Livin' for the City

How could a local band help save New Orleans? You don't know Jack.

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful second line, symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight, the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

--President George W. Bush in
New Orleans, September 15, 2005

 

Five months after Bush stood in Jackson Square to address the nation, we're still waiting for the second line. Not the literal kind, which proliferated soon after Hurricane Katrina hit, as New Orleans brass bands and other musicians scattered across the country with little to live on except their music. But rebuilding the city has been a slow train coming. The president announced last week that he'll reject a regionally popular proposal to bail out some 217,000 Louisiana homeowners (whose houses were destroyed in the floods), and has yet to fully restore the gutted Army Corps of Engineers, whose levee improvements are the key to reviving civic confidence and luring evacuees back home.

"Fatigue" isn't the word for what they feel, either. People who care about New Orleans and its music are accustoming themselves to the notion that they will be fighting for this city for the rest of their lives.

That's not quite the mission that Minneapolis percussionist Mike Olander had in mind when he founded the Jack Brass Band seven years ago, modeling his ensemble after the funked-up second line of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The impoverished sauna of N.O. had seen a revival of brass bands in the '80s, and by 1994, you were as likely to see kids carrying band instruments as rapping at the bus stop. Groups from the Tremé neighborhood, such as the Rebirth Brass Band, took the syncopation running through all New Orleans music, from the piano rumba of Professor Longhair to the Triggerman beat of gangsta bounce, and pushed it simultaneously backward and forward--reaching toward contemporary rap, while paying tribute to turn-of-the-century traditionals. (The two worlds are closer than you might guess: New Birth bass drummer Tanio Hingle makes beats for Master P, while ReBirth sousaphone player Philip Frazier was family to the late rapper Soulja Slim, whose memorial festival was postponed by Katrina last year.)

Olander started going to Dirty Dozen shows in high school, and made his first trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1996, when he was 22. Eventually, he became part of a peculiar axis of Midwestern music--brass bands in Minnesota and Wisconsin who revere and extend the bottom-heavy, top-busy tradition of the Tremé sound. Jumpy as jump-up, and mobile as any breakdance troupe, Jack Brass has shared a few of its 10-odd members with two Madison bands: Youngblood (best known for collaborating with New York rapper Talib Kweli) and Mama Digdown's. Like Brooklyn's Antibalas taking up Fela, these groups are their own outsiders' homage to a city that was already shrinking (and sinking) before the storm. They're also huge band geeks.

"USC just played a Youngblood tune at the Rose Bowl during the half-time show," says trumpet player Andy Hakala, joining Olander for a recent City Pages interview.

"I don't know how many times I've seen those bands of the HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] end shows with ReBirth's 'Do Watcha Wanna,'" says Olander.

For Jack Brass, sporting event breakthroughs such as the above are as close to "hits" as anyone can hope for, though the musicians cover Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson on a wonderful new CD, You Don't Know Me. Before Katrina, few outside New Orleans knew the music, the Dirty Dozen notwithstanding. When eight-plus Jack Brass members trekked to their first NOLA gig on a sweltering Saturday night in 2004, opening for ReBirth at a packed Le Bon Temps Roule during Jazz Fest, it was the ultimate compliment to be confused for locals.

"There was this woman who had lived in New Orleans her whole life," says Olander. "She wouldn't let it go: 'What ward are you from? You can't be from Minneapolis. I closed my eyes, and I can't tell if you're a black brass band from here, or a bunch of white guys that have never lived here.'"

Dilettantes dream about this kind of validation. Yet the white boys in Jack Brass are at once honest about their debt to African American culture, and more active than most in repaying it. Being geographically removed yet emotionally engaged put them in a unique position to help New Orleans musicians when disaster struck. Between Olander and sousaphone player Erik Jacobson, they knew players in just about every N.O. brass band--including the Tremé, the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels, the Little Rascals, All for One, and the poetically titled To Be Continued Brass Band. For weeks, Jacobson and Olander were on their cell phones, tracking down musicians while the 504 area code was toast, turning the ReBirth's message board into a clearinghouse for information on bands while raising money, horns, and gigs. They eventually booked a tour for the Stooges Brass Band, and sent more than $4,000 and 60 instruments southward (an effort that continues through the Tipitina's Foundation; visit www.tipsevents.com/foundation/default.asp).

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