February 17, 2006

The Carnival Blame Game

It just wouldn’t be Carnival season without some brass band music. So, here’s a single from my stash featuring Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band from 1983, doing a take on Smokey Johnson’s funk classic, “It Ain’t My Fault”. We’ll send this out to all our so-called leaders who made the Katrina and Rita disasters even more memorable. How do you play the blame game? Recall that Shirley Ellis song, “The Name Game", and start off, “Bush, Bush, bo-Bush, banana-fanna fo-fush, fe-fi-mo mush – BUSH! . . .”, adding names of your favorite goofus as you go. Good times.



"It Ain't My Fault" (Joseph Johnson-M. Batiste-E. Watson)
Dejan's Olympia Brass Band, 1983

OK, my bad.



The origins of the first Olympia Brass Band go back more that a century; but, around 1960, saxophonist Harold Dejan adopted the name for his own outfit. The band was well-respected and popular during its long run, making several albums and a few singles along the way. “It Ain’t My Fault” was arranged for the Olympia by Dejan’s long-time trumpeter, the late Milton Batiste, and saxman Ernest Watson. They also added the lyrics to what was originally a very spare late-1960’s instrumental by Johnson. The song has since moved into the standard brass band repertoire and works well in that context, since the original rhythm was inspired by the funky second line beat.

In the local culture, African-American brass bands, which arose in the late 19th century, have served various social functions. As well as participating in parades and playing for dances and concerts, they were enlisted to accompany funeral processions, playing solemn music on the way out to the cemetery, and then letting rip with some celebratory dance music on the way back, drawing a separate crowd of revelers following the mourners that came to be known as the Second Line. From the many facets of that brass band tradition arose jazz, with its spirit of spontaneous improvisation; and, too, the city’s unique funk grooves derive from the African syncopation added to that straight marching beat. This drastically over-simplifies a hundred years of musical evolution, of course. But I hope you get a hint of how important brass band music is to New Orleans’ musical heritage.

By the late 1960’s, the New Orleans brass band tradition was in decline, as many of the musicians were getting older or dying off; and the fundamentals and spirit were not being passed on to a younger generation to a great extent. Jazz guitarist/historian Danny Barker helped revitalize the form by starting a brass band program for youths through his church; and the idea caught on across the city. As I have noted before, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was the first popular band to spring from that educational work, bringing incredible energy, talent, creativity and raw street funk into their performances. They could not be denied and inspired other young bands, such as Rebirth and New Birth, to step up and step out. Many others followed; and, up until Katrina hit, the brass band continuum kept on rollin’. Let's hope it still can.

This record came out at a time when the torch was being passed. The Dirty Dozen were starting to come on strong in1983 and other contenders were forming. Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band can be seen as a transitional mid-century link between the historic brass bands of the earliest days and the future of the genre. At least that’s one way to look at it; or maybe you can just listen to this groove and let the music do what no history lesson can - make you shake your butt. Play it loud!

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