Rebirth Brass Band
Rebirth Brass Band
A freewheeling, horn-driven contemporary ensemble in the Basin Street tradition, the Rebirth Brass Band mixes it up in a variety of exuberant styles. They pump out passion, celebration, and a rollicking, streetwise stream of non-stop partying. According to All Music Guide’s Ron Wynn, their choice of gutbucket moan, holiday stomp, hurtin’ wails, and rigorous, high-stepping march covers the R&B highs and lows of the Delta’s musical territory. Described as neo-bop, a youthful direction for New Orleans Jazz, the band took shape at Alfred Lawless High School in 1982 from seven sounds: founder Kermit Ruffins and Gardner Ray Green on trumpet, Keith “Wolf” Anderson and Reggie Stewart on trombone, leader Philip Frazier on tuba and sousaphone, and Kenneth Austin and Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier managing percussion—Austin on snare drum and Frazier on bass drum and cymbal. They originally called themselves the Rebirth Jazz Band but have recorded most of their albums under the name Rebirth Brass Band.
Reaching beyond the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for innovation, the original teen band came alive on old timers like “Blackbird Special,” skillfully punched up by Philip Frazier on the tuba, who blows like he invented
Members include Keith “Wolf” Anderson, trombone; Kenneth Austin, snare drum; Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, bass drum, cymbal; Philip Frazier, tuba, sousaphone; John Gilbert, tenor saxophone, percussion; Gardner Ray Green, trumpet; Kermit Ruffins, trumpet, vocals; Derrick Shezbie, percussion, trumpet; Reggie Stewart, trombone; Derek “Dirt” Wiley, percussion, trumpet.
Formed when members were in high school in New Orleans, LA, 1982; discovered by Justice Records at New Orleans Jazz Fest, issued first record, Here to Stay, 1984; released several albums, 1980s-1990s; released Hot Venom, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —c/o Chris Strachwitz, Ar-hoolie Productions, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530. Booking— Red Underground, 5717 Arapa-hoe Ave., Ste. 201, Boulder, CO 80303, phone: (303) 443-6230, fax: (303) 546-0492, e-mail: [email protected] Website —Rebirth Brass Band Official Website: http://www.rebirthbrassband.com.
the air bass. His vision of the group placed it between-the Olympia Brass Band, a New Orleans staple, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a group that takes home-style music to its next evolutionary level.
Most of the information about the Rebirth Brass Band comes from its most accomplished member, Kermit Ruffins. In an interview with Bill Taylor for WWOZ Radio, Ruffins reminisced about his love of his hometown, New Orleans, and about the encouragement he received in childhood from his uncle, who introduced him to playing on a mouthpiece. To Ruffins, the trumpet was the best choice: “Something about it. It’s real loud, and it looks good. A handsome instrument.” In an online chat session hosted by WWOZ, Ruffins credited as his favorite music teacher his high school instructor, Herman Jones, a stickler for the classics at Alfred Lawless, where the music department maintains a strong presence alongside arts and sciences.
It was, in fact, the group’s high school teachers who engaged them to perform for a teacher’s gathering at the Sheraton Hotel. That night on the way home from their first show, a pedestrian on Bourbon Street asked for an impromptu sidewalk jam. Ruffins exulted in the WWOZ interview, “Before we knew it we had a good 120 bucks.” Easy money drew them into a daily jaunt from the historic Treme neighborhood next door to the French Quarter right after band practice to jive for tourist tips. To the band members, the surprising factor of pick-up street jazz was the fans’ demand for traditional tunes.
The secret to the group’s solidity was their interest in improvisation and growth. As he confided to Geraldine Wyckoff in a profile on the Basin Street Records website, Ruffins, the “melody man,” credited performance with readying him for the big time: “I think playing with Rebirth really exercised my chops as far as my lips,” because the seven jammers had to play hard and strong to create a big band sound. He explained in the WWOZ interview, “The more we played, the more interest we had in learning new songs.” For inspiration, they listened to recordings by their musical forebears, the Olympia Band and the Dirty Dozen, and emulated their repertoire.
Although young when they formed the band, ranging in age from 15 to 19, the group mastered old-time brass band swing and strut, tinged with teen bravado. When they issued their first album, Here to Stay in 1984, they hooked up with Jerry Brock and James Andrews Sr. of Arhoolie Records, who became their professional mentors. The band achieved a fresh, energetic sound by recording live at the Grease Lounge, a tavern in the Treme neighborhood, an area heavily influenced by the French Quarter. Opening the disc in high style was a show-stopper—“Mardi Gras,” a mix of “Going to the Mardi Gras,” “Tuba Fats,” “Blackbird Special,” and a fun coda, “Lil’ Liza Jane.” For their tour de force launch into the music business, Maureen Quinlan, in a review on the Arhoolie website, praised their “boundless fund of energy and vitality,” a testimony to the group’s enjoyment of producing jazz. She surmised that their rich tonal fusion on “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Let’s Tear It Up,” and “Shake Your Booty” might appeal “not just to goodtime enthusiasts, but to fans of New Orleans music in general.”
To differentiate themselves from more traditional brass bands, the group kept the same instrumentation but shifted the rhythm toward more pep and swing. In the interview with WWOZ, Ruffins called it “real dance-able,” with a blend of traditional jazz and songs playing on radio pop charts. Their invigorating style caught the attention of many and produced a demand. Ruffins continued, “Soon everybody wanted to start a young brass band.” Most flattering to the Rebirth Brass Band were the many imitators in their age group. He concluded, “Brass band mania in New Orleans! It’s great.”
