It’s easy to understand why musicians who can’t get indoor gigs would play on the streets for tips. It’s harder to understand why they would keep busking even after they’ve graduated to nightclubs and jazz festivals.
Tuba Skinny, the New Orleans trad-jazz septet that emerged from the city’s fertile busking scene to hit the festival circuit, still makes a point of playing on the street as much as possible. In July, for example, when they played the Umbria Festival in Italy and the Fest-Jazz in France, they spent their off-hours in the old towns’ narrow, stone lanes, playing for whoever walked by.
Back in 2009, when the group first assembled itself from other busking bands such as Loose Marbles, Muscat Ramblers, and the Dead Man Street Orchestra, Tuba Skinny played for tips in Jackson Square out of necessity more than choice. In 2014, however, they have plenty of proper gigs—but the band keeps returning to the sidewalks because the group’s personality is so grounded in those origins that they require regular doses to keep their character intact. Plus, it’s so much fun.
“It’s important to every single person in the band that we keep playing on the street,” says Tuba Skinny’s founding cornetist Shaye Cohn. “If we stopped, something important about the band would be gone. We can take more risks and play more freely when we’re busking. No one’s telling us what to do or what to play when we’re on the street; no one’s telling us when to start or when to stop or how much we should talk. It’s our time and we do what we want to do. When people stop on the street to listen, it’s because they’re drawn to it. It’s not because they’re a tourist in a bar trying to ‘experience’ New Orleans music.
“When we travel, we try to busk a lot, because it connects us to the place we’re in. If we’re out in the open, people are going to pass by and react. People bump into you and say, ‘What kind of music is that? I never heard that kind of jazz.’ Which I can relate to because, at one point, I had never heard this kind of jazz either. You’re outdoors, which is nice, and it’s acoustic so we don’t have to worry if someone’s amplifier is drowning out someone else. Some spots are better: small streets with fewer cars and more pedestrians—which are easier to find in Europe than in the States.”
When Tuba Skinny appeared at d.b.a. on March 1, the Saturday before Mardi Gras, they were playing inside on the long, narrow nightclub’s proscenium stage, but you could still hear the street in their music. Arranged in a semi-circle, the seven musicians stuck close enough to the melodies for the old blues and jazz numbers to hang together but improvised enough that no two choruses sounded alike. Even though they were surrounded by red-velvet curtains on three sides, the players handled the tunes loosely, as if they were still sitting in front of Café Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street or Rouses Supermarket on Royal Street, stretching a tune as far as they could without breaking it.
Tuba Skinny played numbers by the Memphis Jug Band, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, but it was obvious they had no interest in copying a famous recording note for note. They seemed more interested in sustaining a lively conversation: a cornet phrase from Cohn would spark a response from Jon Doyle’s clarinet and then an additional comment from Barnabus Jones’ trombone, prompting a new statement from Cohn.
Unlike a lot of young musicians, the players in Tuba Skinny weren’t trying to show off their chops by ripping through as many notes as possible in eight bars. They were more interested in coaxing as much feeling as they could from the blues. They took their time with “Got a Mind to Ramble.” Cohn, sporting a platinum wig and black fishnet stockings, stated the melody with all the world-weariness it required. She was flanked by Doyle in a wispy beard and striped tie and Jones in a black porkpie hat, both adding support and embellishments.
Only after the mood at d.b.a. had already been set did Erika Lewis add the lyrics. Wearing a mink stole over a green tank-top with green flowers in her hair, Lewis sat atop the bass drum that she gonged with her big mallet in time to Todd Burdick’s burbling tuba. Closing her eyes and tilting her head, as if reluctant to let each syllable of the confession go, she sang, “I get so blue I want to leave my happy home.” The words provided some focus to the melancholy feel of the horns and set up their further elaboration.
Traveling is in the blood of all these musicians. Most Tuba Skinny members floated into New Orleans from somewhere else during the years between 9/11 and Katrina. Cohn was a classical pianist from Boston who had taken up the fiddle. Lewis came from New York State’s Hudson Valley an untrained singer and Jones a banjo player and fiddler. Chicago’s Burdick played banjo and guitar. They were playing old-time mountain music in the fashion of Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers, and Uncle Earl, all of whom started out on street corners before graduating to theaters and festivals.
The light, portable, string band instruments were perfect for staking out a spot on a sidewalk without amplifiers, and old-time’s emphasis on ensemble spirit (rather than solo virtuosity) was perfect for young musicians starting out with more enthusiasm than skills. The more experienced busking bands were working on Royal Street, but there was room in Jackson Square for newer, less-polished performers.
“When we started,” Lewis recalls, “the busking scene in New Orleans was pretty relaxed; it wasn’t as big as it is now. Shaye and Todd were part of the scene on the Square. You’d see these ragamuffin kids playing-string band music and these guys playing brass band music on the other side. It seemed very natural to me. What I enjoyed was the camaraderie and that they were doing what was in their hearts. We all influenced one another, and at one point Shaye and Todd stopped playing string band music and started playing brass band music.”
It was an obvious connection to make. Trad jazz, like old-time string band music, featured acoustic instruments that could be carried to a street corner and played without amplification. Unlike, say, bluegrass and bebop, old-time and early New Orleans jazz put more emphasis on spirited collective playing than on sophisticated solos, more on folk feeling than tricky changes. Both trad jazz and old-time, if delivered with enough energy, could get passersby to stop and start dancing. Because most of the musicians were in their early 20s, they had grown up with punk-rock, and most of them had been in punk bands, so that kind of reckless abandon came naturally.
