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
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.
On saxophones are Byron "Flea" Bernard, a social worker who also plays with his church band and who dearly wishes Rebirth would cut a gospel album, and Vincent Broussard, who looks like he should play with the Wailers with his back-length dreadlocks. On trombone is Lil' Herb Stevens, who is not lil' at all, and who sports Bible-themed tattoos all over his arms, patting Jesus on His head and apologizing if anyone says anything sacrilegious. Joining him is Stafford "Freaky Pete" Agee, so named for calling the ladies onstage and "freaking" them, though he is still a man of high principle: He refuses to play anything that's not grease-bucket funky.
Leading the charge are the band's slash-and-burn trumpet players. There's sparkplug dynamo Derrick "Khabuki" Shezbie, whose cheeks turn into Dizzy Gillespie balloons when he blows (he often brackets one with his free fingers to get a tighter sound). A member of another brass band enviously tells me, "Khabuki could carry that band, and two others at the same time." Rounding the lineup out is Glen "The General" Andrews, who likes to head for the high registers like a runaway sherpa who's caught sight of the summit.
He is called "The General" because he, along with his cousin Big Sexy, likes to make sure everyone hits his parts (Khabuki, too, is a distant cousin). You'd never know that Andrews is self-taught and doesn't even read music. "Wynton Marsalis might say, 'What the hell are you doin'!'" he jokes. But as The General tells me with a gold-toothed grin, "I can go where he plays, but he can't come on our stage where we play. I play something I made up from my heart, y'know." It puts me in mind of something Louis Armstrong said of snooty Creole musicians when he and Kid Ory blew them off the street during a jazz funeral: "Any learned musician can read music, but they all can't swing."
And swing the Rebirth does, especially live. Not to take anything away from their 13 fine recordings, but the difference between hearing them live and on disc is the difference between making love to a beautiful woman and having the experience described to you. Still, I haven't come to New Orleans to sign on as their roadie. I'm here on official business, to take a snapshot of their city a year and a half after Katrina nearly totaled it.
To that end, I bring to the Maple Leaf show one of my old guides to New Orleans, the pseudonymous Kingfish, of whom I've written in these pages twice before. When I first met him, as the waters were still rolling in after Katrina, New Orleans felt like a live adaptation of the Book of Revelation. People were dying in the streets, the desperate became more so, and the lawless were taking over. A good native son whose family goes back to the city's beginnings, Kingfish was one of the last men standing in his swank Uptown neighborhood. He let our visiting crew of journalists clean out his refrigerator and bathe in his pool, since the hotels had long since evacuated.
Before the gig, I stop by his house to collect him. His kids are snug in their beds, instead of in exile in Florida. And there is nobody sleeping on the couch with a shotgun, as was his looter-protection practice back during the flood. There is one remnant of those days, however. In his living room is a trophy case featuring a pair of beat-up Adidas sneakers. In between running humanitarian rescue missions during the storm, Kingfish lost patience with the looters. When he saw one coming out of a linen store with a swag bag--hardly a necessity unless the thief had to have cool fabrics for summer--Kingfish bore down on him with his shotgun. "Scared him clean out of his shoes," he says. "I just couldn't take it anymore."
As he fixes us some pregame Old Fashioneds, Mrs. Kingfish eyes his pressed khakis and Casual-Friday chambray shirt disapprovingly. "You're going to the Maple Leaf," she says, "Don't you have a black T-shirt or something?" He shrugs his shoulders, in a what-do-you-want-from-me fashion. "I probably have a buttoned-down T-shirt somewhere," he says. While Kingfish plays at being the Uptown swell, like many whites in New Orleans who've benefited from three centuries of cultural cross-fertilization, he has more soul than he likes to let on.
We get to the bar before the Rebirth does, and Kingfish eyes the decrepitude approvingly. "You can't reproduce this," he says. "When you go to Joe's Crab Shack, this is what they try to do." The Meters play on the juke, while the bar is the kind of place where you can have enlightened debates as to who was the better piano player, Professor Longhair or James Booker (the late Booker usually wins, since he used to hold down Rebirth's Tuesday night gig). At the end of the bar is a photo of Everette Maddox, who was the Maple Leaf's "poet laureate," at least until he drank himself to death. Maple Leaf owner Hank Staples says that he's buried out back on the patio. At least half of him is. Seems there was a dispute among his friends, and the rest of his ashes were scattered in the Mississippi River. He died as he lived, and his tombstone testifies: "He was a mess."
