On May 17, the Rebirth Brass Band took the stage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater alongside Bettye LaVette, Quincy Jones, Bono, and a host of other musical greats. Five days later they were back home in New Orleans — as they have been every Tuesday for the last 20 years — entertaining a crowd of locals and college kids on the narrow, crowded stage of the Maple Leaf Bar.
Rebirth Brass Band
When: 9 p.m.June 8 and 9Where: Cistern Yard
“We’ll play gigs around the country on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said founding member Keith Frazier. “But no matter where we are on the weekend, we’re back in New Orleans for Tuesday night at Maple Leaf.”
Since 1982 the Rebirth Brass Band has livened the streets and music halls of New Orleans with its horn-fueled marches and fusion funk-jazz. They perform at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Cistern Yard.
The nine-piece band has become a New Orleans institution, due in part to the weekly gig at Maple Leaf. Local radio programmer David Kunian of WWOZ spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s catching the band at Maple Leaf and similar joints.
“It’s utterly riotous when they play,” Kunian said. “You never know what’s going to happen and, often, they don’t either.”
Since becoming a household name in The Big Easy, the band has spread its sound internationally with coast-to-coast performances and bookings at festivals from Bonnaroo to Spoleto. While their music is rooted in traditional jazz, they incorporate elements of hip-hop, R&B, soul, and rock to create their signature brand of blazing funk.
“Bringing new ideas and genres to our music keeps everyone jiving,” Frazier said. “We’ll incorporate a rock song into our music and then make it our own.”
The band is now doing its part to bring positive national attention to post-Katrina New Orleans. In 2010, they performed on the premiere episode of HBO’s drama Treme. In February of this year, the band earned its first Grammy — a win in the “best regional roots” category for their 2011 album “Rebirth of New Orleans.”
“People feel about the Rebirth Band the way they feel about the Saints: they’re the home team,” Kunian said. “There’s a proprietary sense people have about them.”
If the Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 was a boost for the city’s wounded ego, Rebirth’s Grammy win was chicken soup for its soul. Just two weeks ago the band brought their trophy back to New Orleans for a triumphant party of their own at Howlin’ Wolf.
“The Grammy brought some real pride to this city,” Frazier said. “It showed that we’re the type of musicians who can win these awards.”
Their distinct sound, energy and longevity have transformed the band into the poster-child for New Orleans brass music. While Hurricane Katrina devastated many local music careers, the Rebirth Brass Band is working harder than ever to make sure the New Orleans music scene survives.
Sweet Home New Orleans, a non-profit that analyzes the economics of the music industry, reported that most New Orleans musicians make only 5 percent of their income from record sales and studio work. The rest comes from live performances.
Five years after Katrina there were 50 percent fewer paying gigs available than prior to the storm — a number that had not improved since 2005. Total income from gigs dropped 40 percent immediately following the hurricane and has still not begun to recover.
But both Frazier and Kunian, however, see a silver lining.
“Since Katrina even the smaller music scenes are getting a lot of press,” Kunian said. “People take this music less for granted when they realize it might not always be around.”
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