Celebrating (and Protecting) Brass & Heritage

Rebirth Brass Band (courtesy Blue Note Entertainment Group)

The first annual New York Brass and Heritage Festival kicked up last night, with New Orleans-based Rebirth Brass Band taking the stage of Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club for a four-night residency. That gig culminates in a midnight after-party (with, I presume, special guests) on Jan. 10. The Rebirth band earned a Grammy Award in 2012. But they’ve long been heroes in the clubs and streets of their hometown.
If Rebirth revolutionized New Orleans brass-band tradition, incorporating funk and pop elements and attitude, they were turning the next page, following the innovations of their fellow New Orleans trailblazers Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who are also featured in the Brass and Heritage Festival (at the Highline Ballroom, Jan. 10, with Red Baraat, a Brooklyn-based group who blend second-line beats and sounds with North Indian bhangra rhythms, go-go music, hip-hop and beyond).
This five-night affair is subtitled “New Orleans in New York.” It extends, stylistically, well beyond brass-band music and, geographically, outside New Orleans borders. It also showcases one of the icons of New Orleans music, the hit-making singer-songwriter-pianist Allen Toussaint, together with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who have spent some important time in the Crescent City, and other guests (at BB King Blues Club on Jan. 10).
The Brass and Heritage event is a savvy addition to New York’s festival calendar, from the Blue Note Entertainment Group. The Rebirth band’s gig at their flagship club should draw a large, faithful audience that challenges the no-dancing-in-the-aisles policy.
It’s also a nice complement to the sprawling and wonderful Winter Jazzfest, which began last night as well. (You can find a related piece of mine here; more to come from me on Winter Jazzfest as well.)
Meanwhile, New York’s celebration of New Orleans “Brass and Heritage” begs the question of how that tradition fares in its hometown. Here’s how the Blue Note press release describes the Rebirth band:

Formed in 1983 by tuba/sousaphone player Philip Frazier, his brother, bass drummer Keith Frazier, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the band has evolved from playing the streets of the French Quarter to playing festivals and stages all over the world.

What about those streets? Why does New Orleans persist in embattling rather than empowering the very musicians that are the city’s cultural signature and main attraction?
I’ve asked that again and again in print, and I’m feverishly researching the next chapter of that ongoing story. This one centers around a troubling new noise ordinance proposed by the city council and due for a public hearing on Jan. 17.
If you’re a New Orleans resident, I urge you to read and sign the petition below (the link is here). If you’re not, I recommend that you seek out the good information available on the website of a wise and calm citizen’s group, MACCNO (Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans) and find a way to make your voice heard and to spread the word.
There is a way to make good cultural policy that respects the rights of homeowners and businesspeople—and it involves bringing musicians and cultural leaders to the planning table.
Demand That Any Changes to New Orleans’ Noise Ordinance Meet the Needs of Musicians, Culture Bearers
We believe that the culture and music of New Orleans form the backbone of our city.  It enhances the quality of life, creates income and opportunity for thousands of residents, and has created one of the most distinctive and famous destinations in the world.  A noise ordinance that threatens the culture of New Orleans not only damages the ability of thousands of people to make a living, lowers property values and endangers quality of life, but it puts the very identity and uniqueness of the City in danger.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, a group of musicians, cultural workers and bearers, residents, and business owners, created the ‘Noise Ordinance for all New Orleanians’, which demands that any changes to the noise ordinance must be done with input and support from the cultural community.  We have listed five major points that must be addressed:
Please join us and sign this petition in support of these principles.  Together we can protect the culture of New Orleans, and ensure the livelihoods of our musicians, cultural workers and culture bearers.
‘A Noise Ordinance for All New Orleanians’ (full text)
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (a community group composed of musicians, cultural workers and bearers, residents, and business owners) offers the following principles for a noise ordinance that works for all New Orleanians.  We believe that these principles form an excellent base for the creation of a fair, equitable and accessible ordinance, but that it must also be crafted in consultation with musicians, cultural workers, community groups, residents, business owners, and professional sound scientists. Such a policy must also receive ample public hearing.
Preamble: Music and performance are the backbone of our city and they drive our local economy. Live music draws millions of tourists to the city every year, attracts new residents and investments, and enhances real estate values in neighborhoods of cultural and musical vibrancy.  A comprehensive noise ordinance that threatens the distinctiveness of New Orleans threatens our quality of life, the long-term economic growth of the city, and the everyday ability of thousands of our residents to earn an income.  For New Orleanians, quality of life includes recognizing the interests of performers, residents (both owners and renters), businesses, and visitors in a manner that honors our culture bearers and the traditions—new and old—that comprise our city’s most important asset.
– LOCALIZED DECISION MAKING: While a citywide noise ordinance provides necessary coherence, blanket regulations are inappropriate and do not recognize the unique characteristics present in our neighborhoods. Regulations should be appropriate to the individual character and soundscapes of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, communities, and traditions.  Such policies must be created and enforced with the input of residents, neighborhood associations, businesses, performers and cultural workers.
– MEDIATION, NOT CRIMINALIZATION: Noise complaints should lead to a formalized mediation process rooted in the involvement of concerned residents, neighborhood and community groups, affected performers, cultural workers, and local businesses. Criminalizing live music is neither a good neighbor policy nor a good economic policy in a city that thrives on the availability, diversity, and innovation of performance.
– PROFESSIONAL ENFORCEMENT AND EDUCATION: New Orleans needs a dedicated office directed with handling noise complaints that is both accessible and accountable. It is integral that this office be tasked with providing outreach to residents, businesses, performers, cultural workers, and other members of the cultural community about rules and regulations. This office must also take the lead in starting and fostering any mediation necessary to bring all involved parties to a mutually satisfying resolution of issues.
– CLARITY OF STREET PERFORMANCE PARAMETERS:  Hours of performance and sound levels for street musicians and other performers may require legal and enforceable regulation, but these regulations should not threaten New Orleans’ reputation as a city that nurtures music, performance, and cultural innovation.  Regulation on street performance must be crafted in consultation with performers themselves as well as residents and businesses.  Once determined, hours and levels should be clearly posted on streets and online. Furthermore, all involved parties should have access to training and workshops regarding these regulations to ensure a common knowledge and understanding of the issues should the need for mediation arise.
–    HONORING TRADITION AND INNOVATION: Traditional cultural practices including but not limited to Jazz Funerals, Second Lines, street performance, Mardi Gras Indian practices, parades, and gatherings should be explicitly encouraged and protected in the language of any final ordinance. These traditions lie at the core of our city’s culture and its economic growth, and the need to preserve and maintain the importance of these treasures must be considered at the heart of any mediation efforts.

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