RIP, Kerwin James (and New Orleans and Houston too)

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New Birth Brass Band tuba player Kerwin James, who walked out of devastated New Orleans with his instrument on his back, passed away Friday at a Houston hospital. He had been in a coma since the summer of 2006, when he suffered a devastating stroke at a gig in the Galleria area. James, the brother of the Rebirth Brass Band’s tuba player Phillip Frazier and bass drummer Keith Frazier, was 35.

The aftermath of his death says a lot about both Houston and New Orleans. They seem to be becoming the same place in some ways.

When the news of his passing hit James’s native Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, a spontaneous parade erupted on St. Phillip Street. That’s just the way they have always rolled over there, the way, as one attendee put it in this NOLA.com report, they honor fallen musicians "from the day they pass until the day they're put in the ground."

But this procession was different. This time, while the band played the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away” with tears streaming down their faces, the cops decided to make the parade fly away. Twenty squad cars descended on the procession, and in an ensuing fracas, snare drummer Derrick Tabb and trombonist/singer Glen David Andrews were arrested for disturbing the peace.

It seems that for the first time in anybody’s living memory, you now need a permit to have a jazz parade in the Treme. The police say that they are responding to noise complaints, most coming from post-Katrina newcomers to the neighborhood.

Many of these people were attracted to the neighborhood because of its jazz history. And now they want to see to it that it remains just that – history. They can’t handle the reality of jazz musicians playing in the streets whenever they damn well please, even if that’s the way the neighborhood has been for the past century or more.

All of which puts me in mind of Montrose and Washington Avenue. People move there because they claim to want to be near the action, the restaurants, the coffeeshops, the bars and nightclubs. And then they start whining to the cops that Lower Westheimer isn’t as quiet as it was back in Kingwood, and the cops have no choice but to harass club owners.

Little by little, over the past decade or so, much of the creativity has been throttled right out of the Montrose. Today, parts of it are little more than eastern extensions of the hoity-toity Upper Kirby District, while other areas – notably, the corner of Montrose and Westheimer, which should be a signature corner for our city -- are as bland and corporate as Westchase. (So maybe it is a signature Houston corner after all…)

Meanwhile, a march of wine bars, bistros and bro-bars continues up and down once-funky Washington Avenue, once a teeming hub of dives, low-key venues and thrift stores.

A certain amount of residual cool clings yet to Richmond Avenue, but that seems sure to be wiped clean by light rail. It sure seems to have worked that way on Main, where it seems that just about every locally-owned business not directly on a stop has perished since the trains started rolling.

And so it goes. The soul-crushers never sleep. They won’t be happy until every corner is home to a branch bank, a nail salon, a Boston Market and a cell phone shop. Want to go out and do the town? Applebee’s serves drinks. Want to listen to loud music? Put your iPod on in a closed room. And if you want live music, why not go to Austin? – John Nova Lomax

Here’s some YouTube footage of New Birth Brass Band at Sammy’s a few days after Katrina:

And here’s the NOPD parade break-up:

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