Spending A Day with the TBC Brass Band in New Orleans

There are no second-lines during the summer, at least not the large, official ones sponsored by social aid and pleasure clubs, but that doesn’t mean that brass band activity dies down during the summer. If anything, the bands are busier than ever, due to weddings, birthdays and family reunions, as well as club dates and outdoor music festivals, so I usually try to make it to New Orleans at least once during the summer to hang out with my friends in To Be Continued Brass Band, and this year was no exception, as I made my way down on July 20th, stopping in Covington, Louisiana for a dinner at The Chimes, an excellent seafood restaurant along the scenic Tchefuncte River. But it was after midnight when I arrived in New Orleans, and my TBC Brass Band friends were gathered outside of a place called Jokers Wyld and Mickey’s Playhouse (the former Ooh Pooh Pa Dooh) where they were supposed to be playing for some sort of party. After I parked and pulled around the corner, I found them engaged in a friendly but vigorous band argument of some sort, which is often the case in New Orleans, as band is a competitive sport in that musical city. Unfortunately, the man who had engaged the band “went off to get the money” and never returned, so they didn’t play, and I instead grabbed a cafe-au-lait and some beignets and made my way to the West Bank and to bed. 

The next morning, my homeboy Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC, his two young daughters and I headed into the Bywater neighborhood to have breakfast at a bright and cheerful new spot on St. Claude Avenue called Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which had not been there when I was last in the city at Mardi Gras. In one sense, Polly’s takes a page from other typical New Orleans breakfast spots, with local artwork on the walls, and a bright color scheme, and cheerful, sun-catching windows and decor. But we greatly appreciated the private parking lot (a rarity in New Orleans), the pleasant, efficient service, and the extremely high-quality food. Thoroughly satisfied, we were soon on our way to a recording studio in Mid-City, where TBC was to record a commercial with the legendary Kermit Ruffins. 

After the studio session, it was largely gigs all day, with the first one being a wedding reception at an event venue in Jefferson Parish. From there I ran Darren by Guitar Center so he could buy a new cymbal for his bass drum, and then we headed to Legacy Kitchen, a new local chain of restaurants that I had been eager to try. We found the food excellent (I had the chicken and waffles), and we liked the upbeat vibe of the place, although prices were fairly steep. From there we had to head to the arena on the Xavier University campus, where a family reunion was taking place. Like the earlier wedding reception, the organizers had hired both the TBC Brass Band and some of the Zulus to be there in costume, and the attendees seemed to enjoy it. 

The next stop was another wedding reception, this one at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Algiers, right at the border with Gretna, and at that particular location, the crowd had gotten rather rowdy, and some men were trying to calm down a man who was obviously intoxicated. But the performance went well, and the crowd seemed to enjoy TBC greatly, and again, there were members of the Zulus in costume there as well, which apparently is the current trend in New Orleans events.

Our final destination was a birthday party in the Seventeenth Ward at a place called the Broadway Bar, where a large crowd was gathered out in the street, at tables and chairs in front of the club, and inside. The place was so crowded that it was hard for TBC to get into the club, but the Broadway is the type of hood club where the band and the crowd feed off of each other, and their performance was the hypest of the whole day. After TBC came back out of the truly tiny club, the band and members of the crowd began a sort of second-line around the neighborhood, and were not ready to break up when we made it back around to the club entrance. So TBC played for another twenty minutes or so while the man whose birthday it was, and his father danced in the street, along with some other people from the crowd. Finally, about 1 in the morning or so, we finally left the area. After one of these serendipitous New Orleans moments, the mood is usually exhaustion but exhilaration too, and this night was no different. 

Travis "Trumpet Black" Hill & The Heart Attack Live in the Bywater at Vaughan's @TrumpetBlackNO

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Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.

The Little People's Place in Treme

Somehow, on previous visits to Treme, I had never come across this little neighborhood bar called the Little People’s Place, but when I saw it, I immediately recognized the name as a place that had once been famous for live music in the Treme neighborhood. I could only imagine how thrilling it was to see Kermit Ruffins there, or one of the brass bands. Unfortunately, the Treme began suffering the depredations of gentrification even before Hurricane Katrina, and two of the earliest wealthy newcomers filed a lawsuit against the club in 1998 to stop the live music. I hope that one day perhaps the live music can be brought back to little neighborhood spots like this.

The Iberville, Cities of the Dead, and Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy


My fellow panelist Travis wanted to have a look at what was left of the Iberville projects, which unlike the rest of New Orleans’ legendary projects, were still standing, so I gave him a ride out there. To my surprise, not only are they still standing, but apparently some of the units are still inhabited. Yet more seem empty than occupied, and it appears that demolition is in the works. Sadly, the Iberville site will likely become the location of more high-income housing. Just north of the projects are two of New Orleans’ oldest cemeteries, and from there we explored the Treme neighborhood, ending up at Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy on Basin Street. Kermit wasn’t there, but a band was setting up to play, and Travis and I sat at the bar and enjoyed cold drinks. I would have been content to spend the evening there with the live band, but my friend Darren who plays bass drum with the TBC Brass Band had told me that his band would be leading a small second-line for a wedding around Jackson Square to a restaurant at 8 PM, so Travis and I headed back out to the French Quarter.

Kermit Ruffins performs for friends, family and fans at Vaughan’s in the Bywater, New Orleans, 7/5/12

Kermit Ruffins performs for friends, family and fans at Vaughan’s in the Bywater, New Orleans, 7/5/12

Vaughan’s has the look of an old neighborhood bar, but legendary jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins has made it famous. Every Thursday night, tourists flock to the usually-quiet neighborhood to see Ruffins at his regular weekly gig, and occasionally to eat his famous barbecue from a truck out front. The crowds have grown even larger since the television series Treme has made Kermit Ruffins even more well-known. 7/5/12

Vaughan’s has the look of an old neighborhood bar, but legendary jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins has made it famous. Every Thursday night, tourists flock to the usually-quiet neighborhood to see Ruffins at his regular weekly gig, and occasionally to eat his famous barbecue from a truck out front. The crowds have grown even larger since the television series Treme has made Kermit Ruffins even more well-known. 7/5/12