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.
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.
When I headed out from Monroe on Sunday morning, it was still raining. Although I had hoped the rain would end, it really did not, and was still going on when I arrived in New Orleans. I stopped and ate lunch at a place called Dis & Dat on Banks Street, a burger concept opened by the same people who started Dat Dog. From there I made my way over to the Treme Coffeehouse, and enjoyed a latte, as the second-line I had hoped to see was not being held due to the rain. Instead, I called my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band, and we ended up riding out to Pizza Domenica with him, and then to the Maison Bourbon for live jazz. Ultimately, we ended up at the Howling Wolf in the Central Business District, where the Hot 8 Brass Band plays every Sunday night.
Back in 2011, the Stooges Brass Band were one of the more active street brass bands in New Orleans, with a regular residency at the Hi-Ho Lounge in the 9th Ward, which is where I first heard them. Over the last four years, like the Dirty Dozen before them, they have morphed into more of a touring entity, although they have a street version that still marches for certain second-lines during the year. The traveling version of the band is somewhat stripped down, with fewer horns, a set drummer instead of the traditional snare and bass drummers, and the addition of non-brass-band instruments like keyboards and electric guitar. Still the band generates a considerable amount of crowd participation as it runs through its combination of standard brass band repertoire and unique originals like “Wind It Up” and “Why They Had To Kill Him”, the latter a tribute to Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, a trombonist shot to death by the New Orleans Police in the year before Hurricane Katrina. Memphis has a number of New Orleans expatriates, and even more local fans of New Orleans music, and so Lafayette’s Music Room was packed for the performance, which was rescheduled from an earlier date that had to be cancelled due to snow and ice.
Perhaps no New Orleans experience is more enjoyable yet exotic as the Sunday afternoon parades called second-lines. Inspired by the bass-drum, cowbell and tuba-driven grooves of a brass band, the second-line is basically a rolling party led by one of the many social aid and pleasure clubs in the Black community of New Orleans. Unlike more traditional parades elsewhere in the United States, these are participatory events. People come off their porches and fall in behind the marching band, or jump onto high places to dance and be noticed. The refreshments roll too, pulled by vendors with coolers on wheels, so with the music and cold drinks easily available, the average second-liner might not even realize that he’s been marching and buckjumping for nearly four hours in the hot New Orleans sun. Plus, unlike other parades, second-lines stop. The sponsoring club needs to rest, as some of the members are not young, and besides, they are usually dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes that are extremely hot to wear. They also need to salute other clubs by visiting the bars where they hang out, so a second-line is everything- the beat of great music, the exuberance of impromptu dancing, the colorful brilliance of suits and costumes, the joyful meeting of friends or relatives, and ultimately a statement of identity- what it means to be from New Orleans.
On this particular Saturday, the second-line was being sponsored by the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a downtown organization, so the parade lined up at the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the Congo Square Rhythm Festival was going on inside the park, so there was quite a crowd in the vicinity. Revolution is one of the bigger parades of the season, and this year, it featured three bands- the TBC Brass Band, the Sons of Jazz and the New Breed Brass Band, which had formerly been known as the Baby Boyz. With a 70% chance of rain predicted, I had been concerned about the weather. It was certainly grey and overcast, and as the parade began to get underway, big drops of rain came falling down, sending a rush of people into the Ace Hardware on Rampart Street to buy ponchos and umbrellas. But once the parade was up and rolling on Basin Street, the rain abruptly ended, never to return, and eventually, up on Broad Street the sun came out. The crowds grew steadily bigger through the afternoon as we headed down Broad Street toward A. P. Tureaud. At one stop along the way, the club members disappeared into a building, and then came out in completely different attire. Since there had been no “coming out the door” at the beginning of the parade, this was their first “coming out” of the day. All downtown second-lines get kicked up a notch when they hit the I-10 overpass at North Claiborne Avenue. For one thing, the acoustics under the bridge are amazing, and the bass drums and tuba lines seem to hit harder, and the dancers get more creative. For another, there’s usually a crowd of people gathered under the bridge awaiting the arrival of the second-line. The neutral ground of Claiborne was a place of significance in Black New Orleans before the interstate was built, and the ground remains important to the community today, even in spite of what has been done to it. Outside of some establishments were large groups of people, particularly at Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge near the intersection with St. Bernard Avenue. On the last stretch of parade down St. Bernard Avenue, there was some question as to whether we would be allowed to continue, because the parade had run past its permitted time of 5 PM, but the police finally relented and allowed the parade to continue to its end.
