Stealing the Show
Before the first Ninth Ward gangster shot and killed another in the streets of southwest Houston, before Mayor Bill White faced a church full of livid Westside constituents screaming about mayhem on their streets, before the gang fights in the high schools, and long before Kinky Friedman claimed Houston was bereft of Louisiana poets and musicians and full of "crackheads and thugs" from New Orleans, long before all of that, the Katrina exiles brought us a hell of a party.
Think back to September of 2005. First, we watched in horror as the levees broke and Lake Pontchartrain spilled into New Orleans. We saw the footage of the families trapped on rooftops, the old ladies dying in the streets, the squalor and misery at the Superdome. We heard the tales of looters, rapes and running gun battles. We saw the politicians dither, bicker and dawdle.
And then a flotilla of buses, taxis and private cars -- whatever could be chartered or commandeered -- brought virtually the entire city of New Orleans to our doorstep. The Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center filled with poor souls rendered still poorer by the storm. In the aftermath of a previous flood in New Orleans, an old man once said, "I used to have nothin', now I ain't even got that." That story was rewritten 350,000 times over with Katrina, and then most of those people with less than nothing came here.
One such was Katrina exile Lumar LeBlanc, the snare drummer and bandleader of New Orleans's Soul Rebels Brass Band. (Actually, LeBlanc was one of the wiser ones who left by car before the storm.) "The whole world as we knew it changed," he says. "I left with two pair of jeans, some underwear and some white T-shirts. I took my wife, my father, my mother and my kids and we packed in one car and left."
Once here, the Katrina exiles were greeted with an odd mixture of dread and generosity. There was a huge outpouring of donations and volunteerism, but there were also reports of murders and rapes at the Astrodome and a spike in crime around Reliant Park, all of which were denied by the Houston Police Department. Talk radio crackled with dire predictions of mayhem to come, and there were even Internet rumors of spooky voodoo rituals taking place on both Fannin and South Main.
Within days, though, a few of those exiles started making music. Specifically, brass band music, the horn-heavy, polyrhythmic, syncopated stuff that for centuries has played such a huge role in making life bearable in that lovely godforsaken city on the big river. And sadly, a few days later, other exiles were making noise of another sort with pistols, just as the naysayers on talk radio and the anonymous, often racist Internet editorialists had predicted.
But the good stuff came first. At Sammy's at 2016 Main, on September 8, a historic jam session occurred, an impromptu reunion of many of the city of New Orleans's finest musicians. Each player who walked in the door was much more than a mere musician that night -- they were an affirmation of life. Not only did their attendance indicate that they had survived the storm, but their collective presence also indicated that their music would survive, too.
A framed picture of bass drummer/tap-dancer/kazoo player "Uncle" Lionel Batiste was hung on the wall by parties unknown. A fellow New Orleans drummer once had this to say about Batiste: "Inside Uncle Lionel's bass drum is the pulse of the city." The inside of Sammy's also contained the pulse of that city that night.
Over a year later, Tanio Hingle, the bass drummer and bandleader of the New Birth Brass Band, still remembers the night with special fondness. We're sitting on the front steps at Carolyn Oshman's house in River Oaks, where the New Birth played the Orange Show's fund-raising gala. "That night, we didn't know our music was gonna survive," he says. "But here it was two days after the storm and we had it going on."
And the New Birth stole the show that night. A few ad hoc R&B bands played the city's standards -- songs like "Big Chief" and "Ya Ya," and a bleary-eyed Kermit Ruffins delivered his raspy renditions of the Louis Armstrong classics. After that, all had gone quiet in the club. Suddenly you could hear the sounds of booming bass drums, cracking snares and blasting horns coming from the direction of Main Street outside. In swept the New Birth in parade formation, complete with flying Mardi Gras beads and a grand marshal in a natty suit and a sash bearing the name "Katrina."
