stop with live performances, and it isn’t limited to just one genre or type of musician.
Anders Osborne produces blues albums for other musicians while delving into the blues himself.
Derrick Tabb has made it his mission in life to inspire and educate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
Jon Cleary instantly bonded with fellow transplanted keyboard master Nigel Hall, and the two work together instead of compete.
The list goes on and on, but it’s worth highlighting that for a host of up and coming jazz musicians, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra maestro Irvin Mayfield has facilitated countless musical collaborations in the past decade.
One such outgrowth of the NOJO that has earned a spotlight at this year’s Jazz Fest is the Trumpet Mafia, a wrecking crew of New Orleans based trumpet players making waves around the world.
Led by trumpeter and longtime NOJO member Ashlin Parker, Trumpet Mafia formed organically as a group of NOJO members and other assorted musicians started to gather for daily practices.
“Trumpet Mafia started in 2013 when I got back from Switzerland, during that really, really hot summer,” Parker said. “Some of us trumpet players got together in the Ninth Ward, and because there were no gigs and it was hot like Mars, we just practiced all day.”
Through a flurry of texts and social media posts, Parker got the word out that they were “shedding,” or practicing.
Like moths to a flame, the musicians gravitated to the informal and communal shedding sessions.
“All of the sudden, there’s like 15 cats that came by,” Parker said. “Everybody came at least twice, and benefitted from the forum that we started.”
All musical egos and performance baggage were checked at the door.
“We’re all here doing the same job,” Parker said. “Instead of competing with each other, we’re trying to help each other. We’re trying to figure out ‘what do you do on this problem?’ We’re sharing issues, sharing warm ups, exercises, things like that.”
The practices that led to the formation of the Trumpet Mafia ended up lasting for four months, with the musicians shedding at least eight hours each day.
When Delfeayo Marsalis and his Uptown Jazz Orchestra hosted a battle of the bands against Russia’s Igor Butman Jazz Orchestra in January of 2014, Parker welcomed the visiting trumpet players with open arms.
“We took the whole Russian trumpet section to my house,” Parker said. “People were having nosebleeds we were practicing so hard. It was such an intense practice session.”
One of the Russian trumpeters noticed something strange.
“Every 10 minutes, another trumpet player would walk in to my house,” Parker said. “One of the Russians said ‘Man, there are so many trumpet players. It is like a trumpet mafia!’ He coined it. We’re like ‘That’s damn right what it is!’”
Soon after, the loose and informal group with a newly minted name began to coalesce around Parker’s natural leadership skills.
“There was a point where we would practice our exercises in harmony, rather than in unison,” Parker said. “One day, we were practicing something really difficult, and one of the guys said ‘Damn, we sound good. We could actually perform this.’”
In early September of 2014, Branden Lewis, Alex Massa, Chris Cotton, Grayson Hackleman, James Williams, and Julian Addison joined Parker on the balcony of his Frenchmen Street apartment to film a performance of the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan” that Parker arranged for the band for OffBeat.com.
A little more than one month later, Trumpet Mafia performed at Tulane University as part of the Jazz at the Rat series, blending hip hop and traditional jazz in a well-received formal debut.
After the show, the musicians all hopped in a limo for the ride back to Frenchmen Street.
As they spilled out onto the busy street amid a throbbing Thursday night crowd, everyone within a five block radius became aware of one thing: Trumpet Mafia had arrived.
The next step ended up being an invitation to play at Jazz Fest, which Parker readily accepted.
He immediately started lining up special guests for the band’s festival debut.
“For Jazz Fest, I’ve got some crazy hitters on this one, not even New Orleans cats,” Parker said. “The first special guest artist is Leroy Jones. We’re going to do an original composition ‘Louie’s Lamentation’ that’s a dirge. We’re going to do a dirge at Jazz Fest.”
After Jazz Fest, the next step for the band is to begin recording, but Parker is taking one thing at a time.
Parker’s arrangement of a Harold Batiste tune called “Harlis Laughing” for a performance at Snug Harbor caught the attention of Jesse McBride, who plans on connecting the band with Batiste so the elder master can see his work performed by a new wave of musicians.
“One thing that we really want to do is pay homage, that’s really important for us” Parker said. “Before we go to the studio, we need to pay homage. These cats are still here. It’s crazy. We get to play this beautiful music, and that’s just what we need to do. That’s satisfaction.”
The mafia is all about respect, after all.