“Ain’t No City Like the One I’m From”: In the Streets at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
As I left the Fair Grounds Race Course after my first day at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I heard the familiar sound of a brass band emanating from the corner of Fortin and Gentilly Street. There, in front of the headquarters of local radio station WBOK 1230 AM, the To Be Continued (TBC) Brass Band was playing for tips. With some 100,000 people just then emerging from the gates of the Fair Grounds, it was a wise time to be playing on the street. I joined the growing crowd surrounding the band, whose cowbell-led second line rhythms inspired kinesthetic dancing from a couple of middle-aged locals and a youth of about 6 or 7. As the crowd expanded into the road, a police officer approached and sharply signaled for the band to cease playing. When the group ignored his order and the police officer angrily made a throat-slashing gesture, the band struck into “Who Dat Call Da Police?” a song originally recorded by local rapper Kilo in 1998 that was later adapted by the New Birth Brass Band and has emerged over the past decade as a brass band standard. The song is effectively tailor-made for such confrontations, which are frequent in a city where musicians and legislators have fought over the right to perform in public spaces for well over a century. As the musicians chanted the song’s titular question, the crowd quickly joined in, and after a few moments the policeman backed off.
Although the performances inside the festival gates draw most of the press coverage, it is in the streets that the New Orleans brass band tradition finds its most becoming context. Taking shape more than a century ago in the African-American street procession known as the “second line,” wherein dancing revelers form a second line behind the musicians, New Orleans brass bands thrive on interaction with the crowd. In second lines and other street performances, the boundaries between audience and performers become blurry when they are not altogether absent. The massive raised stages at Jazz Fest create substantial physical separation between band and audience, however, and as a result much of the dynamic interaction between the two is lost. Consequently, many of the most exciting performances during Jazz Fest actually take place on curbs, in front of local houses and in the roads just outside of the Fair Grounds.
While TBC’s confrontation with the police officer outside of WBOK was only a minor flare-up, the increased regulation and policing of public musical performances in the city has in fact caused serious problems for the group in recent years. Though the economic revitalization of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has brought a wealth of new jobs in the health and technology industries, gentrification and the post-Katrina dispersal of much of the city’s working-class African-American population has significantly decreased the number of available performance spaces both formal and informal for local bands like TBC. In 2012, police invoked an antiquated noise curfew and forced the group to abandon the 100 block of Bourbon Street, where they had played regularly for the raucous masses of tourists and locals in the French Quarter since they first came together as high schoolers. Though the group expressed frustration about their exile from Bourbon Street in an interview with local music magazine Offbeat at the time, trombonist and current leader Brenard Adams seemed ready to move on when I spoke to him a year later. “I think I’ve had my fair share of Bourbon,” he told me. “We’re busy doing other things now.” Many of the other bands have adapted to the challenges of performing locally by touring more regularly, though TBC still spends most of its time playing at local clubs and in Sunday second lines.
While TBC and other brass bands like the Original Pinettes, the Hot 8, and Rebirth still maintain the traditional instrumentation of two drummers, saxophone, tuba, trombone and trumpet, groups like the Stooges, the Brass-A-Holics, and scene forefathers the Dirty Dozen have responded to the simultaneous upsurge in opportunities for touring and decline in space for street performances by revamping their lineups, adding such instruments as electric guitar, keyboards, bass, and, most crucially, replacing the two standing drummers with a seated kit drummer. When I caught the Stooges midway through their set on Saturday, the members of the band’s horn section had dropped their instruments to rap and sing over the rhythm section for several songs. It was a very similar setup to the one employed by groups like the self-described “Go-Go Brass Funk Band” the Brass-A-Holics and Trombone Shorty’s very popular Orleans Avenue, fusing a funk-rock bottom with a traditional brass frontline. The group’s most gripping and well-known song, “Why They Had to Kill Him (Oh Why),” memorializes former Hot 8 trombonist Joseph Williams, who was gunned down by local police in 2004. In the bittersweet spirit of a jazz funeral, the song melds the sorrow and rage of the lyrics with a rousing syncopated rhythm, anthemic chanted vocals and furious call-and-response exchanges between the pieces in the horn section. Elsewhere, bandleader Walter “Whoadie” Ramsey engaged the audience by inviting a group of women up to the stage to demonstrate their best take on the “Wind it Up” dance – named for one of the group’s most popular songs – with the crowd selecting the “winner” of the impromptu competition through the volume of its cheers. Despite the barrier of the raised, the Stooges channel some of the spirit of the second line in their performance.
