Little else expresses the joys, pains, rhythms, passion and compassion of New Orleans life like a brass band in the street. In New Orleans, brass band culture is both a constant and a fluid thing.
OK, maybe the artwork of Willie Birch—who was born and raised in New Orleans and whose work resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, among other places—captures the spirit of New Orleans life with equal force and beauty, including Birch’s indelible images of brass band musicians in action.
“Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans,” a book by Matt Sakakeeny, who is an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, a journalist and a musician, benefits from both Sakakeeny’s deeply embedded documentation of the lives and times of brass band musicians (from the Rebirth, Hot 8, and others bands) and Birch’s uniquely evocative art. Together, Sakakeeny and Birch reveal the political and social contexts of brass band music, which, while always entertaining, forms both in-the-moment activism and commentary. The book is an artful telling of cultural history illustrated by important artifacts of that cultural history. Sakakeeny’s book benefits from the rich scholarly perspective of a seasoned ethnomusicologist but its greatest resonance is the truth in the streets, unfiltered. Birch’s work, like the music of the brass bands documented here, erases lines between folk and high art by sheer power of expression and seriousness of purpose.
The above cover features Birch’s “In the Sweet Bye and Bye (Mr. Dejan’s Funeral),” from 2002, depicting the jazz funeral for Harold “Duke” Dejan, best known as leader of the Olympia Brass Band. (Copyright Willie Birch, used with permission of Duke University Press.) For more of Birch’s art and an excerpt from the book, scroll down.
For those In New York, Sakakeeny will offer insights in person, free of charge, at a Book Talk sponsored by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Details here, and below:
Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans
A book talk by Matt Sakakeeny
Wednesday April 9, 8pm
716 Hamilton Hall (near 116th & Amsterdam)
Sponsored by the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies
Because of a thriving brass band tradition, young black Americans continue to perform, listen, and dance to jazz in New Orleans today. Brass band musicians 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. In Roll With It, author Matt Sakakeeny follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.
Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.
More from Willie Birch, used with permission of the artist:
And here’s an excerpt from the book that offers some deep background to an incident I covered for Salon in 2007 (From “Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans,” by Matt Sakakeeny, with images by Willie Birch; Copyright Duke University Press, 2013.)
Episode 1.7: When This Life Is Over
In their day, the members of the first black brass bands in New Orleans gained status by dressing in Prussian military uniforms and playing composed marches; a generation later Louis Armstrong relished wearing his uniform and blowing hot jazz as a member of the Tuxedo Brass Band; during the Civil Rights era Harold Dejan’s Olympia band brought the sounds and aesthetics of soul into the tradition; the Dirty Dozen were faster, funkier, and cooler in the 70s. Today’s musicians dress in hip-hop gear and play hip-hop–inflected music for audiences attuned to contemporary styles and aesthetics.
The Rebirth Brass Band represents the possibilities for upward mobility in the brass band tradition, but this has not made its’ members invulnerable to suffering. Musicians who are recognized as celebrities while holding sway over large audiences are not immune to being targets of racial profiling and aggressive policing. Loved ones die too young from poor health or interpersonal violence. This is upward mobility in a space with a low ceiling.
Hurricane Katrina had immediate consequences for those in Rebirth: it devastated most of their homes and scattered them and their families out of New Orleans. The road back for some was longer than for others. Snare drummer Derrick Tabb had stayed in New Orleans with his wife, Keisha, and three children, and when the levees broke he stole a passenger van in order to drive his family to safety in Houston. Bass drummer Keith Frazier had planned his evacuation to Dallas, and when he and his wife, Yolanda, realized their home was lost they relocated there permanently. Bandleader Philip Frazier acted quickly to reunite the band for a U.S. tour, and by early 2006 most of the band had resettled in New Orleans.
In the midst of all the tumult of relocation and recovery, Philip and Keith’s younger brother, Kerwin James, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma in Houston. The family has a history of heart trouble, and Kerwin had struggled with his weight throughout his short life (his nickname was “Fat”). There was also the stress of Katrina, which factored into the deaths of many evacuees in ways that are ultimately unquantifiable. The combination of stress, heredity, personal behaviors, and structural failings has resulted in a high risk of hypertension among blacks. But no one is prepared to lose a loved one at age thirty-three, and Kerwin’s family traveled to Houston often to be by his side and they relayed updates about his condition to one another via cell phone.