It could be New Orleans's epitaph, and some would have it that way. But not tonight. Tonight the band takes the stage an hour and a half late (in the Big Easy, start times are mere suggestions). But the Rebirth makes up for it. The Frazier brothers lay down a thoracic cavity-thumping bass groove, and the rest of the band plays like their horns have caught fire and need blowing out. Empty beer bottles rattle on the speakers, while the band sings and spits and croaks out in frogman gurgles its burning-down-the-house anthem, "Rebirth Got Fire! Rebirth Got Fire!" Both black and white and rich and poor and middle-aged and young bob violently like several hundred buoys on a gathering wave.
Talent buyer Stu Schayot of the Howlin' Wolf club sees a lot of great bands, but tells me there's none like Rebirth: "When those guys play, there's a feeling that there's no other spot on this planet where this moment is happening. And if you're from New Orleans, it's like you own it. It's such a New Orleans thing they've created. My philosophy is: If everybody saw Rebirth once a week, there'd be no crime in this city. You go to a show, and every walk is there. You could be standing next to a lawyer, and a guy from the projects. No class, no race. All energy. Just people in unison, having a good time."
Close to me, I watch a freakishly nimble second-line dancer named Ron "The Busdriver" Horn, so monikered because he drives a bus. He moves as though his joints are made of Slinkys. He is black, but he wants me to meet Chocolate Swerve, his white sidekick and understudy. Swerve recently broke his ankle when the crowd got him over-pumped as he was dancing onstage during a Rebirth show at Tipitina's. ("In cowboy boots," Horn says with some embarrassment. "I laughed all the way to the hospital.")
Still, boasts Horn, "ain't nobody can deal with him," as Swerve replicates his moves. "We're brothers from another mother." Horn met Swerve after the former's house got washed out in the 9th Ward. Swerve was a roofer from out of town--one of the rare ones who didn't try to cheat him. They became thick as thieves, and, well, now look, says Horn, like the beaming parent of an accomplished child.
I ask Horn if this stuff matters, in the grand scheme of the greater disaster that has become his city. He looks at me as if someone had jumped me with a stupid stick. "It's all that matters." After the storm, he says, he left "a wonderful lady" back in Atlanta "who I dealt with for 11 years" because he had to get back. "This," he says, pointing to the Rebirth, "is what makes the culture keep living. I came back for my kids and the culture." Now 41 years old, he used to play trumpet in the same junior high band as Tuba Phil, and his son now plays trumpet in one of the best marching bands in New Orleans. "She's got the house now," he said, speaking of his woman. "But I came back for my culture. I told her if you ever need me, I'm there. But we're fighting here. Ain't gonna give up. I got to help rebuild."
I grab the Kingfish to introduce him, but the second he catches The Busdriver's eye, he exclaims, "Hey baby!" and they embrace. Years ago, Horn used to work for Kingfish. "This is New Orleans," Kingfish explains. "We all know each other." Kingfish doesn't tarry for long, however, as a pretty black girl innocently and wordlessly grabs his hand while the Rebirth plays "Feel Like Funkin' It Up." He spins her around the dance floor, or at least the two feet of it that are available to him. He smiles an isn't-this-place-great smile.
"Why do you think I put up with all the bulls--t?" Kingfish says.
There are plenty who said New Orleans wouldn't come back after the storm. But it's back, all right--back as the murder and mayhem capital of the United States. According to one Tulane demographer, in 2006, there were 96 murders per 100,000 people--68 percent more than in 2004. And 2007 is off to an auspicious start with 37 murders as of mid-March. It's an impressive effort from the bad guys of New Orleans, who are putting up big numbers even though there are fewer people around to kill. The population has dwindled to 191,000 from its pre-storm 467,000. With New Orleans's notoriously overstretched and feckless police force and DA, about two-thirds of the homicides are going unsolved. So many criminals have been released without charge that the term "misdemeanor murder" has gained wide currency.
While city spinmeisters would have it that the murder rate entails black-on-black drug-related killings--which is largely true--they're by no means all that's going on. In just one recent week, a female filmmaker and the Hot 8 Brass Band's Dinerral Shavers (who frequently sat in with Rebirth) were both killed in front of their own children, causing an outraged citizens' march on City Hall.
On some days, the Times-Picayune reads like good crime fiction with a southern gothic twist. There were the star-crossed lovers who met the night Katrina hit, and who ended up cohabiting over a voodoo temple in the Quarter. They came to a bad end when he calmly strangled her, dismembered her, then jumped off the roof of the same hotel in which I'm staying, but not before leaving a suicide note that detailed his handiwork: Police found parts of her in a pot on the stove next to the chopped carrots and more in the oven on turkey-basting trays. "He may have in retrospect seemed a little troubled," said his landlord.