Even the most renowned local brass bands only earn a fraction of the fee commanded by the superstar acts, many of whom have no apparent connection to jazz or New Orleans musical heritage, that headline the bill and draw largest crowds at Jazz Fest. Yet local artists’ cultural and social stake in representing their community at the festival remains high. Founded by concert impresario George Wein with Alison Miner and Quint Davis in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is second only to Mardi Gras among the annual cultural events in the Crescent City. Drawing nearly half a million visitors and pumping around $300 million into the local economy, it is also a financial windfall for a city that since the 1960s has been built largely around tourism and entertainment. Both formal and informal economies cater to this expanded tourist population, with fancy restaurants downtown, horse-drawn carriage tours in the Quarter and unlicensed vendors hawking bottled water and beer on Esplanade Avenue all competing for festival-goers’ dollars. While these economies persist throughout the year, they are especially visible and active during festivals and other major cultural events, and musicians participate and vie for dollars within both networks. In fact, local bands often operate within both formal and informal economic networks over the course of the same day, playing on the corner for change in the afternoon and onstage at a Frenchmen Street club in the evening.
The TBC Brass Band’s performance in front of WBOK functioned in part as a teaser for their official appearance at Jazz Fest the following day; when I introduced myself to trombonist Edward “Juicy” Jackson during a short break in their set, he told me to make sure to come out for their performance on the Congo Square stage. TBC compensated for the unavoidable separation between band and audience not only by including a number of crowd-pleasing cover tunes in their set, but by featuring two nattily dressed dancers demonstrating the low-slung steps of second line revelers. The band’s versions of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Give Up the Funk” elicited cheers and set spectators’ feet in motion, though I left their set early in order to catch the Original Pinettes’ set at the Jazz and Heritage Stage.
The city’s only all-female brass band, the Original Pinettes were founded at St. Mary’s Academy High School in 1991, and despite numerous lineup changes their profile has rightly grown both locally and nationally over the past several years. While they memorably led a second line from the Acura Stage at the conclusion of the Arcade Fire’s spellbinding performance on Saturday, the Pinettes’ own show at the Jazz and Heritage Stage achieved the kind of transcendent communitas that the Grammy-winning Canadian rockers strive for without the benefit of elaborate costumes or giant paper-maiche heads. With bandleader Christie Jourdain frequently delegating her usual snare drum to a third percussionist and instead weaving syncopated time-line patterns on a conga, the band laid call-and-response group chants and interlocking horn lines over insistent, funk-inflected cross rhythms in a style that recalled classic Washington D.C. go-go. Climaxing with a roaringly received cover of “I’m Every Woman,” the Pinettes’ show was nevertheless only an echo of the shows they put on in the streets and in smaller venues. Fortunately, saxophonist Natasha Harris announced that they would be playing a free show in front of the Domino Sound Record Shack after the festival.
Unlike the audiences inside the festival, who skew middle-aged and white, the crowd outside Domino Sound was largely young, bohemian and decidedly diverse. As the band struck up their tricky polyrhythms and call-and-response chants, the crowd’s reaction was voluminious. A spry, aging dancer shook a tambourine and blew a whistle as if he were at a real second line, while hipsters, old-timers, and young parents with their children alike displaying more fluency with second-line dance steps than anything I had witnessed inside the festival gates. Later, the crowd’s enthusiastic calls on “Ain’t No City Like the One I’m From” nearly drowned out Natasha Harris’s apparently inexhaustible supply of rapped responses:
Above all, the music of the Pinettes and other contemporary New Orleans brass bands are dialogical. Any one song can become a dialogue between performers and audience, between rhythm and melody, between a solo voice and an ensemble, or between sound and movement. Yet many of the dimensions of this dialogue are lost on the stages at Jazz Fest, where massive stages and overpowering sound systems elevate the call far over the response. On the sidewalks and in the neighborhood streets outside the Fair Grounds, however, the ecstatic performative exchanges and call-and-response dialogues between musicians and dancers come to life.