A rebirth for the ReBirth Brass Band
There’s something honorable – and just a bit unexpected – in the way that one musical crew from one of America’s most vibrant musical cities has helped resuscitate and revitalize a sound many fans thought had completely disappeared.For 20 years, New Orleans’ ReBirth Brass Band has been channeling the ancient spirits of Louisiana street jazz into a fresh and vibrant concoction that’s loaded with tons of street credibility.And as the band – which plays at State Bridge Lodge Saturday evening with local guests Little Hercules – prepares to begin its third decade of funky blues, jazz, hip-hop and brass, co-founder and sousaphone master Philip Frazier says he hopes the band can continue its influential path.”Times have really changed since we started,” Frazier says. “When we first came out, we were one of the few young bands to be playing this kind of music, even though it’s been around forever at home. I guess we helped make it cool to play … and that’s gotten more young musicians involved.”For more than a century, brass bands had been a huge part of the New Orleans musical tradition – multi-instrumental brass ensembles known as “second lines” which mixed age-old jazz sounds with high-stepping, choreographed moves, appearing in everything from parades and parties to funeral processions.By the early 1980s, New Orleans’ musical tastes had changed to the point where the brass sound had been relegated to the world of the uncool, with fewer and fewer players getting interested in keeping the tradition alive. Luckily, Frazier and his friend Kermit Ruffins, two juniors playing in the Joseph S. Clark High School Marching Band – situated in the Big Easy’s gritty 6th Ward – found something appealing about the old-school brass world and thought they’d like to take a shot at re-invigorating the sound with a young brass band of their own.”I first started the band when I was 17, but I’d been playing music since I was 7 or 8 years old, playing trumpet in church with my mother. The brass band culture was totally dying down at that time.”On May 31, 1983, Frazier and a group of friends performed their first official show. Or at least they tried to do so – the band showed up at a downtown hotel to play but were turned away for being underage, so they headed over to Bourbon Street and launched themselves as a street band.Part of ReBirth’s longstanding appeal has been its ability to incorporate contemporary jazz, soul, hip-hop and R&B into a more traditional brass repertoire – for every John Philip Sousa march, they’ve been happy to include material by Michael Jackson and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.In just a matter of years, what started as a motley collection of skinny teen-agers with beat-up brass instruments transformed itself into one of New Orleans’ hottest ensembles, beginning with gigs at the well-named Grease Lounge and ending up as regulars at the venerable Maple Leaf Bar. And while the sound found a hot fit in the Big Easy scene, during the group’s first years together, Frazier says ReBirth always made a bigger splash while performing overseas (including a notable debut at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1987) than anywhere in the continental United States.”We used to go to Europe a lot and not really play so much in the rest of the United States … I guess we did it kind of backwards. Luckily, over time, the scene has changed – we were eventually embraced by the jam band scene and with the popularization of hip-hop music, things have picked up. Music has become so broad now – it wasn’t like that when we started.”ReBirth’s biggest breakthrough came in 1989 when the band shared a bill with the Grateful Dead and Branford Marsalis during one of the Dead’s notorious San Francisco New Year’s Eve parties.Since then, the band’s experienced a wonderfully busy career, including a federally sponsored tour of West and North Africa, a cultural exchange visit to Cuba and regular appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. They’ve also accumulated a list of guest spots that would make any other band salivate, playing with figures including Maceo Parker, Ani DiFranco and Harry Connick Jr.This summer, the band appears on “Straight from the Sixth Ward,” a CD collection featuring many of the newer wave of brass bands that ReBirth helped inspire. Frazier says he’s happy his ensemble helped to make brass exciting again.”It’s pretty cool … and I’m impressed by what’s happened to the music. And we stay as busy as we can … we hit so many places and see so many faces that it kinda becomes a blur.”The ReBirth Brass Band plays tonight at 7 p.m. at State Bridge Lodge in Bond, with Little Hercules as opening act. Little Hercules also appears Sunday in a solo appearance at 4 p.m. Call 653-4444 for directions and ticket information.