Then there was the bizarre murder allegedly committed by renowned radio talk show host Vincent Marinello, who police suspect shot his wife in the face twice, made it look like a robbery in a parking lot, then rode away on his bike. The tip-off was the to-do list found in his FEMA trailer, with checkmarks beside incriminating tasks like "mustache and beard" and a reminder to get rid of the weapon. He appears to have remembered everything except to throw away his list.
None of this, of course, even addresses the post-Katrina toll or the frustration New Orleanians feel with federal, state, and local officials. Even many of those who voted to reelect Mayor Ray Nagin have taken to calling him "the invisible mayor." And after George W. Bush rejected Louisiana's Baker Plan to help speed rebuilding, and failed to forgive the state the matching 10 percent it must pay for all federal disaster assistance as he did New York after 9/11, and neglected even to mention New Orleans in his State of the Union address, many New Orleanians were unclear during his recent visit, when Bush promised that they hadn't been forgotten, whether he was reminding them or himself.
At a Rebirth show at the Howlin' Wolf one night, I watch as trombonist Stafford Agee takes the mike and improvises a lament in which he name-checks everyone from FEMA to the mayor to the president, with the sing-a-long refrain, "F-- 'em all, f-- 'em all, f-- 'em all." The crowd joins in lustily. It doesn't feel like disaffected youth spoiling for a fight, either. It's not angry, so much as weary: the song of a city that's given immeasurable joy to the rest of the country with its music and architecture and food, but that feels like it's getting erased.
The Katrina Index, put out jointly by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Brookings Institution, and which might as well be called the Misery Index, tells the story in numbers. Less than 1 percent of those who've applied for assistance through the state's Road Home Program have received their home-repair grants. Public transportation has hardly improved in a year, with the city still at 17 percent of its buses. Though Orleans Parish schools were a disaster before the storm, with educational standards reportedly below those of Zimbabwe and Kenya, 56 percent of schools remain closed, and 69 percent of child-care centers do as well. The mass exodus of doctors might have to do with the fact that only 12 of Orleans Parish's 23 state-licensed hospitals are still in operation.
Then there are the things that statistics can't measure--the weirdness quotient. One afternoon, I take a spin around the city with another old friend, Joe Gendusa, a tour guide I met during Mardi Gras 2006. When he's not giving the Southern Comfort cocktail tour, he gives the Katrina Disaster tour for the Gray Line company three times a week. Gray Line is a bit of a disaster itself. Before the storm, it had 65 local full-time employees. Now it has four.
I took Gendusa's bus tour last year, but this year, as he drives me around in his car, I'm shocked at how little has changed in neighborhood after mostly abandoned neighborhood: Lakeview, Gentilly, the 9th Ward, St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East. The only appreciable difference is that most of the debris has been cleared and many of the houses gutted. Now the place has the eeriness of one of those Rapture movies evangelical youth ministers show their charges to scare them into the Kingdom. Except nobody's been called up to Heaven. They're all in Baton Rouge or Houston or God-knows-where. Many old friends and neighbors still haven't found each other.
Tourists who only travel from the airport to the Quarter or the Garden District would never know anything's wrong. But the rest of the city? "It's a disaster, and will be for the rest of my lifetime," the 66-year-old Gendusa says. "You're talking about rebuilding an entire city." As we drive down a boulevard in Lakeview that once boasted large houses and oak canopies, but that is now desolate and destroyed, the lifelong New Orleanian, whose Italian immigrant grandfather helped start the Gendusa bakery empire that invented Po Boy bread, is gobsmacked. As he drives, here's a verbatim transcript of his reaction: "I don't recognize it. Oh my god! Look at this! Oh my god, look at this! Oh Jesus! Un-bel-leeeev-able!" Keep in mind, he sees this wreckage nearly every day, since he is paid, in essence, to feed off the cadaver.
And yet it never ceases to shock him. Nor does the behavior of some of the citizenry. "They're looting FEMA trailers!" he says. "What a bunch of scumbuckets!" He tells a particularly galling story. One woman who'd recently had her mother cremated was saving the ashes until she could have a proper burial at one of the city's storm-damaged cemeteries. "Her trailer was broken into, looted, everything was stolen out of boxes," Gendusa says. "Guess what they stole? Her mother! These stupid asses looted the mother! She's on television crying, saying you can have whatever you want, just bring my mother home. We won't ask any questions, just put her on the steps."
We look at each other for a beat, then both start laughing uncontrollably. Sometimes, there's nothing else to do. I've always loved New Orleans, because life comes at you here faster and stranger and more darkly beautiful than it does in other places. Sherwood Anderson called it "the most civilized spot in America"--a place where there is "time for a play of the imagination over the facts of life." These days, however, the imagination can't keep up.