The New Birth -- some of them still wearing the rubber wristbands that marked them as temporary residents of the Astrodome -- were celebrating the death of the storm, and they were doing it in the way New Orleans has dealt with tragedies without number ever since French was the primary language in that city -- with music. More specifically, this unique style of music -- a fusion of American folk songs, European marches, West African/Caribbean rhythms, soul, funk and hip-hop -- a blend of music that was first cooked up by former slaves on the cast-off instruments of Confederate army marching bands. New Orleans has always been about partying in the face of death -- in the 19th century, the city's population was frequently purged by malaria and yellow fever epidemics, and for much of the 20th century, it has been the murder capital of America. It's a unique place in America in that life there is meant to be lived fully rather than long, and this music is the soundtrack to that philosophy. And as the aural expression of the soul of New Orleans, it seemed, for the first time that month, like the city might yet have some life in it.
As would Houston. The city's beleaguered music scene has long needed a funk-juice shot in the arm like this, and for about three months, spots all over the city were rollicking with these jams. The mind boggled at the possibilities -- the city's rap producers, bluesmen and rockers now had some of the finest horn players in America to work with. Perhaps a few New Orleans-style social clubs would open; maybe Mardi Gras traditions would even take root here -- the street parades and all-night parties. Houston and New Orleans have virtually identical humid climates and very similar swampy, live oak-studded topographies, if not cityscapes.
Maybe now Houston would start to sound like New Orleans as well as feel like it. This would be a case of a city without a soul finding a soul without a city.
But by the time the New Year rolled around, the party was fading fast. Only the echoes of the funky drums and salacious trombones could be heard -- their owners had gone back home or fanned out to gigs across the country and around the world.
Until the holidays last year, it looked like the Katrina influx was going to be a positive development all around. The New Birth had relocated here, as had clarinet maestro Dr. Michael White and Ruffins, the genial trumpeter-singer who is as much a one-man embodiment of New Orleans's sunny, whistle-past-the-graveyard style as Dr. John and Louis Armstrong.
Ruffins, the New Birth and several related bands set up shop all over town. At first Sammy's was the hot spot, and later St. Pete's, Tommy's Steakhouse, Dan Electro's, the Red Cat and Under the Volcano all entered the fray. The New Birth had a long, Wednesday night residency at the Volcano, thanks in no small part to a relationship they had forged with Volcano owner Pete Mitchell a year before Katrina.
"I always wanted to have a brass band play for New Year's, and I was always kind of surprised that we weren't getting that music here being so close to New Orleans," Mitchell says. "At that time I thought it was sort of a dead culture -- I was ignorant to the whole thing. I thought Kermit Ruffins might know a couple of bands, so I got in touch with him, and he put me in touch with Tanio, and I found out there were all kinds of bands. We had them play for New Year's, and people had never seen them before, and they were just blown away."
Indeed, most people are blown away at their first exposure to the living art form. If you think this is the kind of stuff you hear at places in the French Quarter like Preservation Hall, you're in for a surprise. Yes, today's brass bands can play songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Maple Leaf Rag," but they will also throw in snippets from P-Funk, Marvin Gaye, Gerald Levert and 50 Cent. What strikes you most profoundly are the rhythms -- brass bands feature a bass drummer (who also plays a cymbal on the top of his drum) and a snare drummer (who also has a cymbal). Beneath both of them is a tuba player -- more accurately a Sousaphone player -- and atop it all is a horn section of trumpets, trombone and saxophone. But this music is all about the beat, a unique rhythm called the "second-line" that is truly the pulse of the city.
In a 1975 interview with Downbeat magazine, Dr. John explained that beat like this: "See, in the basic Afro Cuban music, one is established as the beat and everything after that is basically free. In Latin music one is the hit and is always established and everybody plays around it. But in second-line the beat is four/one, and there are two accents, as opposed to the one in Latin."
A week or so after the storm, Hingle got in touch with Mitchell and asked for a gig. "It made sense to just have them play on some off night at the bar on a regular basis," Mitchell says. "There were several reasons. One was just to get them the ability to play on a regular basis. The second one was to promote that music, and obviously it was gonna benefit me, too."
