Future of Jazz

Tucson's music community creates a 'Night for New Orleans'

Phil Frazier regards himself as a lucky man. It's not because the Rebirth Brass Band was on the road when Hurricane Katrina hit their New Orleans home, or that the Maple Leaf Bar, where the band plays every Tuesday night, survived the storm. No, his vision is larger than that, and he's found a mission in it.

It's given the name of his band a whole new meaning.

Of the Maple Leaf gig, he says "Now, that's the place everyone knows they can still come and see New Orleans music. We're keeping it alive." But more importantly, Frazier says, the band brings hope to the New Orleans diaspora.

"It makes me sad that there are so many people who can't get back, but I feel fortunate that when we travel all over the world, especially visiting Houston or Atlanta, we can bring some healing to all the folks who come out. They know New Orleans is coming back when they see us."

Frazier founded Rebirth while in high school in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood. His mother was a gospel piano player, so, he says, "I couldn't help but play music. It was in my genes." But in Treme, one of downtown New Orleans' oldest neighborhoods and the birthplace of its brass-band traditions, he was also suffused with the unique "second line" sound, the sound the rest of us associate with the city's famous "jazz funerals." The first line in a funeral parade is the friends and family of the departed; the second line comprises everyone else who simply follows the music, dancing and carrying on.

There's more to it, though; Frazier describes Rebirth as "a combination of Earth, Wind and Fire; Duke Ellington; street jazz; and spiritual or gospel." It's an amalgam that's put Rebirth next to The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in defining a contemporary New Orleans sound.

Rebirth is the centerpiece of a Tucson benefit evening for New Orleans musicians on Friday, June 8. The event is being organized by TapeOpCon, an annual conference of independent music producers, with the help of Hotel Congress and the Rialto Theatre. Before Rebirth's Rialto set, the hotel's Cup Café--whose chef and manager both lived in New Orleans--will offer a $7 buffet featuring regular and vegetarian jambalaya and crawfish etouffee.

A stage in the hotel's parking lot will feature bands visiting town for TapeOpCon, including North Carolina's Mitch Easter, a founding member of the seminal jangle-pop band Let's Active and producer for R.E.M., Pavement and Suzanne Vega, among many others. More entertainment, including pedal-steel player Jon Rauhouse, will follow at Congress after the Rialto show.

Headlining the post-Rebirth portion of the show will be Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots, regulars at New Orleans' House of Blues. Led by former Kansas City Chiefs player Bruce Barnes, the band melds a lively combination of accordion-based Cajun, Zydeco and blues music. Barnes remains in New Orleans, where on Saturdays in Lafayette Park, he hosts a mentoring program in which older, traditional jazz players help secure the future of New Orleans jazz by passing it along to neighborhood youngsters.

TapeOpCon has a special relationship with New Orleans, and a special interest in its recovery. Conference co-founder Craig Schumacher, owner of Tucson's Wavelab Recording Studio and producer for Calexico and Neko Case, among many others, says TapeOpCon had thought to make New Orleans its annual home after successful conferences there in 2004 and 2005. After Katrina, though, TapeOpCon joined the ranks of the displaced. To simplify logistics, the conference moved to Tucson, where Schumacher could oversee arrangements.

Schumacher revisited New Orleans last November as part of the Future of Music Coalition's "Musicians Bringing Musicians Home" benefit and was shocked to see how little progress had been made in bringing the city back. Clearly, Tucson would have to pinch-hit at least another year, but TapeOpCon organizers committed to incorporating a benefit to support grassroots organizations aimed at replacing New Orleans musicians' lost gear, so they could begin to earn a livelihood, and finding housing so they could return home. The Rialto's Curtis McCrary (a Tucson Weekly contributor) and Hotel Congress' Dave Slutes were eager to help out.

"What's happened is that clearly, the government agencies are not doing the job," Schumacher says. "What work is being done is being done by all these grassroots organizations."

Schumacher knows that TapeOpCon attendees--all of whom make their living, to varying degrees, with music--are personally invested in seeing New Orleans' rich traditions thriving again. He is hopeful Tucsonans will be eager to share in the effort, too.

"This can make a difference in someone's life, the difference between someone getting back to their home in three months or the next three years," he says. "And that's what this is all about, because New Orleans is not going to come back as a viable city if we don't get the residents back. There's a real danger of that not happening, and New Orleans becoming homogenized and becoming just like any other faceless American city.

"That would be really, really, really bad."