I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.
Sherena had never been to a second-line, so on our weekend trip to New Orleans, I wanted her to experience one first-hand. And by chance, we ended up going to the biggest second-line of the year, the four-hour Young Men Olympian second-line, with its five divisions and five bands. As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the YMO is the oldest social aid and pleasure club still existing in New Orleans, and would seem to be the largest as well. One of the divisions had hired the TBC Brass Band to play with them, so when we got to the starting point for the second-line after a leisurely breakfast at Slim Goody’s Diner on Magazine Street, we looked for TBC and quickly fell in behind them. Sherena had brought her tambourine, and though it was all new to her, she fell into the rhythm perfectly as if she had been doing it all her life. Despite the hot weather, the turnout was truly large, with hundreds of people buck-jumping behind the various bands. The division behind us had hired the New Creations Brass Band, and I met some of their members when we stopped at the Sportsman’s Lounge at Second and Dryades. When we passed by a cemetery on Washington Avenue, some young boys were actually dancing on top of tombs along the fenceline, an example of the tendency of dancers to look for elevated locations where they can be seen, although there may be further significance to dancing on graves. The act might be a defiance of death itself. But the heat took its toll on Sherena, and the large crowds made it hard for us to keep up with one another. When we got back to Simon Bolivar Street, we decided to leave the second-line and find something indoors and cooler to get into.
Later in the evening, my homebody Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band had a gig with a pick-up band of musicians from various brass bands for a birthday party at Vaso, a club on Frenchmen Street. Since the City of New Orleans had put a stop to brass bands playing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter around 2009 or so, bands often frequent Frenchmen, a funky, music street that appeals more to locals than tourists, although the police will occasionally run brass bands away from the Marigny neighborhood as well. On this occasion, the birthday girl wanted the band to parade up Frenchmen Street from Vaso to the intersection with Chartres Street and back, but at Chartres, there was another brass band playing at the entrance to a brightly-colored building that has always reminded me of the Caribbean. At least one of their musicians was wearing a shirt for the Young & Talented Brass Band, but Darren told me that the band was comprised of musicians from several different brass bands. As is often the case in New Orleans, the two bands confronted each other, although in a friendly manner, and they quickly locked in with each other on a version of the brass band standard “Tuba Fats”. The crowds of locals and tourists in the intersection near The Praline Connection were thrilled. Eventually, our band headed back down toward Vaso, leaving the other one on their corner. It was one of those serendipitous musical moments that happen frequently in the Crescent City.
Funerals in New Orleans are fairly strange. It is common for the family members to hire a brass band for the funeral, and those in attendance often seem to be celebrating rather than mourning, particularly during the processions after the service. Traditionally, the bands were hired to parade with the body from the church or funeral home to the cemetery, and then back to the church again. The band would play slow dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery, and then would play upbeat jazz on the way back. While the boisterous dancing and music on the route back from the burial has often been described as celebration, others have attributed it to a retention of African beliefs- the fear that the spirit of the deceased might attempt to follow the mourners back from the cemetery unless it was warded off by the beating of drums and blowing of horns. For whatever reason, the jazz funeral was invented in New Orleans.
Nowadays, the brass bands rarely parade all the way to the cemetery from the church. Instead, they generally accompany the coffin as it is carried by the pall bearers to the waiting hearse out in front of the church. From there, depending on the plans of the family, they may march to a nearby neighborhood or bar. On this particular morning, the TBC Brass Band was assembled outside Israelites Baptist Church while the funeral service was going on inside. The wait seemed interminable, while dark clouds gathered to the south and west, threatening serious storms. But suddenly, the service was over, and the pall bearers emerged carrying the coffin down the steps of the church. TBC began playing upbeat music, while family members, though obviously grieving, still danced exuberantly on the sidewalk outside. The band and the family members proceeded down a side street to a tiny brick building painted with music notes which turned out to be the Gladys Bar. There we encountered other friends and family members of the deceased, and the vibe was more one of celebration than mourning, with everyone dancing in the street, including young people who had come out from nearby houses and off neighborhood porches. I was especially impressed to see that one of the band members had brought a little boy with him (perhaps his son), who had a toy trumpet that he was blowing. This is the way the tradition is renewed.
After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans. The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
My homeboy Darren Towns plays bass drum for the TBC Brass Band, which in my opinion is New Orleans’ greatest brass band. They don’t play a lot of gigs in night clubs these days, but they get called for a lot of birthday parties, wedding receptions, funerals, and second-lines, so when I heard that they were playing over in the 9th Ward, I couldn’t wait to get out there to see them. Any TBC performance is an experience, and in the Crescent City, even a birthday party is a really big deal.