At that time, some of the band's players were still in the Astrodome. Mitchell ferried them back and forth from the gigs at his bar. It was worth it. The shows were some of the best in Houston last year. "The first ones were just joyous outpourings of love from all the New Orleans people," Mitchell says. "And once the Houston people found out about it and once the word got out on KPFT and those stations, people from Houston started showing up. It was such an odd thing to see 60-year-old white women dancing with New Orleans hip-hoppers -- guys in FUBU wear with their short dreads doing those dances that are commonplace in New Orleans. It was really joyful -- that's the only way to put it. We were charging $5 to get in and then people were tipping on top of that. One friend of mine put $200 in the jar one time, and I don't think that was that extraordinary."
Mitchell says that the shows started to fizzle around the holidays. One factor was the return to New Orleans of rising trad jazz superstar Glen David Andrews, a mighty-voiced 24-year-old New Orleans royal -- the Andrews family is both numerous and famous in Big Easy music circles, and his grandfather Jessie Hill authored the R&B classic "Ooh Poo Pa Doo." Andrews fronted the New Birth with fiery, Cab Calloway-style vocals and acrobatic trombone solos, and his natural-born charisma and hard-earned ability to work a crowd drew in the more casual fans. (Andrews's rewritten version of "Stand By Me," which Andrews composed here in Houston, is the final scene in the new Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.)
Andrews's departure was the first of many. The other guys in the band had gigs in Europe, and then Mardi Gras season and Jazz Fest rolled around. For a time, you never knew which New Birth would show up at the Volcano on any given Wednesday. On one fateful night, the band's horn section showed up but the rhythm section couldn't make it, so an electric bassist and a kit drummer took their place. Mitchell says the neighbors complained that night for the first of many times. "They were putting up with it before that, but that was just so electronically loud that it just blew it over the top, and after that it was just any noise, they'd jump the gun."
The Volcano is on Bissonnet and in a primarily residential area, and is not normally a music venue. Mitchell had figured on some flak from his neighbors, so he always ended the shows early. That plan backfired. "The New Orleans people want that shit to start late," Mitchell says. "Even knowing my shows would start early, they wouldn't show up until ten o'clock and they would see the last 30 minutes. For them, ten was early. And even the Houstonians didn't show up until late, for whatever reason. I was just sort of flabbergasted -- I was like, man, it's a fuckin' Wednesday. Don't people have to work?"
Mitchell also believes that the local media missed out on a great story, to some degree. "The public radio stations helped, the Press did an article and Channel 26 came out, but that was it," he says. "I really thought it would get more attention than it did. I'm happy with the attention that it did get, but I guess I was thinking there might be some more people getting into it. Like maybe Majic 102 or something, but I guess those things are just so driven by advertisers and formats now..."
But by this time, the only New Orleans story the local media was interested in was crime. There was a spate of Katrina-related shootings in Houston over Thanksgiving weekend, and in late December, the Houston Police Department released figures showing that the murder rate for 2005 was 23 percent higher than that of 2004.
Houstonians felt they had done the city of New Orleans a historic favor, and many had, either through volunteering their time or donating money or clothes, and this largesse was to be repaid with senseless gang violence on our streets?
For their part, New Orleanians felt stereotyped, condescended to and less than enchanted with Houston. New Orleans is a relatively compact city of tight-knit neighborhoods where many families have lived for decades or even centuries. They didn't like our food, hated our ramshackle public transport system and the sprawl it fails to serve. (The New Birth's members were living everywhere from Pasadena to New Caney, whereas in New Orleans, they all lived a few blocks from each other.) And perhaps most of all, they were sick of being reminded of how grateful they should be.
On his return to town for the Orange Show gala, Hingle was sporting a Rockets hat and a freshly printed New Birth T-shirt that showed a map of both Louisiana and Texas as their base of operations. But if you ask him about fond memories of life in Houston, he's hard-pressed to come up with an answer, save for sincere appreciation of the people he met here, such as Mitchell, John Zotos of St. Pete's Dancing Marlin, Susanne Theis of the Orange Show Foundation and Bob Edwards of Dan Electro's. Houston as a hometown did not appeal to him.
