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

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

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You have to go to a neighborhood and sit on a step with somebody if you really want the true archive.
This article was originally published in October 2006.

It has been said that the truest expression of a people is in its music and dance. That being the case, then pianist Herbie Hancock was right on the money when he described New Orleans as "the soul of our country. The nation's soul however, was laid painfully bare for the world to see when hurricane Katrina struck. Katrina killed over fifteen hundred people and forced the displacement of a million more. It also starkly highlighted the issues of racism and poverty entrenched in the richest country in the world, and showed the lack of compassion and the political cronyism rooted in the Bush administration.

It is worth remembering the self-perpetuating musical legacy that New Orleans has given not only America, but the entire world; Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Dr. John, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Connick Junior, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Leroy Jones and the Marsalis clan. And of course, that most emblematic of New Orleans institutions, the traditional brass band; the Storyville Jazz Band, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the New Birth Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—festival favorites around the planet.

To that list add the New Orleans All-Star Brass Band, aka The Survivors. Spanning three generations, but veterans all, they have individually and collectively formed part of the fabric of New Orleans music for the last half a century. They were formed as a direct result of Katrina and undertook a State Department-sponsored tour around the world. In a heart-felt interview in their Bangkok hotel they reveal their anger, their undaunted pride and a determination in the face of tremendous adversity to lead a new generation of New Orleans brass bands post Katrina.

"This band was formed through Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Foundation," explains snare drummer Ajay Mallery, "We were all spread out across the United States and they contacted each one of us individually and got us together. We did a thank you tour last November. (2005) We visited seven countries in two weeks in order to thank them for their efforts and relief funds that they gave to us for New Orleans."

Those counties included Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and Senegal. Perhaps one or two of those names might come as a surprise. Saxophonist Rasheed Ali Akbar takes up the story: "We saw the list—there were like one hundred and thirty-two countries which contributed and I know that a lot of those countries were really in bad shape themselves, but they gave. Our own country is filthy rich and we're still struggling to get aid to help us get our feet solid. We're not begging, you know, it's just a common thing that you take care of your family when they're down." Mallery adds: "That was the birth of this band but our mission is to become the pioneers of a new generation of traditional brass band."

Although they are looking to the future, the memories of Katrina are strong: "My home in New Orleans east was destroyed by the hurricane," Mallery describes, " trees blown through my roof, then the flood, thirteen feet of water just covered my entire house. I lost my car, everything. You can imagine losing everything but the experience of losing everything and there's nowhere to turn is a whole different ballgame."

The band members turned to Houston, to Dallas and to Memphis. The sense of dislocation and of anger is strong: "I wasn't entrapped in New Orleans, says Akbar, "but I was trapped out of New Orleans and I was looking at what was going on. We were totally disconnected, it was like two different worlds; we couldn't get to them and they couldn't get to us and the anger from seeing how the system was handling us was at an all-time high. We had a lot of emotions pushing it to a peak, to the point where we were so stressed a lot of health problems cropped up. All of us have lost band members, family and friends, and we're still losing them every day because of the stress which has brought on illnesses, illnesses that come out of the emotional stress put on us by the system not responding in a timely manner like it should have."

In such circumstances, a song like "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? takes on a whole new poignancy. "I can't sing that song without almost bursting into tears. Akbar explains. "I'm listening to those words and I'm seeing pictures of New Orleans before and I'm seeing pictures of New Orleans during the storm, and the fact that it it's not just so simple to go back. You know, you can't imagine not being able to go back home."

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."

One 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."

If two of New Orleans oldest institutions treats its own sons as virtual strangers then what exactly is being done to help musicians get back on their feet? "Musicians have been helping musicians," explains Akbar. "You know, Wynton Marsalis through Lincoln Centre Jazz, they've been contributing personal efforts, and efforts through brass like the one we're doing now. We haven't been getting any help from anybody, only musicians like ourselves. That's the bottom line. We have been more used than taken care of by the other side, because we are the culture and we can move the culture around. We're bringing the culture to Bangkok. They used us a lot to raise money we never saw."

Veteran saxophonist Eric Traub adds: "There's a foundation in New Orleans called the Tipitina's Foundation working in conjunction with Lincoln Centre that provided some musicians but not all with grants. Although what he [Akbar] is telling you is closer to the truth. A lot of yada yada yada. The bottom line is we're not living the lives we were living before. You know, some questions do arise. This is not some fly-in-the-ointment tornado, this is the worst natural disaster we ever had and we were caught with our pants down. Nobody's got the idea to pull the pants back up."

