You could hear it almost every night of the week: the call of a trumpet piercing the air, saying, "Here is where the party's at! The booming bass drum pounding out a hip hop rhythm, and the sizzling snare building on that beat with choppy, Latin-style syncopation. The trombone crying out with baritone joy, the sousaphone pumping out a bass line and the saxophone winding its cool way through the whole sonic celebration.
The musicians would play in clubs such as Blue Nile, Donna's, Le Bon Temps Roule, Maple Leaf. They'd mourn the passing of Mardis Gras Indians with funeral dirges, they'd take it to the streets and bring impoverished, homebound, everyday people to their doorsteps and windows with joy on their faces. The notes would waft through the heavy, humid air that smelled of jasmine and spicy creole cooking in that fairy tale city in the land of dreams.
Now the sound is gone from its birthplace, along with the hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina's ungodly force.
The city's brass bands have come a long way through the years, from the pioneers who took up abandoned Confederate marching band instruments to today's firebrands who infuse the jazzy music with classic R&B and the latest rap. Now they must adapt anew, to unfamiliar homes in Baton Rouge, Houston, San Antonio, even as far away as California and Alaska. Gulf Coast evacuees are spread across 33 states by the American Red Cross' count.
"I guess I'll be staying in Dallas, said Keith Frazier, bass drummer for the ReBirth Brass Band, whose latest album, ReBirth for Life, pays tribute to late jazz icon Tuba Fats and the band's own 20-year-plus tenure, and features the ferocious funk of "Stereo and "Who Took the Happiness Out.
Frazier, reached Wednesday, September 7, on his cell phone, said he evacuated the Sunday before the storm; his mother, sisters, wife and children fled even earlier to Mississippi. Frazier left so quickly, he said, that he doesn't even have his drum with him in Texas: "I mean I have nothing except the clothes on my back. My house is totally underwater.
Frazier said his Carrollton home, near City Park in New Orleans, is about a half-mile from the 17th Street Canal's levee breachso close "you could walk to it which flooded the northern and central parts of the city.
"My mom always said, 'If we ever get a hurricane like Andrew or Betsy we'll be underwater,' and I would just laugh, Frazier said. "I guess now I'm living through it.
Most of his bandmates are accounted for, Frazier said: Trombonist Stafford Agee, tuba player Philip Frazier, snare drummer Derrick Tabb and trumpeter Derrick "Kabuki Shezbie made it to Houston. Philip Frazier, Keith's brother, said by cell phone from Houston, "Derek had a little drama in New Orleans, explaining that Shezbie "had to swim to flag down a ride. He said ReBirth's saxophonist Vincent Broussard, trumpeter Shamar Allen and trombonist Herbert Stevens wound up in Baton Rouge.
But Keith Frazier said he hasn't heard from long-time trumpeter Glen Andrews since before the city's evacuation. Still, the rest of ReBirth planned to regroup in Houston and head right out on the road for a tour that was planned before Katrina.
Concerts this week were scheduled in Tennessee; on Thursday in Maryland Heights, Missouri; on Friday in Madison, Wisconsin; and Saturday in Minneapolis. The tour resumes Wednesday in Lansing, Michigan, then goes Thursday to Cleveland and Friday to Chicago. On September 29, the group plays San Francisco. Then it's back to Texas with dates in October in Dallas, Austin and Houston.
"We'll get through it, live our lives. That's the important thing, Keith Frazier said.
Tanio Hingle, bass drummer for New Birth Brass Band, said he also evacuated the Sunday before the storm hit. Rendered homeless by floodwaters, the group's musicians, like other evacuees, must rely on the hospitality of friends and relatives, or the charity of strangers. Tanio said he's with his family at the Arrow Project's shelter for foster children in Houston. He'd wanted to try to ride out the storm in New Orleans but was vetoed on that decision.
"I was trying to play hero, but my wife wasn't having that, he said. "Right now, Houston is the home.
Hingle, reached Wednesday on his cell, said he also abandoned his drum when he left New Orleans, and he's working on getting a replacement passport for the one he left at his Esplanade Ridge house, in the fabled Tremé neighborhood that has spawned so many gifted jazz players, past and present.
Fortunately, he said, all of New Birth's musicians are accounted for in Houston, including sousaphone player Kerwin James, trumpeters Kenneth Terry and Mervin "Kid Merv Campbell, snare drummer Kerry "Fat Man Hunter, saxophonist Darryl Adams, trombonist Glen David Andrews and trombonist Corey Henry - who also plays in Lil Rascals Brass Band and in Kermit Ruffins' the Barbecue Swingers - are in Houston (Henry could not be reached on his cell phone).