New Orleans musicians also could not understand our relatively puritanical laws. As is well known to anybody who has traveled to Bourbon Street, in New Orleans you can carry booze from club to club in to-go cups and there is no mandatory closing time. Here, you have to consume all you order on the club premises and all alcohol sales cease promptly at 2 a.m. Here, Mardi Gras is a marketing concept. There, it's a way of life. And New Orleans police were believed to take a more laissez-faire approach to casual pot-smoking than their counterparts in Houston.
The honeymoon was over, and the marriage had truly begun. Whether this marriage will be a happy one or something that should be on Dr. Phil remains to be seen.
The Soul Rebels are perhaps the most adventurous of all the New Orleans brass bands. While there are others -- the Rebirth and Hot 8 come to mind -- that throw hip-hop and reggae in the mix, few do it as often or as well as the Soul Rebels, who have been infuriating purists with their update on brass band music ever since their inception in 1991.
The Soul Rebels still play every Thursday night at a bar called Le Bon Temps Roulé; on Magazine Street in New Orleans's Garden District, but today, three of the six members of the band live here in Houston and say they have no plans to move back home.
Bandleader Lumar LeBlanc was raised in the Tremé/Sixth Ward section of New Orleans, where, he says, "jazz is grown like flowers." He is among the more prosperous of the evacuees -- he had been a high school teacher, his band makes good money, his wife is a medical professional and he was living in the middle-class area of the Big Easy called New Orleans East, a world away from the tough corners of the Ninth Ward. "We had good neighbors, a good neighborhood, a four-bedroom home," he says. "And then all of a sudden Katrina hit. The whole world as we know it changed."
LeBlanc arrived in Houston with his family, a couple of changes of clothes and nothing else, or at least nothing physically tangible. "When we saw the horrible catastrophe in New Orleans on TV, we started to realize that probably everything was destroyed except for the inner city and the CBD [central business district]," he says. "The music was really the only thing that I had to keep me going financially and to keep my spirits up, and my wife and family."
Right now LeBlanc is viewing Houston more as a base of operations than a true hometown. "I plan to stay here to just commute to wherever I have to do my music," he says. "I've been playing music professionally since 1990, so my life has always been where I have to travel -- Europe and Brazil and all different countries. The traveling's really not a big roadblock."
LeBlanc's youngest son is with the family and attending school at Mount Carmel High School, but his oldest son returned to New Orleans to live with his mother's family and finish high school. Next fall LeBlanc hopes his oldest will enroll at his own alma mater -- Texas Southern University, where he served as a drum major in that school's Ocean of Soul Marching Band while he was studying to obtain a degree in social work. "When I had to evacuate, Houston was an easy choice for me because I was used to the city," he says.
Although they were stricken with the dual tragedy of Katrina and the debilitating stroke of tuba player Kerwin James, the New Birth has probably had their best year from a financial and visibility standpoint. They had more gigs than they could handle here in Houston -- both in the clubs and at high-dollar private functions -- and on their return to New Orleans, the shows got even bigger. At this year's Jazz Fest, U2 guitarist The Edge joined them on stage, and at the reopening of the Superdome this year, the band performed on stage with both U2 and Green Day in the nationally televised pregame festivities on ESPN's Monday Night Football.
LeBlanc says that something similar has been going on with the Soul Rebels. "The music has been more in demand than ever," he says. "People look at it as some of the last authentic culture from New Orleans that wasn't washed away by the storm."
Only they haven't been playing in Houston much. LeBlanc believes that the city's infrastructure is better suited to his family than to his band. He is very happy with his son's schooling, and his wife was able to get a medical job that was comparable to what she had pre-Katrina. "I think that Houston's a much safer and better place due to what's been stripped away in New Orleans. We're going to settle here." But as of right now, LeBlanc has played most of his music on the road.
New Orleans's tourism industry was in many ways his lifeblood, along with much of the rest of the city. "We're always being asked to play for dignitaries or corporations that come to New Orleans," he says. LeBlanc says the city's compact layout makes life easy for tourists, conventioneers and musicians -- the party places are a minute's walk away from the attractions and convention halls. His band has serenaded visitors at the airport, convention centers and at parties, sometimes all in the same day, with minimal driving.
