Ooh Poo Pah Doom?

Can New Orleans Save Its Brass Bands?

Dr. Michael White, a giant in Crescent City jazz, frets that New Orleans has neglected its finest music. Ironically, his new album argues otherwise.

Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

In New Orleans, where brass band parades are a barometer of the popular culture, you might think that a CD on the stylistic evolution of these bands would be easy money for Dr. Michael White, who holds a chair in jazz studies at Xavier University here.

A prolific clarinetist and composer who leads the Liberty Brass Band, White, 60, also performs with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. Both groups play New Orleans Style with a devotion to the memory of the musicians long gone who forged the seminal idiom.

The 26-page booklet containing White’s long essay for New Orleans Brass Bands: Through the Streets of the City is one sign of the time he invested as the album’s producer, along with Smithsonian Folkways’ Daniel E. Sheehy.

In his essay, White displays a stoical restraint when comparing the rich harmonies and counter-rhythms that embroider the melodies of early jazz as played by the Eureka and Onward bands, which no longer exist, with the grittier style of the Hot 8 and other younger bands, whose members came up in street parades shadowed by crack killings.

Many of the newer bands follow a shift in the late ’80s by The ReBirth Brass Band, which developed a strong following with embellishments of bebop and hip hop that appealed to young street dancers and second liners in the parades that roll for several hours through various neighborhoods. ReBirth’s tendency for wailing horns relied on section-riffing, hypnotic repetititions that all but discard the through line of melody. The band has enjoyed many recordings, a sturdy career on the road, and a steady gig at the famed Maple Leaf bar whenever it’s in town.

Where bands of the mid-20th century like Eureka and Young Tuxedo played the high kicking marches like “Didn’t He Ramble” for the dancing parades, the changes that came in the ’90s were at the expense of melody. Songs like ReBirth’s “Do Whatcha You Wanna” and James Andrews’s “Give Me My Money Back” rely on a circular chanting of the title with section riffing horns. “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a song common to both traditions, but the task of musicianship on the older music, with trombone harmonies, say, in a given march, were more artistically demanding.

One of the biggest changes in this stylistic—and generational—shift, was the role of the tuba, leading march and melody, a role the trumpet had played in the past. The bouncing tuba lines could sketch a melody in a way that gave the players on horns and reed instruments greater space to improvise. Phil Frazier still plays tuba and has led ReBirth well into middle age.

By virtue of his many CDs, concert tours, and media appearances, White is a statesmanlike figure in the Crescent City’s musical culture. Over the years he has worried aloud about the fate of New Orleans Style—the classic idiom—observing that public schools have done a poor job of educating children and that only a few schools have any music programs at all—a loss that Hot 8 bandleader and tuba player Benny Pete has also bemoaned on behalf of members of his band.

The Hot 8 has a strong popular following by virtue of fiery arrangements leavened by an almost surreal quality of joy in how they roll with rhythms. This is a band that has seen more than its share of hardships; one of their players was killed by police. The guy was unarmed, driving a car the NOPD thought he was stealing; in keeping with the national pattern of African-Americans killed by police, no one was arrested.

Since Katrina, charter schools have captured New Orleans public education, turning it into a petri dish that reformers everywhere are watching. But while grade scores have improved somewhat, few schools have a grounded commitment to music. Groups like the Tipitina’s Foundation and Roots of Jazz provide instruments and extracurricular training for at-risk kids, but in the city where jazz began there is no jazz conservatory to teach the classical idiom. Imagine that.

Fifteen years ago, White complained that he was unable to find enough local musicians to perform the intricate complexities of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, which are rarely featured in the city where Jelly got his launch. As younger players without strong grounding in the rudiments joined brass bands in the last several decades, another tendency emerged, setting the old hymns and funeral dirges to a fast-paced beat for all-out parading, rather than the slow-tempo, solemn approach of the older bands that gave musical voice to the mourning of the families and friends of the deceased.

In his Through Streets of the City essay, White wonders about the survival of the music of his life: “The incredibly rare traditional style can still produce magical exciting moments, but it is uncertain if it will continue to exist in its birthplace the next 20 or 30 years.”

