A New Orleans institution threw a party Saturday night, when the revered Rebirth Brass Band came marching into the Crystal Bay Casino.
Brass bands have been a staple of New Orleans culture for generations. They first appeared in the 19th century and traditionally have been used for times of great human expression, from jubilant second-line parades to mournful, New Orleans jazz funerals. In the late 1970s, some brass bands began to break away from the traditional stylings of the genre and started incorporating elements of R&B and soul into their sound. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was a prominent example.
Out of this sonic renaissance rose the Rebirth Brass Band. The group was formed in 1983 by tuba player Philip Frazier, brother and bass drummer Keith Frazier and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins in the storied Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. They released their first album in 1984 and continued to rise in exposure and influence over the decades after relentless touring, recording and being ambassadors of the New Orleans sound. The group won its first Grammy in 2012 and has contributed to HBO’s “Treme” series, but despite the acclaim, has remained loyal to the music community it came from, playing its longstanding, Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf Bar every week it is not touring.
It’s quite the impressive career, one that wouldn’t have happened without the Frazier brothers receiving an eye-opening introduction to the brass band world by their stepfather.
“The brass band tradition in my family dates back to my stepfather, Larry Alfred, who introduced myself and my brother Philip Frazier to the tradition in 1977 when he was a member of the Sixth Ward High Steppers, a parading club from the Treme area of New Orleans,” Keith Frazier said.
Rebirth Brass Band is influential throughout the scene for being a catalyst in incorporating fresh, exciting sounds into brass bands. The group is known for being among the first to infuse funk and hip-hop into the musical conversation. Considering the band originated in hip-hop’s infancy and the genre was still working through its fad phase, the move was as subversive and progressive as classic rock giants dabbling in EDM in today’s terms. But for Frazier, it seems the decision was as simple as just using the music around the band and putting their own spin on it
“We try to incorporate all kinds of genres into our music. When we started, we just played whatever music was available. Since that was what we grew up on, we adapted our music to that,” Frazier said.
The band is in its fourth decade and shows no sign of slowing down. It will be hitting the Crystal Bay Casino at the tail end of a West Coast tour and between additional tours and dates at the Maple Leaf, the group has shows booked through March already. Bringing the music to the people is what the Rebirth Brass Band does best and as long as hips need shaking, they’ll be marching along — giving them what they want, painting the town green, gold and purple.
“In terms of keeping the tradition alive, Rebirth has just tried to continue what other bands did before us, just simply perform and spread the music. … The thing that excites me is the pure joy people get from attending a Rebirth show. We love to see people have a good time and just dance,” Frazier said.
Click to see all of Larry Sabo’s photos from the Crystal Bay show.