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The New Orleans Moonshiners at Donna's on Rampart Street

Wade Luquet By

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New Orleans Moonshiners
Donna's Bar and Grill
New Orleans, Louisiana
March 2, 2009

Donna's Bar and Grill on Rampart Street is a magical place for brass band jazz in New Orleans. Established fifteen years ago as a venue for brass bands by Donna and Charlie Sims, Donna's is what its owners call "a real joint"—a fair-sized room lit mostly in strands of Christmas lights with a large bar, a small stage and a kitchen in the back where chef-owner Charlie Sims cooks up some great New Orleans and soul-food dishes learned on his many years as a railroad cook on the New Orleans-Chicago line. A coat of paint would only ruin its well-worn interior decorated with large photos of brass bands of days-gone-by.

Mondays are special at Donna's when Charlie brings out a batch of his red beans and rice and barbecue chicken served free during the first break. When Charlie comes out of the back, the place comes alive as the regulars pay homage to the beret-bearing chef, who gladly makes the rounds to talk to familiar faces and new patrons alike. Donna, a long-time science educator, is one of the friendliest people you might ever meet and is a great friend to the many brass bands in the city for her support of their swinging, upbeat music. Donna's is a raucous, entertaining place seven nights a week with a variety of bands playing and dancers dancing.

On this particular night, it was the New Orleans Moonshiners—a group of seven musicians led by banjo player Chris Edmunds. The band members are young—almost all are in their twenties—and students in the jazz program at the University of New Orleans. They are the type of group that takes away any worry about the future of traditional jazz in the city that created it. In the tradition of great bands in the many clubs of the city, they created an electric night. With Edmunds, drummer Jung Ho Kang and bassist Greg Smith keeping rhythm, the band's horn section was talented, high-spirited, and quite capably brought the audience of 40 locals, tourist, and college students into a frenzy of applause at the end of each tune.

A highlight of this group is the vocals of saxophonist Aurora Nealand, who has a palatable voice that many in the audience described as "vintage," bringing the music back many years to a 1920s sound. It was an inexplicably easy voice to listen to when she broke into tunes such as 'It's Only a Paper Moon" and hauntingly beautiful when she sang the gypsy-tinged "Kiss of Fire." And yet, she was equally talented when she joined the horn section of Charlie Halloran on trombone, Gordon Au, trumpet, and clarinetist Teppei Tada. Each was a capable soloist and was able to bring the music together in the end to finish in a traditionally joyous chorus of brass instruments that prompted the audience to erupt in wild applause. Adding to the fun in the room was one of the group's followers we only knew as Emily, who danced non- stop Charlstons and Lindys and enticed others in the room to dance.

The Moonshiners are a band obviously enjoyed by old and young, but they also seem to have a college- age crowd following. Because of the large number of jazz clubs and players in New Orleans, a night out for many college students is going to clubs in the Marigny section of the city and to classic, only-in-New Orleans venues such as Rock n' Bowl to listen to jazz and dance—excellent news for the future of jazz as young people are exposed to, and fall in love with, this music. It was also obvious that they fell in love with the musicians. During the break, Edmunds was surrounded by young women who wanted to take a photo with him. Imagine that! That traditional jazz should become sexy again! With groups like The New Orleans Moonshiners and venues like Donna's, it may be more than a possibility.


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