There was a symbolic pulling up of pants, for a few hours at any rate, on the 25th September with the reopening of the Saint's Superdome, one-time shelter to thirty thousand New Orleans citizens, mostly Afro-Americans, who awaited rescue in squalid conditions for days—iconic images which shocked America and the world. At the Monday night ball game U2 were once again present, taking centre stage alongside Green Day, while the Storyville Jazz Band and the Rebirth Jazz Band played outside the stadium.

Sentiment is divided as to the benefits of the reopening and its appropriateness. Mallery sums up one line of thought: "I love the Saints. I love the Superdome, but you can spend $180 million on a roof, but you couldn't spend $180 million on roofs. You can spend $60 million on a quarterback, but you couldn't spend $60 million on roofs. It's like Spike Lee said—those people who were lifted up for four hours, when that game was over they went back to misery!"

Charles Joseph is slightly more conciliatory in tone: "I'd like to say that on this point it's half-and-half—you need to have all that, some kind of idol to lift you up. But they have money to take care of this other stuff and it's not being used." Jeffrey Hills adds: "The money is there. We know it's there because we went to the countries that gave. Akbar makes his point: "The question is, where did that money go? We went thanking people for it. Where is it? I personally asked the mayor, I stood up at the mic and asked him and he said he didn't know, he'd have to check."

There is concern also that white corporate America will take over New Orleans and turn it into some kind of garish theme park. Disney Orleans? Mallery is horrified at the thought but defiant: "The government of the United States and New Orleans want to put New Orleans back like it was in the 1800s. Strictly tourism. They don't want the people who made New Orleans what it is there. They just want New Orleans what it was and that can't happen. It's like trying to make a pot of soup without water. We are the water of the soup and if you don't want us then there's no more soup."

The issue of racism is perhaps more convoluted than the average outsider may think as Charles Joseph describes: "Don't forget, apart from the black and white thing in New Orleans you sure also have the Creoles. They look at themselves better than the Caucasians. There are all these different styles of ethnic groups still fighting." Mallery sums the situation up: "All New Orleans is doing is going through its natural process which Katrina just exposed. It took the mask off. Now the whole world can see the ugly face, the real truth of what we see every day."

Eric Traub reiterates what his companions say, and laments the profiteering and opportunism that raised its ugly heads in the wake of Katrina: "About two days after Katrina Halliburton was there, Wal-mart was there, and the Fed[eral government] was not there. I never even heard of the army corps of engineers but nobody ever talks about the army combat engineers. These are the guys over in Iraq that could build this hotel in twenty minutes. Why not put them in New Orleans? There are other rhetorical questions that came up—we have at least twenty billion tons of garbage, why not build the levee out of that? Recycle it. Questions like that kept coming up and of course falling on deaf ears. It's gonna take some time, for all our complaining it's gonna take time."

Returning to the music I asked Akbar if there exists in New Orleans a kind of jazz police, a jazz snobbery suspicious of change in the traditional style. "Not really, you know, because in New Orleans it's all connected, even with the new kids. We are the second generation of the traditional sound and we have incorporated more of an up-tempo, more progressive sound compared to the old tradition and the kids behind us are doing more contemporary stuff, doing a lot of hip-hop, rap stuff—they just do it in a brass band. They feel like this is too old for them because people can't dance the way they want to and they think that they're doing something new, but nothing is new. It's all just one piece of the puzzle. But we don't have a snobbery. We're a big family so we have a cohesiveness that I never saw in any other musical family in America. You know, New York is really competitive, cut- throat. New Orleans is not like that. We all work together at all times. We all know each other and we all fight, and laugh and love each other."

Watching the band that evening playing the beautifully soulful, blues-drenched dirge, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," one can hear how nearly all modern American popular music drinks at the well that is New Orleans. Had Katrina struck New Orleans a century earlier who knows what course popular music in America may have taken? It is impossible to say. What is clear, however, is that if the present administration put half as much effort into the compassionate reconstruction of its national cultural treasure as it does into the fight against terrorism, then New Orleans would be up on its feet in no time. Someone remind me please, what are the American values Bush is trying to defend?

Photo credit: Skip Bolen

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