Monday, March 3, 2014

A Jazz Band for Winter's Hearse Wagon

                                                                  © SKepecs 2010

Zulu costume     © SKepecs 2012

by Susan Kepecs

Last week the nine-man Rebirth Brass Band, a New Orleans institution, was at home,playing the Mardi Gras Zulu Coronation Ball. Next week, on March 13th, the veteran second line outfit hits the road, bringing Mardi Gras, a little late, to spots around the States including the Sett, Union South, under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Isthmus Jazz Series.  Rebirth, founded in 1983 by sousaphone player Phil Frazier and his younger brother, bass drummer Keith Frazier, got a “best regional roots” grammy for its 2011 Basin Street album Rebirth of New Orleans – and the band’s irresistably rootsy groove is something to get excited about.  If you’re over 25, though, you’ll want to focus on the bop-laced, sometimes funkified or hip hop-influenced second-line beats while ignoring the nasty gangsta lyrics that crop up too often in Rebirth’s tunes.
In spite of its 21st century youth culture veneer, Rebirth, at heart, is the real thing.  The Fraziers were born and raised in Treme, where second line was born and where HBO told the story of New Orleans’ post-Katrina rebirth – a story that opened with a second line parade featuring the Rebirth Brass Band. 

                 Second line is voodoo music, hallelujah music, raise your hands high and call the spirits music, with a history as deep and wide as the Atlantic Ocean. Early in the eighteenth century the African slaves of French-held Nouvelle Orleans were allowed to gather and let loose in Treme’s Congo Square on Sunday afternoons.  There they danced their homeland dances – bamboula, calinda, chica, congo, yanvalou. When the French ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, Spanish Afro-Caribbean crosscurrents blew through the sounds of Congo Square – the “Latin tinge” Jelly Roll Morton put a name on a century and a half later. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, in which New Orleans, the state it’s in, and much of the adjacent Great Plains were annexed to the budding United States, blacks – slaves and free – fought in US military campaigns, where the polyglot polyrhythms of the African diaspora met British-style fife and drum military marches.  Military music went brass around the time of the Civil War, with new instruments invented in Europe only decades earlier – trumpets and tubas (and, slightly later, saxes and sousaphones – marching band tubas). 
          No, second line doesn’t sound military.  As long as there’ve been free African communities in North America there’ve been black mutual aid societies in New Orleans – forerunners of organizations like the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, created to promote economic and social solidarity in a white-dominated world. After the Civil War black marching bands in the Big Easy played for aid society parades, funerals, dances and weddings, muting the Euro-military sound and accentuating the syncopations and call and response patterns of the African ancestors.
         The band, of course, is the first line – the revelers who follow the sound down the streets, twirling umbrellas or waving white handkerchiefs, are the actual second line.  Keith Frazier, who keeps the beat, seemed like he’d much rather be playing music than doing a phone interview with some honky girl journalist from a winter-worn flyover state when I called him last week, but I don’t really blame him – if I could put out joyful noise like he can I wouldn’t be doing interviews for blog posts about it, either.  Frazier didn’t say a lot, but here’s the transcript of our short conversation:

CulturalOyster: One of the first things people think about when they think New Orleans is brass bands – literally, the first thing you see when you get off the plane is the statue of Louis Armstrong, who started out as a lion of second line.  And Rebirth is maybe the number one keeper of the brass band flame today.  Since you’re so famous, I wonder – how much of what you do is touring, and how much is doing the heritage stuff – the parades, the jazz funerals – at home?

Frazier: Actually, our touring’s increased a lot – we’re touring 150 days a year now, in the US and all over the world. Being on the road comes with the territory, but we try to be at home as much as we can. We’re out of New Orleans so much now we always miss it.  It’s good to give back to your community, and community’s where we come from. 

CulturalOyster: What got you and Phil started?

Frazier: When we were little kids our stepfather introduced us to second line culture.  We used to go to the parades – I remember it all like it was yesterday.  Then when my brother was in high school his teacher asked him to put a band together to play at a function and we said OK.  We went down to the function and they were serving alcohol and they wouldn’t let us in ‘cause we were underage so we went down to Bourbon Street and played for tips, and so we decided to do that after school every day so we could earn some money and learn some songs, and that’s how it started.

CulturalOyster: How did you get famous from doing that?

Frazier: What really happened was we’d play the Quarter and people from all different parts of the country would see us maintaining a 150-year old tradition and they thought it was cool, so they’d ask us to go play for them and we started going to Atlanta and other places close to New Orleans.  One thing led to another and we started traveling more and more and that was that.

CulturalOyster: Your music rings true, I think, because you update it with hip hop but at the same time you stretch it back to its gospel roots.  Is it all the same thing, in the end?

Frazier: No, it’s not the same.  One of the things we try to do is show where the music came from.  We try to maintain the roots even if we’re playing a very modern tune.  That’s where we come from, it’s a very old tradition steeped in rich culture that dates back to the Civil War and people get it – they can hear it and feel it and that’s how we started.  We started out playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and all the other gospel.  What we do, it’s not some fly-by-night music.  It has a long history. 

CulturalOyster: You guys have been through some rebirths of your own – Katrina, band members changing, a brush or two with law enforcement, your brother Phil’s health crisis a few years ago [Phil Frazier had a severe stroke in 2008, but to look at him now you’d never know it].  Every time you’ve been through a crisis you’ve pulled the band back together, and fast.  What keeps you keepin’ on like that?

Frazier: It’s just the music, and the love of playing.  We get so happy when we play.  We have fun – you can’t play this music unless you’re having fun.  We uplift people and make sure everyone has a good time, and that keeps us going. 

CulturalOyster: You haven’t put out an album since Rebirth – is there something in the works?

Frazier: We’re working on our next CD right now.  It should be out for the New Orleans jazz festival, end of April or first of May.

CulturalOyster: Got a message for your fans in Madison, before I let you go?

Frazier: Tell ‘em to come out, have a good time, and get ready to roll!

No comments: