Choosin' A Few Blasts From The Past For Carnival
With Carnival season 2013 having commenced his past Sunday, January 6, and Mardi Gras coming early this year, February 12, I’ve got to kick up the posting to compensate. The funk grooves and struts of street-parading brass bands are an important aspect of New Orleans’ frequent celebrations, especially during the annual primetime partying and festivities from Twelfth Night to Fat Tuesday. So, in that spirit, I’ve got on tap two tracks from rare LPs that mark steps in the resurgence of the brass band movement in New Orleans.
Probably the most significant event in the rise of a new generation of brass bands in the Crescent City happened, oddly enough, through the efforts of a church. In 1970, Rev. Andrew Darby of Fairview Baptist Church asked one of his members, esteemed guitarist, banjo player, songwriter and jazz historian Danny Barker, to assist him in organizing a youth brass band specifically to give fledgling musicians a chance to learn the musical repertoire and tradition, gain experience performing, and stay out of trouble. Barker and his wife, Blu Lu, had moved back to New Orleans a few years earlier, after three decades living in New York City, where they had participated famously in the jazz scene.
The two men recognized that the vibrant, vital local marching brass bands needed to connect with a new generation of players, if they were to continue their important, long-term cultural role of providing jazz music in and around the streets of their community for various occasions, from funerals to joyous second line parades.The program’s earliest recruit was Leroy Jones, Jr., a 12 year old trumpet player from the neighborhood, who had already been playing for a few years and quickly took to the music. Under Barker's supervision, he became the leader of the Young Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band, and they rehearsed in his family’s garage. Over the course of the next year, the group grew to over twenty members, gaining recognition at home and afar. They played their first professional gig at the 1971 Louisiana Heritage Fair in New Orleans, which later would become known as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or simply JazzFest. That same year they also performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Over the next few years, more and more youngsters participated in the group, so many in fact that at times there were three versions of the band available to perform. A number of players who came through the band went on to join or found other significant brass bands in the city, or moved into careers in jazz and other musical genres. The more well-known names among them: Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kirk Joseph, ‘Big Al’ Carson, Michael White, Herlin Riley, and James Andrews. The Fairview band played regularly under their mentor’s guidance until 1974, when a dispute with the local musician’s union forced Barker to dissolve the program, ending the band. But in short order Jones started the Hurricane Marching Band of New Orleans, their name bestowed by Danny, with members from the original band.
The next year, the new group, many like Jones still teenagers, made their only album, which documented their impressive chops and high energy sound.
“Joe Avery’s Tune”
from Leroy Jones and His Hurricane Marching Brass Band of New Orleans,
LoAn Records 1975.
While based on the original jazz tune, “Joe Avery Blues”, from early in the 20th century, the Hurricane’s arrangement actually had its origins in a popular 1962 Mardi Gras season two-part 45 titled “Second Line”, recorded by Bill Sinigal and the Skyliners and released on the White Cliffs label. I discussed the background of that version when I featured the single two years ago. To the traditional “Joe Avery Blues” Sinigal added a trumpet introduction (played by Milton Batiste) taken from a 1950 local R&B record [a rockin’ beer commercial, actually!], “Good Jax Boogie”, by Dave Bartholomew , who had borrowed that trumpet line from another jazz classic, “Whoopin’ Blues”.
Brass bands around town took up Sinigal’s arrangement; but the popular single itself went out of print when White Cliffs went under several years later. Around 1973, Senator Jones released a new version of “Second Line” for Carnival season on his J.B.’s label, recorded by Stop, Inc., that has become a part of the Mardi Gras music canon. I’m not sure whether Leroy Jones and his band sourced their take on the song from one of the records or from another brass band’s playlist (perhaps the Olympia). But their calling it “Joe Avery’s Tune” rather than “Second Line” shows that they were aware of the song’s long history, likely the result of Danny Barker’s influence.
Along with Jones, players on this well-done LP included Charles Barbarin, Jr,, bass drum; Raymond Johnson, Jr., snare drum; Anthony ‘Tuba Fats’ Lacen, tuba; Lucien Barbarin, trombone; Michael Johnson, trombone; Henry Freeman, tenor saxophone; Darryl Adams, alto saxophone; Gregory Davis and Gregory Vaughn, trumpets; and Charles Joseph, clarinet.
A few years later, Jones briefly studied jazz at Loyola University and then struck out on his own as a jazz musician, having a varied and successful career that continues to this day. The Hurricane disbanded; and Charles Joseph (who switched to trombone), Lacen, and Gregory Davis became founding members of the innovative Dirty Dozen Brass Band around 1977 along with saxmen Kevin Harris (another Fairview alumus) and Roger Lewis, and bass drummer Benny Jones. But, Tuba Fats didn’t stay with them long, instead choosing to start his own outfit, The Chosen Few, to concentrate on more traditional brass band material, while still bringing the funk forward.
"Mardi Gras Iko"/"Food Stamp Blues"
from The Chosen Few Brass Band N.O. LA, Syla 349, 1986
According to Jerry Brock’s informative notes for this LP, which was released on Milton Batiste’s Syla label, the Chosen Few formed in 1979. As their performance indicates, the group that coalesced around Lacen’s killer tuba grooves was a tight working unit, even though the band’s membership varied somewhat over the years. The other players on the album included Benny Jones, who still beat the streets with the Dirty Dozen, too; Andrew Green on snare; alto saxophonist Darryl Adams, who had come up in the Fairview and Hurricane bands; Elliot ‘Stackman’ Callier on tenor sax; Edward Parish on trombone; and trumpeters George Johnson and Kermit Ruffins. Of course, Kermit also played in the Rebirth Jazz Band, which he had co-founded with Keith and Philip Frazier in 1983.
Something else I learned from Jerry’s notes is that Tuba Fats had masked with the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians and Benny Jones drummed regularly at Indian practices. Thus, “Mardi Gras Iko”, their take on Sugarboy Crawford’s classic R&B hit, “Jock-A-Mo”, inspired by the Indians, was a natural choice for the band. With the Caribbean feel they gave the second line groove, the song reveals several of the varied cultural currents flowing through the city’s music.
One tune seamlessly becomes another as the band shifts into the harder drive of “Food Stamp Blues”, which Tuba Fats recalled hearing as a brass band jam played by many groups over the years. Known previously as “Ain’t Got No Dawers”, the Hurricane Brass band had done a version of it that came to be called “Food Stamp”; and the Chosen Few added “blues” to the title along with the refrain, “Ain’t got no food stamps....” Musically, they were clearly inspired by the Dirty Dozen in arranging an aggressive, complex, irresistibly funky groove that effectively bucked tradition to the benefit of pure dancing abandon. About a decade later, the Treme Brass Band recorded their own monumental version of “Food Stamp Blues” that appeared on the Arhoolie CD, Gimme My Money Back.
Tuba Fats kept the Chosen Few going throughout the rest of his life, while also performing with numerous other brass bands as well as traditional jazz artists. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 53, but lives on in recordings and the continuing grooves of the movement he helped revitalize.
Enjoy those king cakes and parades. And maybe even that momentary distraction called the Super Bowl. Da Saints ain't in dat. More Mardi Gras music is comin’ next month.