Right after Houston Katrina evacuees the New Birth Brass Band moved back to New Orleans, they returned to Houston to play a benefit at Marilyn Oshman's River Oaks mansion.
The band had a new member since I had last seen them — a twentysomething white kid who was marching around the Oshmans' backyard, playing (of all things) the guitar, an almost unheard-of instrument in this type of group. And not only that, but he also had an amp tucked in a backpack.
Fast-forward to this year's South By Southwest. That same kid is in Austin with the Lazy Six. This band backs trombonist-singer Glen David Andrews, a rising traditional jazz superstar, a guy who for me is the face of New Orleans roots music right now.
By this time the kid was switching off from guitar to banjo and back. Andrews introduced him as "Matt Clark, from Houston, Texas." After the show, I handed Clark my card. A couple of days later, he called me back, and told me just how a white kid from upper-crust Houston found his calling in New Orleans in funky joints like the Candlelight Lounge, a landmark bar in New Orleans's fabled jazz nexus, the Tremé neighborhood.
Clark, who is now 28, says that New Orleans music — the Rebirth Brass Band, the Meters, Dr. John — has been an influence ever since he picked up the guitar. After graduating from St. John's, River Oaks-bred Clark attended music school and both the University of North Texas and Berklee, and for a time played guitar in an East Coast college band called Drop. "Sort of jazz fusion with hip-hop," he says.
After that group ended, Clark returned home to Houston, just in time for Katrina. "And then Houston got transformed into New Orleans, as far as the food and the music," he recalls. "I met a bunch of these guys at the shelter and these jam sessions where we'd try to raise money for evacuees."
Among them was the New Birth Brass Band, some of the very same people Clark had years before often road-tripped to see in New Orleans. In short, some of his heroes, as down on their luck as anybody could be. And yet they still played lots of music, and Clark sat in. The New Birth guys started to take a shine to him, especially the tuba player, Kerwin "Fat" James. "He said that the way I played really fit with their sound," Clark remembers.
James asked Clark to join the band, but Clark, in spite of his love for the music, was initially too scared to jump at the chance. "In brass bands, you don't usually see a guitarist, you don't usually see an electric instrument and you certainly don't often see a white guy," he says.
James kept after him, and eventually Clark consented to audition. As is often the case with brass bands, the audition was in public, in this case at Market Square during the festivities surrounding the 2005 Big 12 Championship game.
"I didn't know the keys to the tunes, I didn't know what was coming next, which is just the ways these brass bands do it," he remembers. "They just start playing and everything falls in line where it's supposed to be."
As the brass band players put it, "you get in where you fit in." Clark passed this test, and also convinced himself that this was what he wanted to do.
"It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was just playing what came naturally — sort of a country twang with a funk influence on it. It was the stuff I was trying to do when I first picked up the guitar, and I had deviated away from it, and when I came back to it, it just felt so natural."
For the next year, Clark played with the New Birth and other evacuee brass band combos in town at places like St. Pete's Dancing Marlin and the Red Cat. Clark met Andrews in that time, as well as Corey Henry, an amazing trombonist now with the Rebirth Brass Band.
As the exodus back to New Orleans got in full swing, Clark started playing more and more shows in the Crescent City. Things got hectic. "I was playing gigs at the Maple Leaf [in New Orleans] till four in the morning, and then jumping in my car and driving straight to my day job" — he was a legal assistant at Abraham Watkins — "in Houston at nine o'clock in the morning. Just coming in and driving straight to the office."
Enter Walter Harris, a New Orleans drummer and friend of Clark's. "He told me, 'Man, if you love this music, and this culture, there's only one thing you can do — you have to move there. That's the only way you will ever know it, feel it and understand it.' So I packed all my stuff and moved to New Orleans and lived out of my van for a couple of weeks. Then Walter told me later he was kinda joking when he said that."
Luckily for them both, the move worked out instantly. "Glen David got me some work immediately — in the streets in Jackson Square. And then right after that I was playing Preservation Hall. And it was really when I got here that everything really did start making sense."
For the first time, Clark started living the city's fabled second-line parades and funeral marches as a resident and not a tourist. And no moment was ever more intense than when he got to play the funeral parade for Kerwin James, the New Birth tuba player who invited him into this whole world. (James died last fall after suffering a stroke in 2006.)
"That was one of the most quintessential moments of my New Orleans experience," his now New Orleans-inflected voice dropping to a hushed tone. "Playing a funeral march for someone you really, really loved. He was a great person — every established musician from New Orleans was out there doing a second-line for him. Derrick Tabb from the Rebirth was out there with his snare drum, banging away with tears falling from his eyes. The emotion comes out through the instruments, and I had my banjo just to be a part of it. It's so emotional and at the same time the music is so incredible, you almost don't understand how these musicians can perform like that. It's much more passionate than almost any other performance you would see anywhere." (To view a clip from James's funeral, click here.)
Clark says he was welcomed into this world not just as a player but as a person. "The Andrews family, the Frazier family — they are a lot of the great musicians in town. They just welcomed me like I was one of them, like part of the family. Probably there were certain neighborhoods I really probably didn't have any business being in — but people knew me as the white guitar player, basically."
The former evacuees just told him they were returning favors. "They told me I gave them everything I had to offer while I was in Houston, and now they are giving me much more than that in return now that I am here."
It was in New Orleans that Clark first picked up that most traditional of New Orleans stringed instruments, the six-string banjo. "When I moved over there, the snare drummer for the New Birth — Kerry "Fat Man" Hunter — told me, 'Hey man, you're a great player, but if you really wanna work, you need to start learning these songs on the banjo.'"
Clark plays plenty of banjo in the Lazy Six, Glen David Andrews's band. After putting in a few years in the contemporary hardcore street brass band scene — and penning the modern-day classic of the genre, "Rock With Me, Knock With Me" — Andrews has taken his music in a still more traditional direction. The Lazy Six mixes the sort of highly danceable jazz you would have heard at a Tremé neighborhood bar in 1944 (right when it was on the verge of evolving into Fats Domino-style rock and roll) with high-energy renditions of hymns and old hits like "I'm Walkin'" and "Stand By Me."
"I love feeling the connection with these songs that are over 100 years old, going right back to Louis Armstrong," Clark says.
Andrews is a tremendous showman, and his voice must be heard to be believed. There may be more powerful, elastic and sanctified baritones on this planet, but Racket has yet to hear them.
I asked Clark if he'd ever heard anything like it. "No," he answered without a second's thought. "There's nothing like it. And the same with his performance — being able to cut up in the French Quarter or out on the streets — just delivering the show like it's the last one you're gonna play." (To view a clip of Andrews performing, click here.)
There's a saying penned by former Houstonian Susanna Clark that goes like this: "Work like you don't need money, love like you've never been hurt,and dance like no one's watching."
To me, New Orleans jazz is the embodiment of that thought. I told Clark that my wife tells me it's the only kind of music I can dance to — at all. (And she says I even dance to it well.)
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Clark laughs. "Anything goes with this stuff! The energy and the dancing... And some people are just possessed with the spirit, almost like they are in church, gyrating and vibrating, some on the floor."
Now that he is fully immersed in the culture, Clark has come to an epiphany. "Music doesn't have anything to do with color or socioeconomic status. You like what you like, you move towards the things that appeal to you."
Get in where you fit in. One River Oaks kid has done it, onstage and off, in the same streets most people who share his background would never dare go.