Here to Stay
If "Tuba Phil" Frazier, the founder and leader of the Rebirth Brass Band, hadn't taken to music in his junior high school marching band, he'd probably be working in government.
"I got a degree in public administration from University of New Orleans, so I had options if this hadn't worked out," says the sousaphonist, who founded the Rebirth 28 years ago with his brother Keith and legendary New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. "But I was always hooked on the music. I think time in marching bands when they were young is at the core of why a lot of guys have stayed with brass band careers even though they're qualified for more mainstream jobs."
But mainstream occupations have seldom been a consideration for this groundbreaking band since they first came to prominence with an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1982. By 1984 they'd been signed by Arhoolie Records and released their first album, Here to Stay!
Since then, they've influenced many. Malcom Hubbard of the Hustlers Brass Band, which now calls Houston home, recalls attending musical summer camps in Treme as a youngster and coming under the spell of Rebirth, along with his brother Marcus, a world-renowned trumpeter and one of the founders of the Soul Rebels, another cutting-edge New Orleans brass ensemble.
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"For guys our age, Rebirth was the main example for us as we were coming up," says Hubbard. "We basically missed the Dirty Dozen, the Olympia, so when we got the brass band bug, we turned to Rebirth as our examples, our role models. They were the guys to be like. And the truth is, we all still look up to them."
Most of Rebirth came out of the marching band at Clark High School in Treme. "I think what people first noticed in us was that even though we had some formal training, we had the street sound," says Frazier. "We've tried hard to hold onto that and keep it at the center of what we do."
And with Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing destruction of New Orleans in 2005, holding on has been hard.
"We're just very fortunate to be a touring band," says Frazier. "Not only did Katrina scatter people from New Orleans, it wiped out so many of the small local venues, just little joints where there was music every night of the week. That's been a huge cultural loss, and not just for the people of New Orleans."
Of course, the loss is especially felt there, though. "One thing you can do to keep kids off the street and focused on something productive is put an instrument in their hands," Frazier says. "All those small neighborhood venues that were lost took away a lot of opportunity and the chance to keep something truly unique about our culture in this city alive. But we'll keep trying."
Having grown up in Treme and being a musician, Frazier is well placed and well qualified to discuss the popular HBO series named after the neighborhood, which focuses on post-Katrina musicians and New Orleans.
"I give it pretty high marks for authenticity and for what it is trying to do," says Frazier. "If you're from New Orleans, you have to look at this like a huge publicity campaign, like a free tourism advertisement. There are people out there who've never seen, for instance, the Mardi Gras Indians. But seeing them on Treme might cause them to come down to Mardi Gras and see what this bit of American culture is about. So I think the show is a great plus for us, both New Orleans and musicians."
Asked to name five major New Orleans influences on Rebirth's sound, Frazier doesn't hesitate, counting off Fats Domino, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Olympia Brass Band, the Neville Brothers and Li'l Wayne, "because that cat is doing some major crossover stuff that is really cool and out there."
"I try to listen to as much new stuff as I can," he continues. "It might surprise you, but I actually listen to a few of the younger country singers, even people like Miley Cyrus, and I usually find something there, some talent that sets them apart."
Rebirth has been a leader in incorporating hip-hop, jazz, funk and soul into traditional New Orleans second line brass band music. A Rebirth show seems more like a rock and roll show than a jazz concert.
"Well, you can draw a line from Louis Armstrong — everything comes from Louis — through Fats Domino to the Nevilles and the Meters to Li'l Wayne. It's all New Orleans, all indigenous. Incorporating elements from popular music opens our music up to a bigger cross-section of people," he explains. "We take elements from all of that if it's something that works for us.
"I love a great traditional brass band, but for us, we're trying to grow the music, expand it, keep it moving in new directions while maintaining the tradition. We want to bring in new people into the audience."
The band is doing something right, as they are now a worldwide touring act, working Europe regularly and even ranging as far as Africa. And their new album, Rebirth of New Orleans, rapidly leaped to the top of the Billboard jazz charts. Jazz may seem like a somewhat restricting category, given the band's wide musical palette, but not to Frazier.
"People who buy and listen to jazz are usually pretty discerning musically," Frazier explains. "So we like that we're in the jazz charts. Jazz seems like a restrictive term, but it really has a lot of depth and room for all kinds of styles. We like being in the jazz charts for acknowledgment. It helps in reverse."
Frazier also finds hope for the future in young players like Glen David Andrews and Trombone Shorty, who have achieved national fame in the past few years.
"Glen David takes his role very seriously," says Frazier, mentioning Andrews's nonprofit organization Trumpets Not Guns, which exchanges a musical instrument for any gun turned in to the group. "It's not just about the music, it's about our communities, our culture, our future. And it's about influencing young people to take an interest in something they can be proud of."
As for Shorty, Frazier says his relative youth is inspiring. "It's just a great thing when a bunch of these kids see someone like Shorty and he's up for a Grammy. It says, 'He made it,' and that's something that affects some of them in a good way, something that causes positive changes. And if we don't keep bringing new blood into the music, it's finished."
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