A swarm of African killer bees has been found in St. Bernard Parish. The city has turned into "the super bowl of sex" for hookers, say the police, since there're so many out-of-town construction contractors to service. For a while, a transvestite gang of shoplifters was terrorizing stores on Magazine Street. Researchers have now determined that parts of the city are sinking more than one inch per year. And as if that's not a bad enough omen, there's now irrefutable proof that New Orleans is reverting to third-world conditions: Squalor-seekers Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt just got a place in the Quarter. "No matter what happens, we'll always have better restaurants than Namibia," cracks my friend Danny Abel, an attorney and Creole chef.
Then there's the tornado. It hits overnight while I'm in town. My phone rings in the morning, and it's the Kingfish. "C'mon, let's go see the wreckage," he says. "It'll be like old times." We drive around, surveying the damage where the twister came across the Mississippi and took a path from Uptown to Pontchartrain Park, damaging hundreds of homes and killing an old woman who was living in a FEMA trailer in her front yard, just days away from moving back into her repaired house.
Kingfish spins me around to one home in particular. "That's my friend's," he says, of a once-beautiful place that's now seen its second-story porch completely collapse, so that it looks like a fence was erected across the front door. Snapped telephone lines hang from branches like Mardi Gras beads after a parade. There are tons of downed trees and out-of-commission stoplights and missing street signs, though that was already true before the tornado hit. It does feel like a nostalgia tour. In fact, it's sometimes hard to tell the new destruction from the old destruction. "Look for rust," Kingfish instructs. This city is starting to feel doomed, I tell him. "Yeah, but how 'bout them Saints," he deadpans.
The Kingfish loves this city as much as anyone who's still here--and very few people are still here by accident. But he's hardly a romantic. Since I saw him last year, he's hedged his bets by selling off 70 percent of his real estate. "I was scared," he explains. On our drive, he points out all the big chains that aren't coming back, one of which, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, was born in New Orleans. Pointing at Ruth's old house next to the shuttered restaurant, he says, "She lived there till the day she died. The corporate people she sold it to won't reopen it. I used to go there every Sunday night."
The fundamental problem, he opines, is that no real help is on the way, and simultaneously, the city is suffocating itself under paralyzed leadership that won't exclude any neighborhoods from redevelopment for fear of political blowback. They won't draw the net and stop pretending that they can support a footprint for 600,000 people, when only a third of that is left. "We had more people here at the beginning of the last century. Where else has that happened besides Chernobyl?" Kingfish asks. Consequently, services are spread thin. The city is being repopulated helter-skelter as the result of hundreds of thousands of individual insurance transactions and private choices.
And on the rare occasion that you are made whole by your insurance company and can rebuild, what if your neighbors aren't and can't? As he points out random blocks where one person is back and three houses on either side of him aren't, he says, "You have the jack-o'-lantern effect all over the city." This will contribute to blight, and already has, as even his construction materials are frequently stolen from building sites. If there's one thing Kingfish learned from the storm, he says, it's that "police don't protect neighborhoods, neighbors protect neighborhoods."
In the midst of this reality, everything is becoming more difficult. He gives me an example. He owns a building worth $1.1 million in New Orleans, and recently bought another for the same price in Maine. The difference, he says, is that insurance "in New Orleans is forty grand, in Maine, it's four. What does that mean? There's less profit, the property's worth less, and I have to charge more rent." If you don't feel sorry for the Kingfish and his investment problems, keep in mind that his reality trickles all the way down to the poor. On average in this city, a lousy one-bedroom apartment that used to rent for $531 per month before the storm now goes for $836.
He points to an abandoned business. "How are we gonna support all this blight? What's gonna happen to this? Somebody will buy it at some price at some point. But who are his customers?" The market always corrects, he says, ever the capitalist. "But it's going to be ugly, and people are going to get screwed." He says the city should have taken its federal aid, bought out all the poor, low-lying areas like the 9th Ward, made people whole, and given them the option to buy elsewhere, which would be less expensive than rebuilding it all. But now, individual residential renovations are already taking place, so a buyout would cost infinitely more. As he says, "It's too late now."
On my ride with Gendusa, he told me his brother had moved across the lake out of Orleans Parish and now mocks him for refusing to do the same. "This is my home," he said. "I walk the streets of the Quarter, and I feel my grandparents and my parents. I can still see my daddy, walkin'. He loved New Orleans. I can never turn my back on it, even if it hurts to see it bleed." When friends visit, and remark that it is old and dirty, he tells them, "Go back to Disney World." He'd rather live in a diminished New Orleans than a thriving Orlando.