Philip runs Rebirth with seemingly invincible enthusiasm—he is a benevolent leader who metes out decisions with a cheerful flash of his gold-capped teeth—but the stress brought on by the cataclysmic succession of events had upset his equilibrium. At a benefit concert for Kerwin at the Tipitina’s nightclub in November 2006, Philip began the night dancing onstage with his longtime girlfriend, Linda Porter Tapp, while Kerwin’s band New Birth played, but by the time he reappeared onstage with Rebirth he was uncharacteristically distressed. After a few songs he interrupted the typically seamless flow of upbeat music to address the crowd with a raw, emotionally intense speech that began as an elegy to his brother and then shifted to anger over the perilous status of brass band musicians in New Orleans.
“One line . . . from my little brother Kerwin will stay with me until I die.” Philip pats his hand over his heart as he starts.
“Can I get everybody’s attention?” Unprepared for a break in the action, the crowd makes idle chatter and the musicians busily tune their instruments and check sound levels. “This is so special to me,” pleads Philip in an unusually quiet and low-pitched voice.
“When Kerwin was like thirteen years old, he was on a video tape and [someone asked him], ‘Why you playing tuba?’ Know what my little brother said?” Philip steps away from the mic for an instant, gesturing toward the ground, pausing to control his emotions. “My little brother said this: ‘Because my big brother Philip taught me how to play tuba.’”
There is a smattering of applause and shouts, but the crowd is mostly split between respectful silence and discomfort with the outpouring of emotion at this otherwise celebratory event. Philip’s voice rises in volume and pitch.
“I don’t give a damn about what’s going on around the world. My little brother gave me that much respect to say ‘My big brother Philip taught me how to play tuba.’ . . .
You know, my brother’s lying in that goddamn bed with all them wires hooked up to him and shit . . . so right now I got to represent him.”
At this point, the tone and content of Philip’s speech turns from reflective to sermonizing, as he tries to reconcile his suffering with his status as the founder of the most celebrated brass band of his generation.
“Everybody sees us on tv all the time . . . but y’all know, this shit is about hard struggle. . . . I seen a lot of people lose a life every day.
And I’m representing New Orleans. . . .
Every time a musician travels around the world, all of us get treated like Michael Jackson. . . . [But] every time we come back here local . . . they don’t treat us like that. But we love y’all . . . because we love doing what we’re doing. So please, show some respect back.”
Philip then calls his mother at Kerwin’s bedside and puts the phone up to the microphone so she can thank the audience for their support. At the call’s end, Philip picks up his tuba, resumes his spot in the back, and launches into a rendition of “A. P. Tureaud,” a song with a booming tuba riff that Kerwin composed for his band. The musical tribute continues without interruption for the rest of the concert.
Kerwin remained in a coma for almost a year before passing away on September 26, 2007. On the night after his death, his family and friends returned to the Tremé neighborhood where many of them were raised and led an informal procession through the familiar streets. Musicians call this warm-up for a proper jazz funeral “bringing him down,” and their intention is to create a sound powerful enough to communicate with the dead. It certainly caused a stir among a few of those still living. At 8 p.m., in response to a noise complaint, multiple police cars—lights ablaze, sirens drowning out the music—descended on the procession of about a hundred people, and officers arrested Derrick Tabb and trombonist Glen David Andrews and as they were playing the traditional spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.” The charges were Disturbing the Peace and Parading without a Permit.
“They came in a swarm like we had a hundred ak-47s and we only had instruments,” explained drummer Ellis Joseph of the Free Agents Brass Band a few days later. Ellis was standing in solidarity alongside members of many other brass bands—including Philip, Keith, and Derrick of Rebirth and Hot 8 bandleader Bennie Pete—in front of a handful of news media at a small protest organized by musicians and community leaders. “They were threatening to use force and all this kind of stuff. Because we’re playing instruments? Something that’s a part of our culture that builds New Orleans? Our city wouldn’t be what it is if they didn’t sell it off of us.”
The disconnect between the city’s reliance on musicians as the foundation of the tourist economy and the treatment of those same musicians by politicians and the police was a recurring theme at the gathering. Addressing the media, the hip-hop artist and accountant Joe Blakk asked, “When the mayor and all the politicians are running for election, what’s the first thing they do? Call up Philip Frazier with Rebirth: ‘Rebirth, we need y’all.’ Where are they when we need them? The poster child for the rebuilding process of New Orleans is the jazz bands and the parades, but they get the most disrespect.”
Blakk’s questions resonate with and bring clarity to Philip’s onstage speech from a year earlier, when his lament for his dying brother led to frustration over the predicament of musicians. Rebirth and select other bands have benefited from their association with New Orleans music, as evidenced by the media present at their press conference, but their enhanced status does not free them from the struggles disproportionately facing black New Orleanians…
“When we cry, who hurts for us?” asks Joe Blakk. “Nobody but us.”
