Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Burns’ Keeping the Beat on the Street

Keeping the Beat on the Street: the New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance
By Mick Burns
Louisiana State University Press

Brass bands, jazz funerals, second line dancers. These are the enduring images of the city of New Orleans. In the recently published Keeping the Beat on the Street Mick Burns has assembled interviews he conducted before Katrina, to chronicle the continuing development of the NOLA brass band scene. Burns has captured the important voices of this tradition, in his worthy book.

Much of the resurgence of interest in the brass band scene can be attributed to traditional jazzman and educator Danny Barker, who founded the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. Many of the future leaders of the brass band scene came up through the Fairview band. However, the local musicians’ union forced him to scale back his involvement with the predominantly non-union youth band. As Leroy Jones remembered:

“Danny had to stop being associated with us because of the flak from the union. A false rumor was generated by some musicians who were jealous of what was going on, and it made it difficult for Danny.” (p. 24-25)

It was a tradition that faced adversity from other quarters. As local broadcaster Jerry Brock told Burns:

“In the 1960’s, the NAACP tried to stop the second lines. It wasn’t that they had bad intentions; it’s just that they felt it was a bit of a throwback, and it was time to move on. Harold Dejan and Danny Barker stood up to them and said, “This is valuable. This is a part of the history of our people.” (p. 102)

By incorporating elements of funk and so-called “street music,” a new generation represented by the breakthrough Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band, revived interest in parading, and brought their music to audiences around the world.

Keeping the Beat is particularly valuable, because it helps dispel the notion that recent years have seen no fresh musical developments in New Orleans. There is a preconception that only museum-piece style traditional jazz is performed for unappreciative tourists. However, there was clearly a vibrant brass band scene that had a strong local following. As Brice Miller told Burns: “When I say traditional, some people think we’re trying to hold on to something that’s gone, but that’s not it. We’re bringing our own identity to it.” (p. 180)

Of course, Katrina now represents an even greater challenge for the bands. The Jazz Foundation has been tireless in their efforts to help scores of New Orleans musicians, many of whom have been leaders in the brass band scene, rebuild their lives and careers. To support their efforts, go here.