Second-line crowds are always reluctant to disperse, and that is even more true of the ones downtown. Lots of people come out with custom cars and motorcycles, cruising up and down North Claiborne Avenue, despite the efforts of the police to break it up. An hour later, there was still a street party in full swing under the bridge. As the sun sets, it gradually breaks up naturally most of the time, the revelers headed home tired but happy until the whole process is repeated the next Sunday.
Old Man Winter had other ideas when the Stooges Brass Band was supposed to play at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis a few weeks ago, but Memphis had another opportunity to enjoy some New Orleans music last Wednesday when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed at the same venue. The Dirty Dozen was one of the young bands that appeared in the early 1980’s as brass bands began a strange renaissance in New Orleans after near extinction in the early 1970’s, and for awhile the Dirty Dozen played the second-lines, funerals and weddings that are the mainstays for brass bands, but eventually they moved away from that to focus almost strictly on touring and club dates. Toward that end, while the bass lines are provided by a tuba, the Dirty Dozen employs a set drummer rather than the traditional rhythm section of bass drum, snare drum and cowbell, and adds an electric guitarist as well. Nor did traditional New Orleans songs make up much of the evening’s repertoire, although they did play a version of “Li’l Liza Jane”. Primarily, the sound of the Dirty Dozen these days is much more funk oriented, and much of the material had that feel and direction. For that style, a funky drummer is mandatory, and Julian Addison proved up to the task, providing a firm backing for the band, and a groove that soon filled the dance floor in front of the stage. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (the latter familiar to fans of the TV series Treme) took turns bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping a jovial and upbeat mood. Many of the songs were taken from the band’s most recent album Twenty Dozen, including a rousing reading of the song “Tomorrow.” At show’s end the crowd was still begging for more, and an encore featuring baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis closed out the show.
It took me nearly an hour to get from Metairie to the North Claiborne Avenue area where TBC Brass Band was supposed to be playing, and where, incidentally, Darren had told me I might run into some of the Mardi Gras Indians. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find any parking, but out north of the Interstate bridge, I found a vacant lot across from a church where nobody was charging any money and lots of people were pulling in and parking. It meant a long walk across a long, vacant commons towards the new Lafitte Project, but the sun had come out and the weather seemed a bit warmer. Under the I-10 bridge, the crowds were truly massive. There was a large stage on St. Bernard Avenue, where bounce rappers were performing, but I could not find any of the TBC Brass Band members anywhere. Since it was more than an hour after they were supposed to start playing, I might have missed them. There were vendors and food trucks, a DJ spinning on a street corner, people zooming around on motorcycles and four-wheelers, and up at the far end, elaborately-costumed Mardi Gras Indians, as I had hoped. I soon found, however, that eager crowds pressed around them so that it was hard to shoot pictures or capture video. But still, seeing the Indians in their beautiful costumes up close was amazing in itself, and I was able to follow one tribe and its drummers down into the Treme neighborhood as they were on their way home, and got some better pictures and footage there.
Choosing the area under an interstate bridge for a festival site may seem strange, but the evidence is that the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue was a festive site for New Orleans’ Black community long before the interstate was built. Community leaders in the Treme neighborhood had tried to halt the interstate construction, but had failed. More recently, since Hurricane Katrina, some activist white kids had suggested removing the interstate in that area, redesignating I-610 as I-10, and restoring the neutral ground of Claiborne as the grassy, tree-lined site it once was, but with the Superdome so nearby, that is unlikely. Black residents resent the overhead interstate, but continue to use the space during Mardi Gras and also after second-lines, when large crowds often gather there. The one positive thing that I’ve had people tell me about the bridge is that brass bands sound really good under there.
Gradually, it got dark, and the crowds began to gradually disperse, so I left as well, headed Uptown to see if I could find any of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian tribes.