Following an event-filled week, this sentiment still echoes on the morning of October 6, 2007, when a jazz funeral is held in honor of Kerwin James. There is nothing extraordinary about a jazz funeral in New Orleans; I would estimate that, on average, there is about one per day, led by one of the twenty or so brass bands in the city, hired by the family of the deceased. But when a fellow brass band musician dies, any and all musicians are welcome and even expected to be present, instrument in hand, the only form of reciprocity being the assurance that one day musicians will honor them in turn. When that musician is young, the circumstances ensure a level of emotional intensity matched by the sheer force of dozens of musicians playing at full volume.
The steps of the Christian Mission Baptist Church are lined with horn players, and drummers spill off the sidewalk and onto the street. When Kerwin’s silver casket appears at the church door, the snare drummers play a soft roll, the bass drummers tap out a sparse beat, and the horns begin the legato melody of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” as Kerwin’s body is placed in the hearse. After the dirge winds to an end, snare drummer Kerry Hunter, who played alongside Kerwin in New Birth, launches into a fast drumroll, the horns fall in step with the melody of “I’ll Fly Away,” and in a heartbeat the emotional register of the event shifts dramatically. Some in the second line break out cowbells and tambourines, others yelp, twirl, smile; the excitement borders on the chaotic but is actually highly choreographed. The musicians organize themselves into sections: a dozen trumpets, half a dozen trombones, a handful of tubas and saxophones, and a full battery of percussionists. They fill up the narrow street so the second liners take to the sidewalks or weave in between instrumentalists, parked cars, and the occasional pile of debris outside a flood-damaged house. The sense of collectivity peaks when the horn players take their instruments from their mouths to sing, and we join them in unison: “One great morning, when this life is over . . .”
Glen David Andrews marches past the corner where he was arrested earlier in the week, and it is around this spot that the members of Rebirth band together and burst through the ranks of fellow musicians to launch a renegade version of a song with an unambiguous message. “Who Dat Call the Police?” was originally written by the local rapper Kilo and his lyrics conflate three or four recurring themes in hip-hop: anti-police ranting, misogynist posing, partying, and representing place (in this case, housing projects across New Orleans). The song is one of a dozen or more additions to the stock repertoire demonstrating the affinity of hip-hop and brass band as street musics, and it was Kerwin who added the signature tuba melody that travels up and down the notes of an F-minor chord. It is that riff that propels Gerald Platenburg of the Nine Times to hop onto the roof of a car, shaking his legs, dropping to his knees, bouncing back up in an instant, and raising his arms with his index fingers pointing toward the sky. The emotional register has shifted again without losing its intensity, and we all follow Rebirth’s lead, moving faster, chanting “Nobody run when the police come!” As we turn onto a wider street, the parade gathers momentum and grows in size as the sound lures more second liners to join in.
When we reach the perimeter of historic Tremé, the boundary marked by the imposing Interstate 10 overpass, Rebirth is now leading the procession with “A. P. Tureaud,” a New Birth original. Philip’s tuba bounces in the air as he repeats the one-note riff that his brother composed for the song. It is difficult to fathom how a tiny instrumental fragment could be identified with a single musician participating in a vast tradition that stretches back for generations, and for many second liners there may be nothing noteworthy or even identifiably different about “A. P. Tureaud,” but from the perspective of the musicians, playing this song at this moment is a purposeful act intended to call forth specific memories and meanings, and their instrumental articulations echo off the concrete structure of the highway and propel the unrestrained and ecstatic dancing under the bridge.
The funeral might have ended on this high note, but Philip instead calls for a final dirge. He begins the tuba part not to a sacred hymn, but to an r&b ballad popular in Rebirth’s youth, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” originally from the soundtrack to the 1975 movie Cooley High and covered by the a cappella group Boyz II Men in 1991. As a listener who previously found little redeeming in this pop confection, I have to reorient myself to accommodate its abundance of meaning for the musicians playing it as a spiritual meant to honor their fallen brother, on archaic instruments that echo off city streets where Louis Armstrong, Harold Dejan, and generations of followers have marched and played.
Each of these musicians accrued status through their affiliation with a local cultural tradition. They have done so within an infrastructure that has constrained social mobility through policies of urban planning, acts of aggressive policing, and other systemic problems. This book follows musicians as they mobilize across these two sides of the same coin. As a song by Rebirth repeats over and over, the lesson is to “roll with it.”