The Kingfish echoes the sentiment, as do nearly all the New Orleanians I speak to. He tells me still, even now, he's surrounded by beautiful architecture and brilliant music and world-class restaurants. "It's a unique place, great people," says Kingfish. "We have a very big soul here. But we have some fundamental flaws that are probably the opposite side of that coin. What makes us soulful also makes us sort of pitiful when it comes to fixing ourselves."
Yes, sometimes he gets jealous of friends who've fled to more stable places, where the headline of the day is that a new on-ramp will cut congestion, while the news here is "'Murders and Dismal Reality'--you just can't get away from it." "But you know what?" he adds defiantly. "I have friends leaving perfectly good cities to come back because they have survivor's guilt. They feel, 'I left my city, I gotta be in the game.' It's the biggest story to ever hit this town. So whaddya' gonna leave? Go live in Niceville?"
Two weeks after I've left, the Kingfish calls. He was coming home from the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds racetrack, and in Mid-City he almost got caught in a drive-by murder. "We heard the pop-pop, and saw a bunch of thugs run past our car after the intersection was blocked. Had to back my car up to get out of there." He tells me to check the papers for the details. "Just make sure you get the right story. There were six shootings and three killings yesterday."
If New Orleans is not yet a Lost City, there is nobody in it who has not lost something. The Rebirth is no exception. During Katrina, over half the band members lost everything: their houses, their clothes, their instruments. Some won't even talk about it. Big Sexy Tabb, who had to hotwire a van to get his family and others to safety, is one of them. "If I could get hypnotized, I'd hope they'd say, 'You won't remember Katrina and all the s--t it caused.' But you live it every day, man. Every day."
Even those from whom the floodwaters didn't take everything still have harrowing stories. Trumpet-player Khabuki Shezbie, for instance, was on the fourth floor of his apartment building, so his place didn't get flooded. But when the water started rising over the second floor, he decided to swim for it. He swam almost a mile, "with my horn on my back--had to replace all the valves," he says. He saw dead animals and people. Parents tried to float their kids on mattresses. Though a boat finally rescued him, somebody broke into his place afterwards and cleaned him out.
Sometimes, the loss manifests itself in the most innocent conversations. One day, I go see trombonist Stafford "Freaky Pete" Agee on his jobsite in a house that's being restored in the Lower 9th Ward. He is one of two Rebirth musicians who also work civilian jobs (Saxophonist Flea Bernard works in a welfare office, and says after the storm even six-figure lawyers were coming in for food stamps). Since Katrina hit, Agee has become an electrician, "just picked it up as I went." He wears a Lowe's apron, a white bandana around his head, and his high school marching band sweatshirt, though the school no longer exists. We talk music instead of destruction, but then I ask him if he names his trombones. Yes, he says, he names them after old girlfriends. "I have a couple horns named Sandy--she came around twice," he says.
I ask if he's ever named one after his ex-wife. "If I had, I would destroy it," he says bitterly. Now fishing, I joke that she hurt him. "Yeah, she did," he says. She cheated on him with a friend, which he discovered during a Battle of the Bands in Houston. Rebirth was there to play "a down-home New Orleans dance party" for evacuees. Now his marriage is busted, and his kids live in Alabama with relatives since the public-school waiting list is too long in New Orleans. So you see, he says, pointing to a socket that he's wiring, "I keep myself busy so I don't stay in my head."
The sadness is always there, he says. "But I take my frustrations out through my music. I use it to uplift myself. New Orleans right now is kind of a lost soul on stand-still. The soul of it isn't here, because a lot of people that bring that soul are no longer here. It's not like it used to be." So right now, says Agee, in a sentiment that one band member after another expresses, "it's like the city's on our shoulders. It's taken on more importance. Where else in the world can you go and find a brass band parading in the street every Sunday, or have them come over to play for your party? We carryin' it, keepin' the spirit. When they think the feeling is gone, it brings people back home."
Rebirth has always played the small shows, on the theory that all the money adds up, even if sometimes, according to trombonist Herb Stevens, it costs him more to drive to the gig than he makes, once the check is split nine ways. But now, the small gigs have taken on a missionary tint.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which Tuba Phil idolizes and which revolutionized the sound of brass band music by incorporating contemporary R&B sounds (which the Rebirth has taken even further), has graduated from the street, sticking to the studio and big festivals. But Rebirth still lives off the land. They are truly the people's champion--not just a studio or festival band. They will play everything from baby showers to jazz funerals: As Shorty Frazier says, "When you're born and when you die and everything in between. 'Will you guys come play my bathroom while I take a bath?' Yeah, we'll do it. There's no gig too big or too small for Rebirth. It's good to stay plugged in."