According to critic Ron Wynn of All Music Guide, 1989’s Feel Like Funkin’ It Up, the band’s second release, made a major impression with the depth and variety of its songs, from the classic “You Rascal, You,” to “Mexican Special” and “Leave That Pipe Alone.” Comprising five original members—Anderson, Austin, the Frazier brothers, and Ruffins—the band had grown to an octet with the addition of John Gilbert on tenor saxophone and percussion and Derrick Shezbie and Derek “Dirt” Wiley on percussion and trumpet. Still performing with flair, they allowed all members to display individual skills yet maintained a tight group discipline. The fourth disc, Do Whatcha Wanna, released in 1992, offered an extended mix of “I Feel Like Funkin’ It Up,” “All of Me,” the title tune, and the New Orleans theme song, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.”
Nita Ketner, the band’s manager, profiled Kermit Ruffins as a twenty-first-century Louis Armstrong-in-the-making. The co-founder and shaper of Rebirth Brass Band, he carried much of the load as leader, trumpeter, singer, and songwriter. On his own, he learned motifs and riffs from a concentration on the great Satchmo and from regular visits to live performances at Preservation Hall and the Palm Court. From his seat in the audience, Ruffins absorbed the big band sound and developed what he called “my sense of showmanship.” He stressed serious musicianship along with fun jams, offering most of his homage to Armstrong, who established an unparalleled style for the world’s trumpeters. To Ruffins, Armstrong was a natural talent fortunate enough to be born in New Orleans.
As is common to neophyte musicians, members of the Rebirth Brass Band moved on to other endeavors not long after the band had formed. Ruffins enjoyed his years with the band in the United States and touring Europe, but he tired of living on the road and left the band for more vocal work and fewer instrumentals. After a representative from Justice Records heard Ruffins play at the annual two-week New Orleans Jazz Fest, he suggested that Ruffins explore a new direction and record an album. His advance into funk and swing led him to form the Barbecue Swingers and to record solo outings for Justice. A born experimenter, Ruffins performed regularly at Vaughan’s Lounge and Joe’s Cozy Corner in New Orleans and organized 20 musicians for an even bolder sound, the Kermit Ruffins Big Band.
At his club, Kermit Ruffins Jazz and Blues Hall in the Treme district, Ruffins debuted with a WWOZ radio broadcast and let fly with jazz and blues, gospel, and the big brass combo that gave the Rebirth Brass Band its start. He has made five solo albums—World on a String, released in 1992, Big Butter & Egg Man, released in 1994, Hold on Tight, released in 1996, Barbecue Swingers Live, released in 1998, and Swingers This!, released in 1999—and played a mean trumpet for six Rebirth Brass Band albums. He also made guest appearances with the Twilight Singers and Maceo Parker. Two other original Rebirth Brass Band members have gone their own way: Reggie Stewart has since performed on recordings by Brian McKnight, Cypress Hill, Vanessa Williams, Chante Moore, and the Mississippi Mass Choir. Cofounder Philip Frazier, a mainstay of the Rebirth Brass Band, also backed up recordings by Maceo Parker and Bo Dollis.
A favorite at clubs and big New Orleans parties both up- and downtown for over 15 years, the Rebirth Brass Band in all its incarnations has appealed to the working class and to frequenters of jazz happenings. At a recent Super Bowl Sunday street festival, the group pumped out “Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” A crowd 2,000 strong thrilled to the appearance of the shiny bell of Phil Frazier’s sousaphone and shouted, “There he is! That’s the man right there—oh yeah, we gonna get down today! Alright Phil!”
(As Rebirth Jazz Band) Here to Stay, Arhoolie, 1984.
Feel Like Funkin’ It Up, Rounder, 1989.
Rebirth: Kickin’ It Live, Rounder Select, 1991.
Do Whatcha Wanna, Mardi Gras, 1992.
Take It to the Street, Rounder Select, 1992.
Rollin’, Rounder Select, 1994.
Rounder Records 25th Anniversary, Rounder, 1995.
Super Jazz—Best of New Orleans, Mardi Gras, 1996.
Kickin’ Some Brass, Shanachie, 1998.
The Main Event: Live at the Maple Lea, Louisiana Red Hot, 1999.
Mardi Gras Essentials, Polygram, 2000.
Hot Venom, Mardi Gras, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 31, 1992.
Billboard, April 28, 1990, p. 37.
Boston Globe, August 31, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, August 31, 1990.
Florida Times-Union, November 7, 1999.
Hartford Courant, June 18, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1990, p. 2; June 17, 1991, p. 1; February 7, 1993, p. 4.
New Yorker, April 10, 2000.
New York Times, May 18, 2000; July 16, 2001.
“Interview with Kermit Ruffins,” WWOZ Radio http://www.wwoz.org/html/story_kermit_interview.html (December 9, 2001).
“Kermit Ruffins,” Basin Street Records, http://www.basinstreetrecords.com/kermitbio.html (December 9, 2001).
“Kermit Ruffins’ Jazz and Blues Hall Opening,” WWOZ Radio, http://www.wwoz.com/html/news_kermit_opening.html (December 9, 2001).
“Live Celebrity Chats: Kermit Ruffins,” Tabasco PepperFest, http://www.tabasco.com/html/chat_ruffins.html (December 9, 2001).
“Music Stage: The Rebirth Brass Band,” Tabasco PepperFest, http://www.tabasco.com/html/music_meettheband-reb.html (December 9, 2001).
“Rebirth Jazz Band: Here to Stay,” Arhoolie Records, http://www.arhoolie.com/titles/9002.shtml (December 9, 2001).
—Mary Ellen Snodgrass
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