The Magazine

And the Band Plays On . . .

The music of New Orleans is still alive, but will the city ever recover?

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

New Orleans

To eat New Orleans raw, if you're into that sort of thing, it helps to be at the Maple Leaf Bar on Tuesdays around midnight. The Maple Leaf is a legendary watering-hole-in-the-wall. Its décor is of the scuffed-pool-table/Abita-beer-sign variety. It has worn plank floors and chipped crimson walls and pressed-tin ceilings through which peek gaslight pipes from the days before the place went electric. Its music hall is about the length and width of three living rooms. It is here that almost every Tuesday night, on a rickety postage stamp of a stage, the best live band in America, the Rebirth Brass Band, makes its stand.

The band's leader and founder, Tuba Phil Frazier, describes their sound as not jazz, not funk, but "junk." But this "junk" is like mainlining the very soul of New Orleans--the sousafunky sounds of tuba and bass drum-driven percussion propelling call-to-war horns. It is the soundtrack of its streets and jazz funerals and "second-line" parades in which brass bands move through the city's black neighborhoods on Sunday afternoons during parade season. In keeping with the town's never-ending-party ethos--the reason New Orleans always seems three beers ahead of wherever you're from--the "season" lasts two-thirds of the year.

During it, brass bands take to the streets at the behest of the city's scores of social aid and pleasure clubs, collecting second-line dancers behind them as a coat collects lint. A tradition that predates jazz itself, it's serious business--like church without religion. Men will skip football for second lines, and women will buy outfits for them. Unlike the rest of America, accustomed to living in flat-screened isolation chambers, New Orleans people--or what's left of them after Katrina--like to go out into the street to see and be seen.

Though it is internationally renowned, now playing jazz festivals throughout the world, Rebirth still owns these streets. It developed its sound playing them ever since Frazier cofounded the band in 1983 with Kermit Ruffins (now solo). As high school kids in the Treme neighborhood, from where so many of the city's musicians come, they played the French Quarter for tips, using them to buy Popeyes chicken and beer for themselves, and lunchmeat for Frazier's poor family. "If there was any money left over, our momma said buy some Kool-Aid--so you know we were ghetto," says Frazier's sister, Nicole James, an actress who works the door of her brother's show, while pushing the T-shirts of her rapper/tax-accountant husband. (In these uncertain times, it pays to have a fallback gig.)

The band, as currently constituted, is nine players strong. They are mostly thirtysomething and all African-American locals who came up in housing projects and some of the city's rougher neighborhoods, like the 9th Ward and the Treme. They tend to stay a long time. Even Rebirth's rookies have six years under their belts, and some have been playing with the band since they were teenagers.

Like an army ready to advance, they take their places onstage in two straight lines. The back line is the foundation, as Phil calls it, that pushes the front. There is no set list or sheet music. Roughly half their songs are originals, but none are written down. Tuba Phil calls all the tunes by blowing the opening licks, from New Orleans traditionals to retooled R&B numbers by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. If other players can't catch what he's doing from one of the 500 or so songs in their repertoire, they're better off finding another band.

Joining Phil and his sonic-boom of a sousaphone is Derrick "Big Sexy" Tabb, who plays with a viciousness that suggests he is skinning a cat, rather than hitting a snare drum. Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee called him "one of the baddest drummers I've ever seen." Next to Big Sexy, strapped up to a parade bass drum, is Keith "Bass Drum Shorty" Frazier, Phil's younger brother and the only other original member of the band. Around town, he is known for a peculiar innovation. He plays his high-hat cymbal not with a coat-hanger, as was the tradition before he changed it, but with a flathead screwdriver, since he likes the way it sounds: "like the swoop-splash of a rock hitting a lake."

Slathering all that bass in brass is the front line, who, standing six across in their wife-beater tank-tees, sports jerseys, and low-hanging jeans, look less like a horn section than like a hit squad of brass assassins. Each of them is a tight enough pocket player that he could hold the groove in the JB Horns (the Rebirth's heroes). But as a marksman, each is also dangerous enough to score a solo head-shot from a hundred yards away.