In my ten days in New Orleans, I see them play everything from a second line in the Quarter, sponsored by a local sanitation company, to the Rock Bottom Lounge, where food consists of smoked pork chops you can order from a grill on the bed of a curbside pick-up truck. It's a place where there's no stage, and the band is partly obscured by a brick column. When I ask the bartender for a receipt, Tuba Phil mocks me: "Ain't no receipts here. Boy, you in a real ghetto bar."
I watch Rebirth play a Jefferson Parish Mardi Gras ball at a senior center, where the gig has to be delayed for two and a half hours because some of the seniors are still getting their hair done and are out buying king cakes. And I miss a gig (after being told the wrong restaurant) where Rebirth plays a Hermes krewe party in an upper room at Antoine's, while strippers go at each other. "It was nice," Freaky Pete says grinning. "Excruciating and exuberating--there's no word that can describe it."
New Orleans, of course, had a lot of problems before the storm. And these, too, touched Rebirth. When I go to interview Tuba Phil at his Gentilly home, I notice a framed portrait of a rapper--the kind of severe "Scarface" art you often see on MTV's Cribs. It's his stepson, Soulja Slim, who was gunned down in Phil's front yard four years ago. And that's not all. Drummer Derrick Tabb was shot twice at his half-brother's funeral ("Still got a bullet in my shoulder," he says). Rebirth's late snare drummer, Kenny "Eyes" Austin, died from a blood clot after getting hit in the head by a frying pan while breaking up a bar fight.
I take a tour of the Treme one day with the wickedly talented trombone player and belter Glen David Andrews. He fronts a band called the Lazy Six, and can break your heart doing guts-on-the-floor renditions of standards like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." He isn't in Rebirth, but Tabb is his half-brother, and trumpet player Glen Andrews is his cousin.
Just over Rampart Street from the Quarter, he gives me a crash course in the old neighborhood. There's no need to hunt for the roses or the thorns, they're all right in front of you. Drug deals go down around us as if we were invisible. And yet, music legends walk the streets that run between shotgun shacks and old Creole cottages. You're just as likely to run into the Treme Brass Band's Uncle Benny Jones, or Henry Youngblood of "I Got a Big Fat Woman" fame, as you are some wino with cracked teeth muttering to himself in a drunken tongue.
That is changing, however. Big Sexy Tabb, Andrews's brother, tells me the "culture is dying." One mayor's office estimate said that only 10 percent of the city's musicians had returned full-time. In the Treme, the storm dispersed people (Andrews is now living in a broken-down FEMA trailer in Carrollton), and the institutional memory is drying up. There used to be so many musicians around that second lines were apt to break out at 3 A.M. Now, Andrews tells me, the Mexican laborers and white real-estate opportunists who are snatching up damaged property as "timeshares" complain about the noise. It's killing the music, says Tabb. "To learn, you got to hang around the older cats that were in brass bands. But now, you don't have that community."
When Tabb was a kid growing up in the Treme, "if you played a horn, you wanted to get out there and shine." But the old musicians would box your ears, and make you wait your turn as you learned. The Olympia Brass Band's Milton Batiste made sure "you didn't play no funk till you learned the traditionals--you ain't never bigger than this here music. You might bring something new, but it's all been played before." Those who think the music will stay, even as its incubator is unplugged, are sadly mistaken. The continuum's been interrupted. If Tabb were a doctor, he says, "I don't go tomorrow, put on some scrubs, and do an operation. There's a process, going to work on somebody's body. And here, the whole process has been f--ed up. You got to learn it. You got to feel it. You can't write what we do."
As Andrews walks me around the streets, he calls out to everyone he sees, "Where y'at, Uncle," and many of them actually are his uncles. (The Andrews clan makes the Marsalis family look feeble when it comes to breeding musicians, boasting everyone from James "Satchmo of the Ghetto" Andrews, to Revert "Peanut" Andrews of the Dirty Dozen, to Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews--the list goes on.)
Glen David Andrews shows me the Backstreet Cultural Museum--a monument to brass band musicians and Mardi Gras Indians housed in an old funeral home. He introduces me to many of the neighborhood characters, who like to hang out and drink on Dumaine and Robertson. On this corner, Andrews's 21-year-old cousin, Trombone Shorty, who's been praised by Wynton Marsalis and who has toured with Lenny Kravitz, later tells me some of the old men driven away by the storm still come back to hang out. So he goes to soak up their company while the soaking's good, "though most of them are drunk by the time I get there." Sometimes, one of the codgers will hum a lick in his ear, which he'll end up using. "Everybody around there, in some way, is in touch with music even though they might not play," he says. "I'm afraid that's the last bunch of them. I try to get as much as I can."