“Most everyone in the band went through a punk-rock phase,” Cohn confirms. “I think punk had a lot to do with people who took up string band music or trad-jazz music. In punk, DIY is very important. You’re going to do everything yourself; you’re not going to pay someone else to do it for you. The musicians are self-taught; they didn’t have to spend a lot of money at a fancy school to learn how to play music well enough to make people happy.”
Cohn comes with quite a jazz pedigree. Her father, Joe Cohn, was a professional jazz guitarist in New England, and his grandfather was Al Cohn, the legendary jazz saxophonist who was one of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers along with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff. Shaye Cohn resisted jazz for a long time, but she finally found a way in through the backdoor. Having spent some time in the old-time string band world, traditional jazz was the obvious next step.
“I had never heard traditional jazz,” she admits. “The only Louis Armstrong I knew was the Louis and Ella era, which I liked, but I wasn’t moved by it the way I was by the Hot Five sides. I had burned out on classical piano; I had spent so many, many hours practicing in a tiny rehearsal room going over the same four measures again and again. I needed more social activity in my life. Until I started busking, I had never achieved such a special rapport playing music with people.”
When the New Orleans heat hit bad in late May, these young musicians would take their busking routine on the road, traveling to northern and West Coast cities to play for tips. So they were out of town when the levees failed during Katrina in August of 2005. They had so few possessions at that point in their lives that their own losses were minimal, but they returned home to find their adopted city shattered and its cultural identity in peril.
“What we lost,’ Cohn says, “was what everybody lost: the integrity of the city. First there was the ghost town effect. It was creepy, so many parts of town were blacked out. Huge piles of debris were everywhere and there was this immense feeling of loss and disaster, overwhelmingly bad. With every year, there’s been more development and growth, more people coming from other places. I’m not a native New Orleanian, but I find there are fewer and fewer places you can go and find native New Orleanians and the eccentricity that makes the city what it was. Nonetheless, extraordinary things happen every day that reflect what makes the city special before and now.”
Cohn landed in a New Orleans group home full of street performers. Some of her housemates would go out scavenging in the large piles of debris that dotted the city. Among the treasures they brought home were damaged, rusting horns that soon became an art exhibit on the mantelpiece. Cohn and Jones took the horns off the fireplace and started teaching themselves rudimentary scales on the recalcitrant instruments. They played their newfound instruments in a Mardi Gras parade by the Krewe of Eris, famous for its tolerance of beginner musicians.
Cohn and Jones both fell in love with their new horns and gradually replaced their scavenger finds with more cooperative instruments. Cohn went from a regular trumpet to a pocket trumpet to a cornet, a gift from her good friend Ben Polcer, leader of the Loose Marbles. After honing their chops with Loose Marbles, Cohn, Jones and Burdick decided they wanted to form their own band.
Burdick had already acquired the nickname “Tuba Skinny” from sidewalk commentators when the rail-thin musician rode his bicycle through the French Quarter with his big gold sousaphone strapped to his back. The name is a joking tribute to the late Tuba Fats, a giant in the city’s brass band scene. Lewis, who had sat in with the musicians from time to time, was recruited as a singer, and a variety of guitar, banjo, fiddle and washboard players came and went. After a few years, Lewis hit on the idea of sitting on her bass drum.
“I’m part of a band,” she explains, “but I’m the only person who’s standing there with hands free while everything’s going on. I’d sing and the band would play an instrumental, and I’d sit down and wait till it was time to sing again. I didn’t feel comfortable with that; I felt disconnected. It just dawned on me one day that a bass drum was something that I could add and it would fit in. For the first year, I strapped it to my front, but I felt like a pregnant spider flailing around, standing up while everyone else was sitting down. So I said, ‘I’m just going to sit down on it.’”
From Cohn’s perspective, Tuba Skinny really gelled when they added a clarinetist. Austin, Texas’ Jon Doyle was a guest on the 2012 album Rag Band and a full-fledged member on 2013’s Pyramid Strut, though he is often replaced on live gigs by New Orleans’ Craig Flory. Cohn goes out of her way to emphasize that Tuba Skinny adopted the cornet-trombone-clarinet triad not because that’s how it was done on the famous recordings but because that’s what sounds best.
“The clarinet frees us up to do so much more,” she says. “It has that noodly, spiraling feel that a trumpet or trombone can’t do. It allows us to do a lot more tunes that we want to do. The clarinet was there for a reason on those early recordings, because it can cut through that heavy brass sound. Those three instruments work so well for collective improvisation. You have the cornet or the trumpet stating the basic melody; it anchors the song. The trombone adds support for that and adds some personality with the slide. Then the clarinet is there doing crazy dances, swirling like a bird.”
When Tuba Skinny plays on Frenchmen Street or Royal Street, listeners bunched up on the pavement often go into crazy, swirling dances of their own. So do the listeners who spill out of their seats and into the aisles of the Jazz Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or the Umbria Jazz Festival. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing on the street or inside a theater; Tuba Skinny plays the same—bringing an unusual polish to the street corner and an unusual looseness to the stage.