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After Hurricane Katrina, White began working with the Hot 8. Although it is not a full-time collaboration, he chose the Hot 8 and a workhorse traditional group, Treme Brass Band, along with is his own Liberty band to record cuts for the album, one of the Smithsonian’s African American Legacy Recordings, in association with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The 14 selections recorded by Liberty, Hot 8, and Treme cover quite a large swath of culture, from marches to dance numbers in several styles. White’s Liberty group showcases the more demanding compositions, while giving a spotlight to the more freewheeling, sometimes raw voicings of the other two groups. Treme, for example, plays many of the standards that have come down from the earliest bands, but with a more flexible repertoire that includes R&B and funk tunes that appeal to younger second liners in the spontaneous choreographies of the street parades.

The first cut, “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” is a medium tempo parade standard composed by a drummer who left New Orleans in the ’20s for Chicago, toured with Louis Armstrong, settled in Harlem, and played with the Luis Russell Orchestra in the ’30s and ’40s. Barbarin came back home in the ’50s, and in 1960 he reinvented himself as the leader of Onward Brass Band. The funeral for Barbarin in 1969 was one of the largest ever for a New Orleans musician.

The Liberty version of “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line” rolls with sparkling interplay of White’s lyrical reed work and the melodic lines advanced by the trumpeters Gregg Stafford, Wendell Brunious and Davis Smith, the swinging tailgate trombone of Lucien Barbarin [Paul’s great-grand nephew] and on snare drum, Lucien’s son, Paul Barbarin, the sixth generation member of his family playing jazz. The song is like an aural painting of the sun-splashed parades in which the second line social clubs march with twirling, color-coordinated umbrellas.

The fourth cut, “Liberty Funeral March,” is one White composed. The clarinet soars with a rare ecstasy of sorrow and sweetness over trumpets that drive the melody of mourning. In the parades, musicians wearing black pants, white shirts, dark ties and dark caps march in slow, sculpted steps ushering the coffin to the grave. The solemnity of “Liberty Funeral March” was recorded in the studio, but the band’s swirling polyphony takes the music to another threshold, hinting at the joy of the soul released at death.

Snare drummer Benny Jones has led the Treme Brass Band for many years, and with trumpeter Kevin Terry contributes gravelly vocals on the title cut, “We Shall Walk Through Streets of the City,” an old hymn that sings of a city in the sky, to the same melody as “Red River Valley.” Treme has a superb reedman in Roger Lewis, who alternates on soprano and baritone saxophone, with Cedric Wiley on tenor sax, Bruce Backman on clarinet, and Julius McKee on sousaphone.

Treme’s standout song on this album is a long, rolling version of Hugh Masekela’s 1968 pop hit, “Grazing in the Grass.” Jones takes a slower tempo and as the horns go through hot undulations, Terrence Taplin’s trombone has ample room to roam and Lewis’s saxophone swirls take the loose-at-best melody out to the sky and back. The melding of so many instrumental voices, taking turns, looping in and out, captures the way some parades hit a rhythmic stride and grab a rushing second wind as the dancers engulf the band.

The Hot 8 shows precision in ”Shake It and Break It,” a 1926 jazz standard recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Hot 7. The three-part harmony by Harry Cook, Alvarez Huntley, and Tyrus Chapman reminds White in his liner notes of the Mills Brothers, a worthy standard for any young band to emulate. They pull it off nicely.

The tenth cut, “New Orleans (After the City)” is a hip-hop paean to urban survival by the Hot 8, which played the first burial parade a few weeks after Katrina on trash-strewn streets in honor of Creole chef Austin Leslie, who had died in Atlanta. Lyrics go like this:

We live down by the river Under the lake Below sea level That’s where I stay

The range and texture of the instrumentalists and singers on this record capture a lot about the city’s street band music today. Listening to it left me feeling optimistic about the fate of New Orleans Style—maybe more optimistic, ironically, than White, the man who produced it. It is sadly true, as he notes, that the tradition of church groups holding Sunday morning parades in their finery is all but extinct. But many young musicians have moved to the city in recent years, experimenting with New Orleans Style. A young artist named Aurora Nealand is channeling the music of Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone with her group, the Royal Roses. The resilience of the culture is a work in progress.