As Andrews walks me through an intersection near Louis Armstrong Park, he grows morose. "Bittersweet place," he says. It's where his cousin Glen "The General" Andrews's mom was murdered. "I was about 15," The General tells me one day when we're sitting in the Candlelight Bar in the Treme, one of the last neighborhood bars left standing. "I was right down the street, saw the ambulance, and didn't know it was for her."
One afternoon, after the Rebirth has played an outdoor gig by the Mississippi, The General introduces me to his wife, Ingrid, and lets her tell tales out of school. She relates lively stories about everything from the jazz-funeral groupies to how he's always lying to her to go hang in the Treme. He walks a few paces ahead, clutching the hand of their six-year-old daughter. He periodically turns around, rolling his eyes and smiling like he's been trapped in a bad sitcom. "I got to go on a six-month tour," he jokes. Ingrid says she actually doesn't like the Rebirth's music (she prefers Mary J. Blige), but their girl already has it bad. She's taking trombone lessons and probably never had a fair chance, since The General, when Ingrid was pregnant, used to put his horn up to her stomach and blow Louis Armstrong tunes to his unborn daughter.
Ingrid tells me The General's a beautiful person who'll do anything for anyone, that he cares for her and is never mean, but that he's struggled with heroin addiction. When Katrina hit, he was doing a six-month prison hitch on a drug charge. She knows, she says, that it's his mom's death that did it--"he suppressed it with drugs"--though only the shrink knows what he's really thinking, since he won't talk about the murder with her.
Back at the Candlelight, I ask The General if he plays better when he's using. "Sometimes," he answers, "sometimes not." But he knows he doesn't need it, since the rest of the band doesn't touch it. I ask him to describe the music that comes out of him. "Lotta pain, sometimes," he says, taking a hit off his straight Hennessey. "I don't talk to people too much, so that's how I express myself. Through my horn."
One day, I ask bandleader Tuba Phil how he can handle the one-two punch of the Katrina aftermath, plus all the murder and mayhem. After all, his stepson was gunned down in his own front yard, also because he'd been involved in drugs. I love New Orleans, too. But isn't he ever tempted to chuck it all and move to Tulsa?
"Look," he says, "New Orleans people are strong.The ones who came back, I got to pat them on the back. 'Cause it was a s--hole [before Katrina], and it was a s--hole after. But they believe, like I believe, that we can turn this thing around. I feel I owe this city. I love the music. I love the people. Everybody's so free-hearted. Then you got 24-hour drinkin'," he says, belly-laughing. "If I wasn't living in New Orleans, I probably wouldn't be doin' what I'm doin' now. A tuba player! Makin' a living playing tuba! I'm 41 years old, never punched a clock. Making people happy, and they're making me happy."
"Other s--t goes on," he says. "But when you come to our show, man, you forget about your problems, the mortgage, the insurance, the housing. You come, you release. The 4R's: Rebirth, Relax, Relate, Release. Forget about all this other stuff. The music takes you to another level. You might go home to half a house, but you sleep better that night. That's what I hope our music does to people. That's our obligation. The bad and the good stand side by side. I have tragedy. But I'm a stronger person. I can take it. Keep on goin'. Try to make it better. When I play in New Orleans, I play like this is the last time I'm ever going to play again. What if the city really is sunk? I play like the hell with it. I play like I might never come back to this again. I play like it's my last year of livin'. That's how I play."
His brother, Keith "Bass Drum Shorty" Frazier, is less sanguine. One night at dinner at Tujague's in the Quarter, Keith tells me that what ails this place you can't "solve by blowing a trumpet or hitting a drum." After the levees broke, "I lost everything--it was gone. There's not enough money in the world to get me back here. I'll never come back [to live]. Never, ever." He evacuated to Dallas, where he's stayed.
Sure, he misses Two Sisters soul food restaurant, and the people. And when they play New Orleans music to the diaspora (in Houston or Atlanta or wherever), he's physically moved. It's like bringing them a photo album that they thought had been destroyed. But the people who are still here are "walking wounded," he says. "They don't even know it. They think they're all right. Phil had a barber friend who committed suicide. Black people don't commit suicide. It just doesn't happen. Man, that s--t is crazy. People think it's over, but it ain't gonna be over for a long, long time."
Besides, he's seen the future of this place--it'll be Disney World, or some dipsomaniac version of it. Donald Trump's already planning a residential and retail project on Poydras--the beginning of the end. His new home is cleaner and safer. He's a Cowboys fan anyway, and his daughter goes to a better school. "Everything's done by the book," Keith says. "You go to work, get off at 5, eat dinner, go back to work. It's not as laid back. It's very boring." When he's there, he doesn't even think about playing music, or the storm, or the things he's lost. He almost sounds convincing. Though sometimes, he admits, when he's walking around in this foreign environment, he does have one thought: "How the f-- did I end up in Dallas?"