LeBlanc is leery of trying to start out in the clubs here. "I know how the club circuit is -- it's a hustle," he says. "And if you don't have a big following, clubs aren't gonna be able to stick with you to build a following. But in New Orleans, the clubs will stick with you for weeks and weeks, because they know that eventually people are gonna start coming." LeBlanc also echoes Mitchell's words about the late-night-loving, hard-drinking nature of the New Orleanian. "In New Orleans, you have the 24-hour drinking, so you might have people come into the club at 12:30, gettin' the party started and staying until 2 or 2:30."
What he's hoping for is that the powers-that-be in the city's infrastructure -- the Greater Houston Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, the big money folks on the River Oaks gala circuit, the people who book the high-dollar spring and fall festivals -- will give him a call. (Indeed, the Houston International Festival has already done so.) "I haven't got that consistent flow yet," he says, and adds that bands like his are logistically simple to book. "We have all our instruments on us," he says. "We're like a miniature version of a marching band, so we're able to set up easy and do performances in the smallest or biggest of spaces with no hassle. The music really gives the people a home feel."
Indeed. "A home feel." Houston is now home to this kind of music, just as much as New Orleans is. And this is not the first time large numbers of black Louisianans have migrated to Houston. The 20th century saw rural Creoles from southwestern Louisiana come to Houston by the thousands, bringing with them gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya and the rural music called "la-la" that would evolve here -- when it fused with the blues and R&B of the locals -- into zydeco.
We're at a similar cultural crossroads right now. And the pot is simmering, even though Kermit, the New Birth and dozens of other New Orleans musicians have returned home. At the Orange Show gala earlier this month, Hingle played with a version of the New Birth he slapped together through a few phone calls to various members of other brass bands living here in Houston.
And LeBlanc has done some work in the schools -- "Not a plethora of things, but I would like to do more," he says. Also, the New Orleans-style jazz funeral could be starting to catch on here with the local black community. "A while back a string of funerals came along for a string of families that were from New Orleans," he says. "We got another gig out of it -- the minister at one of the funerals was a man from Houston, and he liked that we knew the spiritual hymns. He took our card."
In order to play more local shows, he's thinking about training some local musicians -- possibly kids from the TSU Ocean of Soul band -- to fill in here for the Soul Rebels who have moved back home. "Sometimes the gigs I get don't pay enough for me to ask the guys in New Orleans to travel to Houston. But the ones who are here, like me, the bass player and the lead trumpet player -- if I could find like a sax dude or a trombone player who would do the gigs with me here, that's a whole quartet or quintet right there. We could make magic, you know."
Or, much as the New Birth does at New Orleans Saints games, he would be willing to become the house band for the Houston Texans. At Saints games, the New Birth leads a parade around the stadium's concourses throughout the game, and the people fall in behind, partying along with umbrellas in hand. LeBlanc thinks Houstonians might be bewildered by something like that. "In New Orleans, they know what that is. I don't know how people would respond to that here, but it would probably be good to have it in the stadium in one spot or something."
LeBlanc just wants any Houston outlet music he can find. "I love Houston. I came here for an important part of my life -- college. And the only reason I went back to New Orleans was the music and my family, so I had to go back where my roots were. But Houston should be a prime place for this music. It's a big place."
LeBlanc does not believe that Houston lacks a music scene. What it lacks, he believes, is what New Orleans has tons of -- mystique. Hip-hop is fine, he says, but it's music made by people looking to get paid, first and foremost. "That's more commercial," he says. "You need some authenticity. That's what New Orleans still has on the rest of the world -- the authentic mystery of music. And they support it. In some ways it's a little prostituted, but that's to the advantage of the musician, because we make a living off it. Whenever you see New Orleans, it's always 'New Orleans jazz.'"
And now it could also be Houston jazz. Maybe the Soul Rebels will be able to round out their Houston lineup with locals, and then maybe some club will make a weekly Soul Rebels gig work. Maybe they can spice up the Texans games with some second-line funk, and maybe one day there will be a New Orleans-style street parade here. Maybe the powers-that-be that market this city to tourists will have something other than "world-class" symphonies, malls and medical centers to tout -- namely, fun, great music and, yes, authenticity and soul.
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