Don’t get us wrong, Sousa is in the pantheon of them-who-haul-brass-through-the-streets, but we suspect the maestro might be surprised by the music today. Which, if you think about it, is good.
Otherwise, there would only be the old-timey brass band idiom and the genre would have lost touch with the people.
Which is precisely where this music has always lived. With military bands and civic orchestras and parades and funerals and weddings, brass band music has always been popular music.
And in New Orleans, it still is.
While just about everywhere else brass music has been relegated to park bandstands on sweltering July nights, surrounded by a protective perimeter of bunting, in New Orleans the music still breathes easy in the streets, day in and day out.
American traditions age differently in New Orleans.
On today’s program we talk about brass bands in general and the Rebirth Brass Band in particular. The music is loud and lovable, so turn it up.
Roll With It BRASS BANDS IN THE STREETS OF NEW ORLEANS
Matt Sakakeeny, photo: Tulane Publications
Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist, journalist, and musician in New Orleans, where he has lived since 1997. He’s recently been tenured at Tulane, so he’ll be around for awhile to come.
(We’re glad to note that it was radio that brought him to the City that Care Forgot. He came to New Orleans to work on the staff of American Routes.)
His book Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans was published in the Fall of 2013. It’s being described by its publisher as “a first-hand account of the precarious lives of musicians in the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands of New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. Some achieve a degree of social mobility while many more encounter aggressive policing, exploitative economies, and a political infrastructure that creates insecurities in healthcare, housing, education, and criminal justice.”
In Roll With It, Matt Sakakeeny describes the jazz funeral of Harold “Duke” Dejan, the founder of the Olympia Brass Band. The beloved bandleader died in 2002, at the age of 93.
The first line turns onto Claiborne Avenue, the main thoroughfare cutting through the Tremé neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter in the Downtown district. The second line of black and white New Orleanians, tourists, reporters, and photographers falls in behind and alongside the mourners. We march beside the concrete decks of Interstate 10 that tower over the street. As vehicles zing by overhead, the procession moves slowly and solemnly for several blocks, the band gradually ratcheting up the tempo with the traditional Baptist spirituals “Bye and Bye” and “I’ll Fly Away,” each faster than the one before. Thirty musicians march in honor of their former bandleader, wearing the traditional uniform of “black and whites”: short-sleeve white work shirt, black pants and shoes, and a visored cap bearing the band’s name in gold lettering. The back row of bass drum, snare drum, and tuba provides rhythmic and harmonic consistency, while the trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and saxophones in the front line play the melody and improvise simultaneously, creating a thick contrapuntal texture that has been a hallmark of New Orleans brass band music for over a century.
At first recognition of the melody, we clap along to the beat. Some have brought their own cowbells and tambourines. The rhythm ripples through concentric circles of bodies. More and more sway to the strike of the bass drum in a freestyle choreography of communal motion. I take off my headphones to find that I too am swaying. Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, a respected musical elder performing in the funeral of his former bandleader, leads the crowd in the refrain. In unison we sing:
I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallaelujah bye and bye, I’ll fly away
The cemetery is several miles away, so the funeral organizers decide to “cut the body loose” at the intersection of Claiborne and Esplanade Avenues and then proceed to the cemetery by car. As we near the overpass, the band switches to “Lord, Lord, Lord” at a fast march tempo and the dancers move with more force, undaunted by the heat of the midday summer sun. When we make the turn under the massive decks of the interstate, police sirens melt into the soundscape of instruments and singing. The band plays the most recognizable musical phrase in the brass band repertoire, known as the “Joe Avery riff,” a four-note trumpet call from the 1950s standard “Joe Avery Blues.” After each statement by the trumpets—”DA-DA-DAAA-DA!”—the crowd punctuates the riff by yelling “HEY!” Call-and-response phrasing, what the musicologist Samuel Floyd calls “the master trope” of black music, highlights the lack of separation between audience and performer. “Joe Avery” is a gesture of inclusion, because if you do not yell “HEY” along with the musicians and everyone else, you are not participating.
“No One Ever Sounded Like That Before” THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND
It’s not often that we get to throw a formal analogy your way, but today is the exception.
DDBB archival photo
As Matt Sakakeeny puts it, “Jazz existed before Louis Armstrong, a few people knew about it, and then Louis Armstrong comes along and it’s like, ‘Whoa! This is a whole new deal.’
“Now everyone in the world knows about it because of his stature, because of his innovation, because he picked up a form of music that was already popular and revolutionized it.”
Sakakeeny posits that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, organized in 1977 by Benny Jones, plays the analogous role in the development of the brass band idiom.
“Dirty Dozen came along and everybody who was there in ’77, when they first started coming out, said ‘No one ever sounded like that before.'”
Here was a brass band that was into bebop — as Sakakeeny says, “note-y, intellectual jazz music of the type that there’s not a lot of here in New Orleans.”
“The great saxophonist Roger Lewis, Gregory Davis on trumpet — these cats know how to play all different kinds of music,” Sakakeeny tells Gwen.
“Roger Lewis was Fats Domino’s saxophone player for years and years. So, that’s what’s going on in the front line… and then, in the back row, they’re playing funk. They’re the first brass band to do that.
“So Harold Dejan Olympia Brass Band — God bless ’em — they were bringing rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul and the stuff that was going on in the 60s and 70s, but funk had its own hard-driving, repetitive, trance-like, James Brown, George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic, transcendent music. That’s what Dirty Dozen brought to the tradition.”
Rebirth Brass Band Photo: Mark H. Anbinder / Flickr
Rebirth Brass Band FEEL LIKE FUNKIN’ IT UP
click to sample cuts
Standing on the shoulders of their sousaphone-carrying predecessors, the members of Rebirth Brass Band, burst upon the scene in 1983. They were founded by the Frazier brothers — Keith and Philip — and Kermit Ruffins.
Rebirth deepened the funk influence and made sure hip hop found its home in the brass band idiom as the band evolved from playing the streets of the French Quarter to music stages across the globe.
“Rebirth can be precise whenever it wants to,” writes Jon Pareles in The New York Times, “but it’s more like a party than a machine. It’s a working model of the New Orleans musical ethos: as long as everybody knows what they’re doing, anyone can cut loose.”
And after 30 years of buckin’ and jumpin’ — swearin’ and chantin’ — whopin’ and rollin’… the Rebirth Brass band won a Grammy Award for best regional album for their 2011 recording Rebirth of New Orleans.
It’s called Take ‘Em To the Moon and was co-written with Chadrick Honore. Veals isn’t screaming, exactly. But you’ve gotta hear his trombone. Take ‘Em To the Moon is featured on Rebirth’s 2014 album titled, Move Your Body. In true Rebirth fashion, the track and the CD are wild from beginning to end.
Each week we provide a complete playlist of the music heard on the broadcast. Our hope is that you’ll print it out and take it with you the next time you visit your local record store. Thanks for supporting the musicians and your local music retailer.
Philip Frazier, Gwen Thompkins, and Gregory Veals at Marigny Recording Studio. Photo: Amanda Irizarry