Monday, January 26, 2009

New Orleans Brass Bands

Writing about Frog Joseph's funeral and burning some of my brass band singles onto CD got me thinking about New Orleans brass band music.

In the second half of the 19th century, concert and marching bands were all the rage in the U.S. – every little town had its band, and cities often had several. New Orleans was no exception, but, as usual, the black and Creole citizens of the city put their own spin on the standard brass band. In addition to the standard marches and funeral dirges, they started playing ragtime and improvising, until the street band music of the Crescent City didn’t resemble that of anywhere else. New Orleans brass band music developed hand in hand with the jazz, and the two streams of music greatly influenced each other. The brass bands of New Orleans have continued to grow and change; each new generation of musicians adds its own spice to the gumbo.

New Orleans brass band music has killed me since the first time I heard it. It’s the kind of amazing blend of cultures that you find so often in New Orleans: European marches and dirges, black and white Protestant hymns, jazz, and R & B all thrown into the blender. Often a band will contain younger and older musicians, which makes for some interesting stylistic clashes. These differing styles, along with a pretty loose sense of pitch and rhythm and a lack of well-defined instrumental roles (often several guys on different instruments are vying for the same musical space) results in music which should not work. But it usually does. It’s like the popular conception of the bumblebee – aerodynamically unable to fly, but it flies. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band playing “Bourbon Street Parade” or the Rebirth playing “Talk That Shit Now” should sound like a jumble, but it’s such a glorious noise that you don’t care if it’s kind of messy.

Not only do I love the sound of these bands, I love their history, their sense of pride, and even their names. I have recordings by:

Bunk Johnson’s Brass Band (The first NO brass band to record, in 1945)
The Original Zenith Brass Band (recorded in 1946)
The Eureka Brass Band (Perhaps the greatest of all New Orleans brass bands. They were proud of their reading ability and musical skills and could play a dirge like no other band, then turn around and swing their butts off on a jazz tune. Eureka Brass Band: 1920-1971. R.I.P.)
The Young Tuxedo Brass Band (Only a step below the Eureka. The band contained young beboppers alongside musicians who started their careers before 1920.)
The Algiers Brass Band
Coolbone Brass Band
The Onward Brass Band
The Olympia Brass Band
The Original Pin Stripe Brass Band
The Rebirth Brass Band
(Maybe the most exciting band playing in NOLA today.)
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
The Li’l Rascals Brass Band (Stupid name; great band. These young guys can play the traditional stuff very well, but they are also about the funkiest band in NO.)
The High Steppers Brass Band
The Magnificent Sevenths Brass Band
The Young Olympians Brass Band
The Chosen Few Brass Band
(led by the great Tuba Fats)
The Forgotten Souls Brass Band (An all-star band led by the mighty Kirk Joseph on tuba.)
George Williams’ Brass Band
The 6th Ward All Stars
The Gibson Brass Band
(A rough, tough, non-union band recorded in the 1960’s.)
The New Birth Brass Band (Another one of the best current bands on the scene - at times they seem as good as the Rebirth.)
The Treme Brass Band
Doc Paulin’s Brass Band
(This rough and ready band provided apprenticeship for generations of young NOLA musicians, including Dr. Michael White, about whom see below.)
The Paulin Brothers Brass Band (Doc’s sons in their own band. Their one album features three saxophones, which makes for some lush harmony not found in any other brass band.)
The Society Brass Band
The Soul Rebels Brass Band
(A little hard to take at times because of their “keepin’ it real in the ghetto” attitude. They might follow a tune called “Let Your Mind Be Free” with “Shut Up, Ho.”)
The Hot 8 Brass Band
The New Orleans Nightcrawlers (The only one of these bands founded by a pianist. Tom McDermott wrote a brass band arrangement for the Dirty Dozen; they didn't want it, so he formed a band to play it.)
The Hurricane Brass Band (A groundbreaking band that grew out of Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Brass Band in the seventies. Led by trumpeter Leroy Jones, it was the precursor to the Dirty Dozen, the Rebirth, the Chosen Few, and all of the younger bands that revived the scene in New Orleans.)
The Imperial Brass Band (led by trumpeter Alvin Alcorn)
The Mahogany Brass Band
The Excelsior Brass Band

From a record collector's standpoint, my most prized brass band records are the Hurricane's one album (which is scarcer than hens' teeth), and the two singles the Dirty Dozen put out on their own label. These predate their first album and are almost totally unknown outside of New Orleans. I've never seen them listed in any jazz discography.

