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Interviews

The New Orleans All-Star Brass Band: Do You Know What It Means?

By Published: October 17, 2006

The hardship of being refugees is compounded by the difficulties of finding work as musicians. The recording studios are up and running but there simply isn't the cache of musicians to fill them. And most of the gigs that are available aren't too lucrative. "It all boils down to finances Ajay says. "A gig paying $100 but that's $200 of gas. Akbar adds: "You know, it's really hard to try to do things that you really want to do but economics won't allow you to. You've exploited all your resources to try to rebuild your life wherever you are and stabilize yourself and to have some sort of a cushion for the possibilities ahead. One thing the storm done for me, it made me very aware that I gotta have something in place for the unseen because the unseen can be very devastating.

Tourists to New Orleans make their way to the Louisiana Sate Museum's Collection of Jazz which includes Louis Armstrong's cornet and bugle, a soprano sax belonging to Sydney Bechet, hundreds of photographs, and recordings from old piano rolls to vinyl and digital, as well as film, sheet music and other delights. When I asked the band if it had been spared the hurricane, sousaphonist Jeffrey Hills asks: "Where's that located? These gentlemen have a very strong understanding of what New Orleans culture means and it clearly doesn't lie behind glass in a museum. Akbar explains: "For us, the history is in the neighborhood. It's in the people and the band members and the old guys who actually lived this. You have to go to a neighborhood and sit on a step with somebody if you really want the true archive.

Narvin KimballOne of those "old guys' who did a lot of living until he passed away in March aged ninety seven, was Narvin Kimball, the last founding member of the New Orleans Preservation Hall Band. Trombonist Charles Joseph played at his jazz funeral and Akbar pays eloquent tribute to the man and to the culture when he says: "I admired him because he was a gentleman and real astute. He always carried himself well. He was always well mannered, well groomed. And all those first generation of traditional players made me feel good to see them because they represented the nucleus of something that we are now. They set the mould for what we do and they were always kind, real courteous and they would always come up and speak to you, make you feel good, make you feel good as a younger musician and always had something very good to say to you to motivate me, to compliment me on something and I admired all of their passing all that on to me so that I could pass it on to younger musicians—where you're one of us take care of and keep what you're doing. Don't let nobody tell you anything different. This is what it is.

A little over a month after Narvin Kimball died, and amidst much fanfare and ballyhoo, the famous Preservation Hall reopened its doors for the first time since Katrina. The Edge from U2 was there, funking up U2's "Vertigo. However, this is the new New Orleans, and maybe Narvin Kimball chose the best time to go. Jeffrey Hills was a member of the Preservation Hall Band pre-Katrina: "I worked there for twelve years actually and before the storm I was playing there two nights a week and I'm just not there anymore. Those things are just not...preserved. They're not there. The type of music that was being played there is not anymore.

Akbar picks up the thread: "I used to play the line at Preservation Hall. I played the line for fifteen years when it was preserved music. The artists were New Orleans musicians, acoustic instruments. They'd come in and play the New Orleans thing, the traditional New Orleans sound. I was there maybe three weeks ago—I just went by out of curiosity—and there was no line; just some guy on the door with tickets. It was a private party. They had electric instruments, you know, like electric funk or something. I mean, that was a let-down. Mallery quips sardonically: "It went from Preservation Hall to 'reservation hall.' You can make reservations now and give your own convention there, instead of it being a place where you could go and see a traditional brass band, jazz band. Now you go there and you might see MC Hammer. That's the kind of place it is.

Another New Orleans institution, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was, this year, able to accommodate the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Mathews, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan in a phoenix-from-the-ashes celebration. Was the New Orleans All-Star Brass Band invited to play? Incredibly, having performed half-way around the world to thank donor countries for their aid post-Katrina, they were pretty much overlooked for the big party. Jeffrey Hills cannot hide the bitterness in his voice: "We should have played. They didn't fly us in and give us hotels. If you want the gig get here and play. We made our own way there and slept wherever we lay.



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