Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Orleans Bones

This morning, as I was driving around running errands and doing a little geocaching, I had the second (of three) albums by the great New Orleans band Bonerama in the CD player. Bonerama, as far as I can tell, grew out of the trombone section of Harry Connick, Jr.'s big band and is led by trombonist Mark Mullins. The band has a guitarist and a drummer, but that's as far as it goes in terms of convention. Instead of an electric or upright bass, the bottom is held down by Matt Perrine's incredible tuba, and the front line consists of four trombones.* They play funk originals and classic rock tunes - "Whippin' Post," "Crosstown Traffic," "War Pigs." In April, 2008, I was lucky enough to spend an evening with my pal Robo at the Maple Leaf in uptown New Orleans experiencing them from the first note of the night to the last.

Bonerama is just a blast - they're one of the most fun bands I've ever heard or seen. I'm not going to sit down with headphones and listen to a Bonerama album all the way through very often, but that's not the point. It's good-time New Orleans music. It's (usually) not profound, but it does have an edge, and the boys occasionally get into some pretty out-there collective improvisations.

Maybe Crescent City trombonists are on my mind these days - lots of the traditional jazz I've been listening to lately has featured Waldren "Frog" Joseph (1918-2004). Although now best known for his traditional "dixieland" work, Frog was an all-around musician; he played in big bands and was on lots of the classic NOLA R & B records of the 1950's. I was familiar with Frog's playing from records, and I got to hear him with the "indoor" segment of the Olympia Brass Band in 1996 at Preservation Hall. By that time his playing was pretty spare and somewhat limited, but in his prime his style was strong, individual, and tinged with humor; he often shifted from a typical "tailgate" style into staccato phrases that seemed to be making lighthearted fun of the music. Joseph is not well represented on CD, but one of the two albums he made as leader, Frog and Friends at Dixieland Hall, has been reissued on CD. Two of his sons are trombonists: Charles, who was a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Gerald, who played for years with the Olympia BB. Another son, Kirk, is also a charter Dirty Dozen member and is one of the finest tuba players in New Orleans.

One Thursday in 2004, I was checking my email at work and opened up the weekly Offbeat Magazine newsletter to read that Frog and died and would be buried with a brass band funeral on Saturday. A few minutes later, I had made up my mind that I would be there. I left work early the next day and caught a plane to New Orleans. The rest of this entry is what I wrote about this experience at the time:

Frog’s funeral started at 10:00 the next morning at Corpus Christi Catholic Church on St. Bernard. The service was nice, with some great music. A band with electric bass played a version of “Amazing Grace” which featured a trombone trio (one of whom was Freddie Lonzo). The same trombone trio played another hymn which I didn’t recognize, but which sounded great – they took turns using plungers. When the band played “Over in the Gloryland” Kirk Joseph was overcome and rushed up to the coffin. Communion was accompanied by a vocal and organ version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

When we came out of the church the band was playing a very slow “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” The band was the largest New Orleans brass band I have ever seen – there were around half a dozen of every instrument except clarinet (there were two or three). There were five tubas, for example. Based on the caps, there were musicians from the Treme, Mahogany, Funky 7, Tuxedo, Gentilly, Society, and Storyville Stompers Brass Bands. I recognized Lionel Batiste, Benny Jones, and Shannon Powell on drums, Chris Burke on clarinet, Fred Kemp on tenor sax, Greg Stafford, and Frog’s sons Charles on trombone and Kirk on tuba. Kirk seemed to call most of the tunes and be generally in charge. The procession to St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. The old tradition of playing only slow hymns and dirges on the way to the cemetery seems to be gone; the band only played three slow hymns out of thirteen pieces. Even more surprising to me was the fact that they played “secular” music on the way and did not play in any organized way back to the church; the gig was over at the cemetery. The selections went down this way:

at the church:
In the Sweet Bye and Bye (slow)
on the march:
Bye and Bye
Lord, Lord, Lord
What a Friend We Have in Jesus (slow, then fast)
Whoopin’ Blues
Give Me My Money Back (short)
I’ll Fly Away
It Ain’t My Fault
I’m Walkin’
Paul Barbarin’s Second Line
at the cemetery gates:
We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City
at the tomb:
Just a Closer Walk With Thee (slow)
leaving the tomb:
Over In the Gloryland

I think “Give Me My Money Back” was so short because some the musicians didn’t think it was appropriate; it couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of minutes, while most of the numbers went over five minutes. Just before the band played “Streets of the City” at the cemetery gates, I heard Kirk say something like, “Well, it’s time to send the old man home.” Toward the end of “Streets of the City” the trombonists started playing “Lassus Trombone,” presumably in tribute to Frog, who recorded it on his first album as leader. “Gloryland” ended with the band at the cemetery gate, spilling onto Esplanade. When it was over, most of the guys said their goodbyes, but some wanted to keep on playing. I thought about hanging around to see what would happen, but I decided to walk on back. I cut through a side street and found myself at Liuzza’s by the Track, a restaurant which my friend Josh had told me about. I sat down and ordered a catfish sandwich and an Abita. Before they came, one of the waiters said, “Here comes a second line!” and about seven or eight musicians, led by Charles Joseph, came in. Between them and the remaining second-liners, every inch of the small place was filled. They played “Go to the Mardi Gras,” then settled in for some beer and rest. After awhile they left, still playing. It was one of those moments that only happen in New Orleans.

The funeral was an amazing experience; very moving – even the faster hymns seemed very poignant. The sound of the huge band was magnificent. Because the band was so big, the musicians sometimes broke into little subgroups. Greg Stafford, Charles Joseph, and a great clarinetist (whom I have seen before, but can’t name) did some wonderful trio work at one point.

After the experience, I was exhausted. In addition, I didn’t want to put any more music into my head, so I passed up some great music choices Saturday night: Dr. John and Cyril Neville at Tip’s, the Rebirth at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, and Kermit at the Blue Nile.


*Usually four trombones - but I saw them once with three trombones, and there are five on their first album. 'Bonists Rick Trolsen, Steve Suter, and Craig Klein are usually on board along with Mullins.



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