Some of these bands play(ed) “traditional” NO brass band music, others tend(ed) toward Dirty Dozen-style funk. Most of the currently active ones can play both. But I like what the late Allan Jaffe (longtime owner of Preservation Hall) said: “You can pass a tradition down to the next generation, but you can’t control what they do with it.” I saw the excellent NO clarinetist Dr. Michael White (who is my age) on TV a few years ago. He was decrying the music of the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth and explaining that the Young Tuxedo, with whom he played, was keeping the traditional music alive. I thought that was pretty funny. In the 1960s, trumpeter Peter Bocage was saying the same thing about the bands then: they weren’t playing the traditional 6/8 marches – all they wanted to play was jazz. That is, they were playing in the style that Michael White identified as traditional 35 years later. It’s doubly ironic because the Young Tuxedo’s first album, from 1958, has a tune called “It Feels So Good.” The producers of the album weren’t familiar with it and assumed it was an old, jazzy brass band standard – the composer credit on the label just read “traditional.” Well, the piece was a 1955 R & B hit by local favorites Shirley & Lee. The Young Tuxedos weren’t worried about preserving a tradition; they just wanted to play some good music.

As good as the records are, this is music that makes its maximum impact when heard live. I've been lucky enough to hear:

The Dirty Dozen
The Rebirth
The Olympia
The Treme
The Mahogany
The Pin Stripe
The Algiers
The Nightcrawlers
The Chosen Few
The Hot 8
The Society
The Soul Rebels
The New Birth
and several pick-up bands, like the huge one that played for Frog Joseph's funeral.

All these have been wonderful experiences, but the most memorable have involved the Rebirth. Hearing this band in full cry is an incredibly intense experience; they are the loudest unamplified band I've ever heard. The impact of their music is positively physical. On their regular Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf, the sound hits you in the face, and you either retreat or stand up to it and dance. Hearing one of these brass bands on parade is also amazing - I once jumped up from a sidewalk cafe and left my plate of red beans and rice for almost an hour as I followed a parade. (The band was a combination of the Algiers and the Pin Stripes.) My food, as well as a stack of records I had gotten at the Louisiana Music Factory, was still there when I returned. I left the waitress a really big tip.

I wanted to end by listing my favorite half-dozen NOLA brass band recordings. I couldn't quite manage it - I had to cheat a little.

Bunk Johnson - Bunk's Brass Band and Dance Band (1945 - American Music) It finally gets on record. A great little pick-up band, and one of the few recordings we have of a brass band with alto and baritone horn instead of saxophones.

Eureka Brass Band - New Orleans Funeral & Parade (1951) This is the first recording of s working brass band; it's been on several labels over the years, but is now available on American Music. Strange and majestic.

The Young Tuxedo Brass Band - Jazz Begins (1958 - Atlantic) The dirges are deep and the uptempo playing is abandoned to the extent that the music sounds as if it's going to fly apart. And John Casimir's archaic E-flat clarinet wails above it all.

Eureka Brass Band - Jazz at Preservation Hall, Volume One (1962 - Atlantic) Some of the finest polyphonic playing I've ever heard. The Humphrey brothers (Percy on trumpet and Willie on clarinet) reign supreme.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - Voodoo (1989 - Columbia) and/or Funeral For a Friend (2003 - Ropeadope) The band that made the style popular again has never stuck to the "correct" brass band instrumentation or style. Of the many albums by the DDBB, these are my two favorites - pianos, guitars, and all.

The Rebirth Brass Band - The Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf (1999- Louisiana Red Hot Records) Close to what you'll experience live. Turn it way up.

And two for lagniappe:

Onward Brass Band - Last Journey of a Jazzman (1965 - Nobility) Recorded on the street at Lester Santiago's funeral by Cosimo Matassa, who carried a 50-pound tape recorder for miles in the rain. It's an amazing document, but it is flawed by the overdubbed narration. I wish we had the unadorned music.

A New Orleans Visit Before Katrina (2005 - Arhoolie) Three tunes on this anthology capture the Treme Brass Band on parade. In my opinion, these 20 minutes or so represent the finest New Orleans brass band recordings for years.

I love this music.


Kurt said...

I represent Onward Brass
Band of New Orleans. If you haven't heard, Onward Brass Band has been revived, and will play French Quarter Fest April 9th. You can listen into us at
Frog Joseph played in and Placide Adams, my dear friend, was the leader of Onward.

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