It has been stated often enough to become cliché: music lies at the heart of New Orleans, Louisiana. Few, if any, places in this country rely so much on music for their identity, culturally, professionally and spiritually.
Known to those with only cursory knowledge of the Crescent City’s music scene are the annual feasts of beat and harmony, Mardi Gras and (to the more cursorily knowledgeable) Jazz Fest. But New Orleans reaps daily sustenance from its music as much as its food. In bars, on street corners, or in funeral processions New Orleanians and music, permutations of jazz in particular, seem to live a symbiotic life.
Brass bands provide a staple of that musical diet. Though they date back to the 1800s and use instruments (valved horns, trumpets, and trombones) whose roots lie squarely in central Europe, the brass bands of New Orleans are as distinct to the city now as famous landmarks—the Washington Monument, the Empire State—are to others. But these musical landmarks live and breath, and each generation seems to remake the sound for its own time while keeping old traditions and songs alive; stepping out of history into history.
They also travel, as one of NOLA’s most famous, Rebirth Brass Band, will play the 9:30 Club tonight and then onto a three night residency at the Gramercy Theatre Dec 28-30. Keith Frazier, founding member and bass drummer, was kind enough to spend a few minutes on the phone with BYT. We spoke about Rebirth, Katrina in both fact and fiction, and fisticuffs.
BYT: For those who don’t know, how did Rebirth Brass Band get its start?
Keith Frazier: “Guys from our high school marching band, my brother Phillip Frazier, put together a group…to play the Sheraton Hotel in downtown New Orleans. We were too young to play ‘cause they were serving alcohol so guys said, ‘Let’s go down to Bourbon Street and play for tips.’ So that’s how it all started.
BYT: What’s a typical show like for you all? Do you have a setlist or are you at the point where you can just–
KF: “No, we don’t really use a setlist. We pretty much do it based on what the crowd is feeling. We try a couple songs…and go from there. There’s really no setlist, my brother Phillip is usually the person calling the songs. So we pretty much [indecipherable] crowd, ‘Do that song, do that song’, it’s real spontaneous.”
BYT: And you out new material live right?
KF: “Oh we try new stuff all the time, we actually create songs live on stage. My brother comes up with a bass line, some of the other guys come up with some horn for us, and before you know it we have a brand new song.”
BYT: You’ve been together for nearly 30 years. What’s the best gig you’ve ever played?
KF: “Oof, there’s been many. Liked playing in Amsterdam, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco. We’ve played something as small as playing a backyard barbeque, as [big as] opening up for the Grateful Dead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers so it’s a lot of different kinds of gigs that we do and a lot of ‘em are pretty good.”
BYT: Is there one in particular that stands out in your mind as being the best?
KF: “The one that really stands out in my mind is when we opened up for the Grateful Dead, New Year’s Eve, 1989 going into 1990 It was at the Oakland Coliseum and we had a chance to meet Jerry Garcia. So that really stood out in my mind.”
BYT: Worst gig you’ve ever played?
KF: “One time over in Europe we was over in Europe [and] we had finished playing a gig and went back to the hotel we were staying in. [We] locked our instruments up in a storage room and the guy at the hotel got up to catch a train and go to the next country. He wasn’t anywhere to be found so we could get our instruments so we had to catch the train, the time was passing, and we was like, “Man we got to get our stuff’. So we had to break into the storage room, get our stuff, and run down to the train station and get on the train ahead onto the next country.”
BYT: Favorite venue to play, outside of New Orleans?
KF: “We like playing various venues in San Francisco, like this place called The Independent…Seattle, Washington…BB King’s in New York City. Probably the best place is The Independent in San Francisco…You always know what to expect with the dancing so it’s pretty easy to get into what we’re doing.”
BYT: You probably get this question a lot but how do you feel about the state of New Orleans now seven years after Hurricane Katrina?
KF: “[Pauses] As far as the city’s recovery everything is moving along, kind of moving at a slow pace. People seem to understand, with the incident in New York, NY with Sandy, people seem to understand more what we’re going through and it’s not something you can easily recover from. Especially after something like 80% of the city was covered in water for three weeks.
But it’s helped musicians in a lot of ways because a lot of people come to town, they want to check it out and say, ‘let’s see what these guys are about’. So it’s helped in that way, but a lot of people are still trying to recover, so they’re hurting that way.”
BYT: You all are fairly involved—well are you fairly involved with [the HBO show] Treme or is that other members of the band?
KF: “Right we did a couple scenes—well we’ve done a couple episodes, when it first come on we were in the very first scene of Treme.”
BYT: Right. I remember that.
KF: “When it opens up. There we are right there. Rebirth Brass Band right up front. They’ve used a lot of music in different episodes so we’ve been kind of active with Treme as much as we possibly can be.”
BYT: Do you think it’s pretty accurate, or is there anything you would change about the show or wish it would focus on more on?
KF: “Ahhh, I think it should focus more on New Orleans—native New Orleanians. I mean they show the traditions. So far it’s been pretty accurate but sometimes they get away from it and show people, like the violin player, everyone’s like what is that about? Like you don’t really see anyone on the street playing the violin. That doesn’t happen in New Orleans.
The Mardi Gras Indian thing that’s something that’s real sacred to New Orleans. It’s a real clandestine kind of—it’s something that in public you don’t emphasize a whole lot, those guys keep that to themselves. You might see that during Mardi Gras but not whole lot of the other stuff that goes with that.”
For the most part they’ve been pretty accurate.”
BYT: Is there a healthy next generation of brass bands and New Orleans musicians?
KF: “There’s a very healthy number of brass bands coming up. Baby Boyz Brass Band, TBC [To Be Continued Band], Stooges [Brass Band], lot of bands, like maybe five or six of them off hand. TBC right now is probably at the forefront of brass bands coming up….Trombone Shorty is doing a good job [representing New Orleans’ music scene].”
BYT: Who are your favorite musicians to listen to from outside of New Orleans?
KF: “We’ve done some stuff with Ani DiFranco, done stuff with Robbie Robertson before. A whole lot of different—Maceo Parker, we recorded on one of his CDs, we really like with Maceo because he’s really good at improvising.”
BYT: Do you all have a favorite song to cover?
KF: “Anything Maceo does, that’s a good song.”
BYT: Finally, who wins in a fight: Rebirth or Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
KF: “Rebirth. It’ll be a knock out in the first round [laughs]. Yeah, easy knock out.”