I try to spend Mardi Gras day like a good tourist--on Bourbon Street. But I am quickly fatigued by all the other tourists: fat and pink and naked and drunk. They pour out of karaoke bars and clip joints into the street, where the bottoms of their shoes will grow sticky with the residue of spilled drinks and body fluids. They will have fistfights over imaginary grievances, proving yet again that Jager shots and testosterone don't mix. They will applaud the gospeler who holds the "I'm sorry" sign, apologizing for the other street preachers who are telling them they'll go to Hell. It never occurs to them, however, that Hell would be a redundancy under the circumstances. They're already on Bourbon Street.
For respite, I go back where I started--the Maple Leaf--for the Rebirth's Tuesday night gig. During a break between sets, I go up onstage to bid farewell to the musicians, who like to split right after the show. The General and I take a seat on a stage step, and something comes over me. I feel compelled to tell him that he's an exceptional talent, that he makes people happy, and that's better than most of us will ever do. Then I caution him not to waste himself, not to get enveloped in the darkness that surrounds him.
I prattle on in this vein for awhile, and am, of course, way over the line. I half expect him to tell me to get bent, or to make a quick getaway to Smoker's Alley outside, but he doesn't. Instead, he tucks his head and nods intently. He claps my back, and repeatedly reaches to shake my hand, as if to signal me that though we both know I've overstepped my reporter/subject bounds, he appreciates the effort.
I go back to my place in the audience. It's a Fat Tuesday crowd, so there isn't room to breathe. The band likes to joke that the surest way to get Phil not to call a song is to request it. And all week long, I've been requesting "Blackbird Special," an old Dirty Dozen number that the Rebirth does better. When I do, Phil says to me, "I don't know what I'm gonna call. I gotta feel it in here," as he pounds his chest. Maybe he feels it now, or maybe he's just humoring me. But they play it.
The song is one of my near-and-dears. When my first son was just old enough to sit up, I used to plop him in front of the speakers and play it off Rebirth's "Live at the Maple Leaf" album--much like The General blowing his horn for his unborn daughter. My son would swing his arms wildly, and his hips would vibrate as the Frazier brothers' bassline rolled up his spine.
The band is cooking tonight--everybody doing his part. Phil bumps and pumps with his sousaphone, twisting sideways while simultaneously firing up and down like a piston. Bass Drum Shorty is throwing rocks in the lake, booming with his right hand while his left rides the high-hat with a flathead. Big Sexy is banging like he's trying to bore a hole in the floor. The front line has hoisted the black flag; there will be no hostages taken this evening. Khabuki and The General, in particular, are on fire. Almost literally, in Khabuki's case. The room is so hot, even with the doors open in winter, that he has stripped to the waist, and is slicked with sweat like a welterweight fighter doing twelve rounds on a heavy bag.
I watch The General, in his tank T-shirt and his blue Kangol hat, aim his horn toward the sky as he gets lost in the song. It feels like I'm watching New Orleans itself: raw and rude, bold and brilliant, improvisational and soulful and damaged. And maybe it can't save itself, but it's a grievous mistake to think it's not worth saving.
The crowd pitches and rolls and rattles and stomps. Humidity droplets form on the walls, while Rebirth's horns ricochet off the ceiling and out into the back courtyard/cemetery where the Maple Leaf's poet laureate rests in peace--at least the part of him that hasn't washed out to the Gulf of Mexico. Amidst the controlled chaos, I wonder what New Orleans will look like if I visit in 15 years.
I strongly suspect I won't be seeing Rebirth at funky dives, standing next to gold-toothed second liners with names like The Busdriver and Chocolate Swerve. I suspect that if the city hasn't by then collapsed on itself, I'll be taking in "The New Orleans Experience" by monorail. Our tour guide (from Appleton, Wisconsin) will direct our attention to the overlit streets of the Treme, now studded with Banana Republics and Panera Breads. He will tell us how all the spirited black people used to march behind men with giant sousaphones, as we are served heavily breaded fried shrimp, harvested fresh from Ore-Ida bags, with a ketchup remoulade. The soundtrack on the speakers will be from the Big Easy Tribute Album: Josh Groban sings "Rebirth Got Fire"--with strings! I will be a good sport, and nod my head in time with the other tourists, as I die a little inside.
But those are tomorrow's worries. Because tonight, Tuba Phil has called my song. And some of the baddest men on the planet, the Rebirth Brass Band, are playing it. They play in a fever. They play loud and hard and fierce. They play like they're avenging a death.
And who knows? Maybe they are.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.