Have you been on Frenchmen Street lately and heard the brass band?
Remember that big lot on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres where the brass band used to play every night?
It’s gone. In its place is Dat Dog, a fine and welcome addition to the neighborhood. When construction on Dat Dog started some months ago, the brass band moved across the street to the corner in front of the old Café Brasil, which has been closed for years.
Over the years, numerous complaints from the neighborhood have surfaced about this group, the Young Fellaz Brass Band, who complain about the loudness of the band (well, it is a brass band) and about the hours they play.
Many of the music clubs on Frenchmen Street keep their doors closed, and they’ve had to because the band is so loud. But they’ve adjusted, and have felt that the band is part of the Frenchmen Street milieu.
However, since the band began playing in front of Café Brasil, a lot of safety issues have come up: the band draws such a crowd that they not only block the sidewalk, they also block the street, which makes it difficult—and dangerous—to walk or drive a vehicle down Frenchmen or Chartres.
A couple of months ago, “Brazil Taco Truck” opened at 2106 Chartres Street. This space is on Chartres on the river side of the street and behind the corner where the brass band plays.
The owner has complained about the brass band since he opened. “The band won’t play at a reasonable volume,” he said. “Sometimes they play until til 11:30 p.m. or into the early morning hours. They block the sidewalk and the street, can keep people from coming into the restaurant.” He also contends that members of the band have urinated on the street in front of the restaurant, and regularly smoke pot in front of the restaurant, and have intimidated customers.
This isn’t the first complaint that’s been made about the brass band from this location. The former restaurant occupant of the same location, Melange, opted to shut down rather than try to get the brass band to cooperate.
The police have been called, but have opted not to enforce the existing noise ordinance which prevent high-decibel-level music because they’ve been told that the brass bands are part of the culture and that they have a right to play on the corner.
Other club owners contend that they used to, but now no longer book the Young Fellaz because they’ve started fights with club staff, threatened other musicians, and have “helped themselves” to food and beer from the clubs. The majority of the businesses on the street are fed up with the bad attitude on the part of some of the band members and the troubles they’ve caused in the neighborhood.
A word about the police on Frenchmen Street: Bourbon Street regularly has a force of six officers to patrol their street. There are no officers regularly assigned to Frenchmen. I understand that the NOPD force is down almost 30 percent from where it was a couple of years ago, so Frenchmen Street certainly does not have the protection it needs as a street that is now one of the city’s major music and visitor attractions. Business owners say that many times when police are called, they either don’t show up, or it takes 20 or more minutes for a police officer to respond. This is unacceptable and must be addressed by the police force.
A few weeks ago, civil rights attorney Mary Howell, representatives of MACCNO, Kenneth Ferdinand, a musician, activist and business owner on Frenchmen Street, and the members of the Young Fellaz Brass Band, headed by Sam Jackson, convened to discuss the growing problems with the band, and try to come up with solutions.
I was also present at this meeting and tried to explain to the band that in order for them to continue to play on Frenchmen, and be welcomed by the rest of the businesses in the neighborhood, that they would have to act professionally, which meant turning down the volume, not playing too late, not smoking weed, and generally respecting the other businesses on the street. The brass band is a part of the atmosphere and ambience on Frenchmen, but as one business owner said to me: “We love the music culture of the city, and we support and respect it. But these guys are not respecting our businesses. They’re causing trouble; they precipitate fighting; they encourage a ‘marijuana van’ to park and they can go in and out of it all night. They’re loud and obnoxious. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. We would like to co-exist with them, but we can’t do that because they don’t respect what we’re trying to do in this neighborhood.”
In the meeting with the band, they promised to try to work within the framework of the neighborhood. A week or so after the meeting, the Brazil Taco Truck owner became so frustrated with the loudness of the music that he placed a speaker outside his restaurant and played music that was even louder than the band in an attempt to make them leave. Obviously, this caused a ruckus; members of the band came into Brazil Taco Truck, an altercation ensued with the owner, and the police were called. A few days later the business owner found a note scrawled on a piece of paper stuck into the door in his home on the West Bank: “YOU LIVE HERE. 2 BOYS IN HOME.” He was—obviously—frightened by the note as he perceived it to be a threat.
So the situation has deteriorated.
At what point does a brass band become a detriment to a neighborhood, even one that’s so oriented to live music and local musical culture? How do you draw the line between acting like a professional music group and being people who will use force and intimidation to get your way?
The Frenchmen Marigny Triangle Business Association, which is an organization comprised primarily of the businesses in the 500 and 600 blocks of Frenchmen (full disclosure: I am its president) is unanimous in voting to ask the city to close down the brass band corner. “It’s not that we don’t like the brass bands” said one member. “We do. But they’re not respecting our neighborhood. They’re acting more like the mafia than musicians. There’s a reason why that band has played there for many years. If it were a place where other brass bands could play, it might be different. But this band has managed to ‘claim’ the spot and they won’t allow anyone else to play there.” So it’s about money for the band, as well. They want their spot because they make money there.
The band also contends that musicians who are causing the trouble are not part of Young Fellaz. They are guys who aren’t really members of the band who are coming in and ruining it for everyone. So it appears that there is no self-policing by the band members themselves.
This is a very thorny issue, for sure.
Street music is a part of New Orleans culture. Many of the city’s most respected musicians have come up through the brass band tradition: Kermit Ruffins, Derrick Tabb, Shamarr Allen, Glen David Andrews, Trombone Shorty, and so many more. Brass bands are the way these young musicians actually learn how to play; how to perform in front of an audience; how to actually become professional musicians. And even more importantly, the brass bands offer young musicians a means to make money in a legitimate way, and keeps them from potentially getting in trouble.
Brass bands playing on the streets of New Orleans have always been somewhat problematic: there’s a famous photo taken in 1996 when Trombone Shorty and Glen David Andrews were arrested for playing on the street when they were little boys. By the way, at the time, people called this band–with two of the city’s most currently popular musicians in it–the “Band From Hell.”
If we take away places for brass bands to play, how will these kids learn? If we run them off, what will happen to our musical street culture? How will these musicians hone their art, and be allowed to make music as an expression of free speech?
These are questions that I addressed to the FMTBA members.
All understood, but they feel as though they’ve tried to accommodate the band, and the band is making trouble for the businesses on Frenchmen. “We’re supposed to respect them and we’ve tried, but they don’t respect us” is something I’ve heard again and again.
During the meeting, some members suggested that the city step in with a plan for a place where brass bands can play, get an audience, and attract a crowd safely (it’s certainly not safe on Frenchmen at the moment). I heard suggestions for Washington Artillery Park, the Moonwalk, Woldenberg Park—none of which sound right to me. There’s been talk of setting up a “Brass Band Alley” in the deserted fleamarket portion of the French Market in the evenings, with possibly a food truck or two in the area.
It’s lighted, deserted and relatively safe. But how could more than one band play there per night? Two or more brass bands there? Wouldn’t work. The cacophony would be outrageous. It would have to be one band only. But who would take the responsibility of booking the band, making sure the bands showed up and were professional in their behavior?
The FMTBA members even though about trying to establish times when the bands could legitimately play. But could those hours, or would those times, be enforced with no police to do it? One member even suggested that the band members be required to wear T-shirts that identified them as members of one band or another (don’t know how that could possibly work).
I agree with making sure that street musicians have a place to play. But I also agree that unless the bands can develop a professional attitude and realize that they are part of the neighborhoods they play in, there will continue to be problems.
Where do—and where can and should—these kids play?
I would love to hear your comments and suggestions on this issue.