Until the 1970s, New Orleans' storied brass-band tradition fit neatly into the stereotypical image of the jazz-funeral procession – first the mule-drawn casket, followed by the family of the deceased and the properly dressed band leading the mourners behind them in a slow dirge. Then the mood and tempo would turn, as mourning surrendered to celebration, with umbrellas twirling, hankies waving, friends and neighbors bringing the second line to life by dancing to the Crescent City's syncopated percussive rhythms in a send-off worthy of royalty.
But because most young musicians weren't interested in carrying on the tradition, the practice fell into decline until the emergence of the modern-jazz-inspired Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Soon after, in the early '80s, a bunch of high school students from New Orleans' historic Treme neighborhood stepped up to blow a newer tune.
"There was an organization called the Rebirth organization," recalls Rebirth Brass Band co-founder/tuba player Phil Frazier. "It helped young kids stay off drugs, stay out of trouble, help 'em be born again, get their life back straight. And the guy in charge said you ought to call yourselves Rebirth."
The genre's rebirth represented a modernizing of the traditional sound heard from bands such as the Eureka, the Majestic, the Olympia and the Tuxedo brass bands who limited much of their performing to jazz funerals and the occasional gig at Preservation Hall.
The Dirty Dozen changed all that, and the Rebirth furthered the musical renaissance by adding the funkier elements. So the band's name seemed more than fitting as the brass-band sound completed its transformation. "Ain't that somethin'?" Frazier asks. "As if it was meant for us."
Phil and his drummer brother Keith, along with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and a few other musical friends, picked up on what the Dozen was doing with traditional brass-band jazz. "And we kind of emulated the Dirty Dozen, but with a twist of our own, with hip-hop in it."
Many were afraid the band would end when Kermit Ruffins left in 1992 to lead his own group, the Barbecue Swingers, and take advantage of his raspy, Louis Armstrong-inspired vocals and trumpet playing. Instead, the Rebirth got stronger.
"When Kermit was in the band, Kermit was the frontman, which was cool. That was a good thing," Frazier says. But Ruffins' departure inspired the Rebirth to undergo a transformation of its own. Frazier and Ruffins were and remain best friends, with the band guest-starring on Ruffins' 20O5 release, Throwback, and the two planning to record and perform to promote the Rebirth's 25th-anniversary double CD due out in 2008.
The band suffered another setback when Katrina hit, scattering band members all over the country. Everybody's back in town except for brother Keith, who bought a home in Texas but still makes the gigs. "Rebirth Brass Band is a tough band," Frazier says. "Even though we were scattered, I got the band back together at the drop of a hat and we hit the road."
Although he admits post-Katrina New Orleans is never going to be the same, the band is back playing its regular gigs, including its traditional Tuesday night stand at the Maple Leaf Bar. Frazier's iconic tuba – with the band's name spelled out in electrical tape around the rim – graced this year's Congo Square poster for Jazz Fest. (The artist, Terrance Osborne, recently returned to New Orleans after a year in Atlanta.)
Phil Frazier believes that while violent crime – long a concern in New Orleans – has increased since the flood, the citizens remain defiant as they rebuild. "The reason the crime seems so bad is that this is a small place. If this was like California or Houston, you wouldn't hear about some of the stuff." He says crime remains a major concern, but he still walks the streets at night: "Things are getting better, the city's looking better."
After 25 years together, the band has never looked or sounded better. It's a sound that remains, like a lot of New Orleans' indigenous music, difficult to categorize. Frazier says Rebirth wants to push all the boundaries, without getting too far away from being a brass band. "We'll play a Miles Davis song and it'll sound brass-bandy, but people who like Miles Davis will say, 'Wow, I like that version,'" Frazier explains. "But at the same time, it has that New Orleans flavor. That's the whole idea – keep it New Orleans, but keep it tricky, like, 'Wow! I didn't expect 'em to do that.'"
For more on the New Orleans brass band scene, click here.
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