STORY WRITTEN CHRIS CAMERON
For Digital First Media
The Rebirth Brass Band is not your grandfather’s New Orleans jazz.
In fact, there’s nothing traditional about the sound that the eight-piece band makes. It relies upon traditional instruments — drums, a tuba, a saxophone, trumpets, and trombones, but that’s where the similarities to a traditional Bourbon Street sound end.
The band relies as much on feeling and emotions as it does on adhering to a specific genre. It’s a liquid sound on any given night and the music is a reflection of audience reactions. It’s dance music in its rawest form, meant to be played loud in intimate, darkened settings. It’s both a celebration of life and death — energized and emotional.
The band calls its music “junk music,” a hybrid of jazz and funk that other New Orleans brass bands have adopted; but Rebirth (as they’re known back home) first began to explore their sound back in the early 80s under the direction of brothers Philip Frazier (tuba) and Keith Frazier (bass drum) in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
Songs such as “Do Whatcha Wanna” and “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up” rely upon heavy grooves and improvised jazz over a call and response chorus, meant to elicit audience participation.
“Our music is a collaboration of multiple emotions, which changes every time we play a song,” trombonist Stafford Agee said through email.
During Mardi Gras the “main line” or the “first line” of the parade is the main event. These are the musicians with permits and members of actual clubs. The “second line” are the folks who follow the main parade, mixing in exuberant dance, and in some cases, their own variations of jazz music. It is from this “second lining” that Rebirth found its soul.
Their music draws upon the second line style as well as hip hop, soul, and funk. Treme is rich in brass bands, despite being largely economically impoverished. The music flows from street corners and bellows down from front porches.
“Our music is a moving party,” Agee said. “After 30 years of performing at street parades, the band has finally retired from the second lines so that younger groups can take over.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Rebirth found new purpose as they brought their live shows around the world.
“We run into N’awlins folks all over,” Agee said. “We played for people that had been displaced from the storm and those shows helped make them feel closer to home.”
The HBO drama “Treme” focuses on the lives of musicians living post-Katrina New Orleans. Rebirth’s music and the musicians themselves were featured throughout the series. The character Antoine Batiste, played by native New Orleanian Wendell Pierce, is loosely based on the real-life personas of former Rebirth member Kermit Ruffins and Agee. Agee also appears in several scenes involving the Mardi Gras Indians.
“That show introduced audiences to other parts of New Orleans outside of the French Quarter,” Agee said. “It highlighted the diverse musical talents from this city.”
Pierce’s character is a trombone player and Agee coached the actor in how to emulate the slide movement of the trombone to the songs.
“We didn’t directly have a say in the show, but we were able to voice our opinions through the support of Wendell,” Agee said.
With over a dozen albums to their name, Rebirth continues to record new material and tour the world. With an eight-piece band the process for selecting the songs for recordings could become challenging, but Agee said it’s not really the band that makes the decisions.
“Ultimately, it’s our fans who help us decide what we’re going to record,” he said. “We perform the songs for them and through their reactions they help us make the decisions without them realizing that they’re part of the process.”
For a taste of authentic New Orleans brass band music, see the Rebirth Brass Band live. After 30 years of gigging, they have the chops to get you onto the dance floor and your feet won’t regret it.
“It’s a known fact that this is what we do,” Agee said. “We want you to come out and have fun and the music will get you out of your chair.”