The Stooges Brass Band hit it on the sweet spot when it dubbed its debut release It’s About Time. Folks on the street have been jumpin’ to the band’s hot brass since 1996 when the then-teenagers, hailing from John F. Kennedy and St. Augustine high schools, looked the part of the ensemble’s original name, the Lil’ Stooges.
“There are two meanings to it,” explains leader/sousaphonist and sometime trombonist Walter “Whoadie” Ramsey of the disc’s title. “It’s taken a long time to do an album. And another thing, it’s about the time it takes as far as learning and about gaining progress in the music.”
Of course, the title and the music also celebrate rhythm; the street beat that propels the contemporary sounds of brass bands today. The Stooges, which still boasts three original members, Ramsey, trombonist Ersel “Garfield” Bogan and trumpeter Andrew “Drew” Baham, have played a vital role in keeping the syncopation vibrating on the streets. For the disc, the band also invited back many of the guys who’ve contributed to its vitality through the years. In keeping with the tradition of perpetuating the music, the group also includes next-generation, teenaged drummers Lil’ Sam Cyrus on snare and Dwayne “Lil’ Wayne” Williams on bass.
“The whole Stooges family participated in the album,” Ramsey declares proudly. While musicians like trombonists Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (here heard on trumpet) and Sam “Big Sam” Williams, both of whom blow hard on the CD,enjoy reputations heading their own groups, they play with the Stooges from time to time and are still consider band members.
The history of the Stooges rings familiar with a couple of guys in a high school band, in this case Ramsey and trumpeter Brian Gerdes at Kennedy,wanting to give a go to forming a brass band. Ramsey, who was highly influenced by his grandfather, Aston Ramsey, a noted folk artist and parade follower, had been about brass band music all his life. He is also a member of the Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indian gang.
“I just knew I wanted to do this,” Ramsey exclaims. “My grandfather took me out to the streets where the music was being played and also helped me get my first trombone.”
While Gerdes didn’t grow up around the brass band sounds, he was game as well as instrumental in hooking up with a couple of his neighborhood drum-playing friends who attended St. Augustine.
Some prevailing misconceptions about this generation of brass band members is that they are strictly “street” and don’t enjoy formal music education, can’t read music, and know little about theory.
Ramsey, Gerdes, Bogan and Baham all attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and studied under Clyde Kerr, Jr., and Kidd Jordan. Although a policy of St. Augustine prohibits its students from attending the arts school, Bogan says that they shared the knowledge they gained at NOCCA with their rhythm section. Trumpeter Jamelle Williams studied music at Loyola University.
“It brings a sophistication to the music that might somehow be overlooked,” says trumpeter Baham of the effects of formalized education on the Stooges’ style. Baham, who last year released a fine straight-ahead jazz CD on the Gruve label, adds, “We try not to delve into the typical brass band elements like certain forms, structures and keys. Those elements that make a brass band work can also be changed.”
“NOCCA made us realize what we were playing,” Ramsey explains. “We’re playing from the soul but we have more technical involvement in our musical structure.”
Starting out, the then Lil’ Stooges took another familiar brass band route by heading to Jackson Square to hone its collective chops and learn the ropes. The band was truly honored when the ReBirth Brass Band asked them to play the second line parade celebrating the group’s 15th anniversary. It was the Stooges’ first big event.
“That’s when the streets discovered us,” declares Ramsey with a laugh. “We were the youngest band on the big brass band scene. There is an up-coming young band called To Be Continued and they remind us a little bit of us—I guess in the way we reminded ReBirth of themselves.”
Early on, the Stooges played only a couple of Sunday afternoon social and pleasure club anniversary parades during the second line season. These days, the band funks up at as many as 25 of the approximately 30 to 35 jumpin’ processions. It can stand on its own when going head to head with its big brothers like ReBirth when a crowd-loving battle of the bands fires up.
“We put on a show,” exclaims Bogan of the band’s presence and the fun the members have cuttin’ up along a parade route.
The Stooges has also expanded its horizons. The band performs every Tuesday at the Family Ties club and is heard around town at Tipitina’s, Donna’s, the Funky Butt, Blue Nile, Café Brasil and the House of Blues. The guys also head out three or four times a year to hit spots in New York, Florida and Texas.
As revealed on It’s About Time, which boast 99 percent original material, the Stooges’ music has stretched beyond the second line by incorporating elements like rap and reggae. While the band, of course, continues to hit with the street beats, the members boast that its repertoire and dance routines can definitely fill the bill for stage shows and house parties. They look forward to further expansion in those directions in the future.
“Different crowds want to hear different things,” says Bogan. “Like we can bust everything out of the ’70s. We’ll play one of the Jackson’s songs and we’ll do the Jackson dance. We’ll put on a show. We want to put on a good show for the people.”
“If you hire the Stooges, you don’t have to worry about hiring a brass band to play at the end of a wedding reception,” adds Ramsey. “We can do the wedding reception and the whole thing.”
“We entertain ourselves,” says Bogan, a statement that all those who’ve rolled with the Stooges on a second line can confirm. “When we’re having fun we know the people are going to have fun.”
With the release of its debut CD, the Stooges bring its style of funkin’ fun, trombone-heavy, brass from the streets to undoubtedly larger audiences—It’s About Time.
BRASS AND SASS
The Stooges will be one of the—count ’em—19 brass bands settin’ down the groove for the always sassy Krewe du Vieux parade on Saturday, February 7. Themed “Quest for Immorality,” the satirical and sexy procession is a brass band lover’s glory with groups like the Tremé, New Birth, Lil Rascals, Coolbone, Paulin Brothers and many more blowin’ hot on the streets of the Faubourg Marigny and French Quarter. Note that the parade has a new starting point this year on Decatur and Port. It begins at 7 p.m. and ends with the organization’s kickin’ Krewe du Vieux Doo party at the State Palace Theater on Canal Street. The Trombone Shorty Brass Band kicks the night off followed by long, tall Marcia Ball with The Theresa Anderson Group takin’ it into the wee hours. Tickets to the Doo are available at the Louisiana Music Factory.
The Backstreet Cultural Museum, 1116 St. Claude Avenue, celebrates Carnival Day with an open house from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. It’s a good spot to catch Mardi Gras Indians and other back-of-town Carnival groups—also just a nice place to stop and hang.
Just down the street, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Avenue, is the destination for Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Indian gang. The 81-year-old Big Chief—the oldest Indian ever to mask—makes his 53rd appearance on the streets and will be coming from his home on North Villere to preside from a platform built in front of the renowned club especially for this purpose. The timing of this event is unpredictable.