Friday, May 30, 2008

Rebirth Brass Band celebrates 25 years

Story including photos at the New Orleans Times-Picayune/

Rebirth Brass Band celebrates 25 years of blowing its horns
Posted by amaloney May 29, 2008 16:30PM

Rebirth Brass Band's 25th Anniversary

. . . . . . .

It was a Tuesday night, and Phil and Keith Frazier were at the Maple Leaf Bar, where they have played every week for 18 years with the Rebirth Brass Band. Instead of performing, however, they were reminiscing about the past 25 years of Rebirth. It took them a while to get started, but once the stories started flowing, they didn't stop.

Their favorite touring partner?

"Ani, " Phil said.

As in Ani DiFranco, the dreadlocks-sporting, righteous babe, acoustic-guitar-playing Ani?

"That's our girl!" exclaimed Phil, as he went on to describe Rebirth's six-week tour opening for the indie-rock heroine. DiFranco's audiences, more in tune with anti-war chants than with brass band beats, "didn't know what was coming, " Keith said.

"And then we'd just hit 'em with it, " Phil said.

They played for more than 10,000 people at Red Rocks in Colorado -- "That was the show, " Phil said -- and opened for the Grateful Dead in 1989, "when Jerry Garcia was still around -- cool guy, " he said.

The Rebirth Brass Band has been playing at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street just about every Tuesday night for nearly 20 years.

One summer in the 1980s, they traveled the same European festival circuit as a slew of jazz legends, and several times shared a hotel floor with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakely.

At the North Sea Jazz Festival, they crashed the end of a James Brown concert. "He sang the last note, and we busted through the crowd. People were like, 'What is this?' " Keith said.

"We went to Africa for six weeks, " Phil said.

"We went to Syria -- by mistake, " Keith added.

After 20 European tours, 14 albums, four tours of Japan and gigs in 46 states, these guys have seen a lot.

Since emerging in the early 1980s with their street-infused brand of brass band music, Rebirth has become a New Orleans institution, still as welcome and active at home as they are around the world. The band is celebrating its 25th anniversary tonight and tomorrow with two shows at the Howlin' Wolf, which will feature nearly all of the band's 28 members, past and present. They released an anniversary CD, titled simply "25, " in April.

They are both global ambassadors for New Orleans and second-line favorites in New Orleans. And they show no signs of slowing down.

. . . . . . .

The band officially formed in 1983, growing out of the Joseph S. Clark Senior High School marching band, but the Fraziers say Rebirth's story really began on the streets of Treme. Along with founding member Kermit Ruffins, who left the band in 1992 to forge his own career, both the Fraziers played music from an early age. The brothers were encouraged by both their mother, Barbara Frazier, who played gospel piano, and by the vibrant musical culture of the Treme neighborhood.

Phil Frazier, leader of the Rebirth Brass Band, and his brother Keith are the only members to have been with the band for 25 years.

While Keith started out on baritone horn in the seventh grade, Phil, who had been playing trombone since the fourth grade, soon found his passion in the tuba.

"I switched to tuba in high school because it was calling me.

"I would go to bed with the tuba, " he said, laughing, then added, "I don't do that anymore."

The newly formed band cut its first album with 1984's "Here To Stay." Perhaps, at the time, only the players knew how apt that debut title would prove to be.

Professionally, the group was inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which, at the time, had achieved the greatest crossover appeal of any New Orleans brass ensemble. But musically, they were most inspired by the second-line tradition, street beats and the funky abandon of Treme. It was that quality they sought to re-create on their albums and in shows, and it is ultimately what has made them so enduring.

"We came along and did a lot of street stuff, " Keith said. "We took the street, and brought it to the stage."

Their early agent, Allison Minor, told them they'd find bigger audiences abroad than in the United States, and sent them to Europe. The intense touring in foreign lands, catching -- and sometimes missing -- trains, "made us grow up faster, " Phil said.

"We were so young, too, " Keith said. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing."

. . . . . . .

At 8:30 p.m., the Maple Leaf courtyard was virtually empty as the brothers Frazier recounted tales from the past quarter-century. A middle-aged African-American couple, dressed for some place fancier than the Maple Leaf, wandered up to the bar next to the courtyard and looked around expectantly.

"Excuse me, " the woman said to Phil. "What's the name of the band tonight?"

"Rebirth, " he said.

"Rebirth, OK, " said the woman, nodding to her husband, who nodded back. The couple was visiting from Atlanta, they said, and had heard about the band from friends from New Orleans.

Phil turned to his brother and flashed a precocious grin. "Ohhhh, I love getting new people!" he exclaimed.

Phil directed the couple to the front bar, telling them to say that "King Phil" had sent them. They looked at him skeptically, but smiled and disappeared toward the front.

"We call them Rebirth virgins, " Keith said. "They listen, and they're like, 'Oh my God, where has this music been my whole life?' "

The couple returned a few minutes later, drinks in hand. They laughed and said to Phil, "You really are the king!" and went into the courtyard.

After fine-tuning their touring chops in Europe, Rebirth conquered the United States, too. San Francisco and New York are among their favorite cities, where their venues often sell out. Amsterdam, they said, remains their favorite locale outside of New Orleans.

"It's so like New Orleans, " Keith said.

In their recording history, which includes 14 full-length albums and countless guest appearances, they have partnered with Robbie Roberston of The Band, Soulja Slim and Harry Connick Jr. Their favorite studio collaboration? Playing "Whole Lotta Loving" with Lenny Kravitz, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker on the album "Going Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino."

"We just gelled like that, instantly, " Phil said. "It was funky."

. . . . . . .

Despite the band's renown, if there's one thing that has stayed with Rebirth over the past quarter-century, it is the street.

The group experienced the inevitable backlash that comes with fame after their first decade of international and domestic touring, and today many locals complain that the long-running Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf has become a reservoir for college students and bourgeois Uptowners. But few can deny that Rebirth is still a band of the people.

When not touring, the band plays second-lines nearly every Sunday, and the band's members have kept their roots in New Orleans. Snare drum player Derrick Tabb, who has been with Rebirth 12 years, recently started the organization Roots of Music, which conducts after-school music classes for children.

What drives the Fraziers to keep playing after so long is not money or fame, they said, but the joy of bringing music to the people.

"I love making people happy, " Phil said. "I love giving people my all. If I'm not doing anything, I'm depressed."

"We just dealt with (the criticism), " Keith said. "We told people, 'This is what happens when you go from underground to being famous. It doesn't change who you are.' "

Now, Phil, 42, is a grandfather, and Keith will hit the four-decade mark in October, though he says, "I still feel 18."

Though they say playing music makes them feel young, they have embraced the avuncular role they play with the band's younger members, such as Chadrick Honore, who is 20.

"I could be his father, " Phil said in disbelief, which turned promptly to knee-slapping laughter. "Man, that's some crazy s- - -!"

Keith continued: "I really love to tell them what to expect in life, especially as a musician. It makes you feel good to be able to pass on that stuff."

Their only rule for the band, they say, is no fighting with one another. Everything else is met with New Orleans-style laissez faire. The Fraziers advise their younger band mates on keeping track of their finances and having a good time while paying mind to their image, which is, by extension, the band's image and the city's image.

"We got New Orleans on our shoulders, " Keith said.

Their most important words of wisdom?

"Don't take anything for granted, " Keith said. "Until you leave here, you don't understand what it's like, so don't take it for granted. Just play like it's your last time every time."

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