(This is the fourth installment in a series on New Orleans brass band leaders)
The Stooges Brass Band is one of the most sought after, most controversial, and most competitive band on the brass band scene. Scan the 40 or so second line parades from last season and you’ll find that the vast majority of them were performed by the Stooges. They won the Red Bull ‘Street Kings’ competition in October triggering outcries from opponent camps that the contest was unfairly judged. The band was involved in the brief skirmish with Rebirth Brass Band at last year’s Big Nine Annual second line parade. Facebook is constantly crackling with promotional plugs and challenges amongst musicians and second liners as to whose down with the Stooges. Yet amidst the battles, hype, parades, competitions, shows, beefs and allegiance cries stands a calm, good-natured man who consistently demonstrates diplomacy, business acumen, and steely resolve to hone a successful band: Walter Ramsey, founder and leader of the Stooges Brass Band.
The Stooges Brass Band puts on one of the most entertaining, audience-interactive shows of any band on the scene. Just like their namesake, the band is known and adored for clowning during the shows, mugging at the audience, group dancing, inciting passionate city ward call and responses. “From the beginning, we were always acting funny, always cracking jokes,” recalls Walter. "Brian (former member) came up with the name. He said ‘We act just like the Stooges’. So from the start, even the name of the band, it was all about the laugh and fun and how can we be better entertainers. We have band members 17 to 33 years old. To have that group together, young and old, the fun is what makes it work.”
A former student of JFK and NOCCA, both renown schools that have produced some of New Orleans finest musicians, Walter was always immersed in the culture that would one day evolve into a career path. “My grandfather was one of key people with Dirty Dozen. He was a fly percussionist. And my dad was the president of social aid and pleasure club called the ‘Scene Boosters’, one of the most popular clubs back in the day.” Although he cites many well known local jazzmen as his musical inspirations, he credits Rebirth with sealing his fate as a band leader. “Seeing them in elementary school blew me out the water. They were the spark for me. That's when I said ‘I want to do that!’ From that day forward, I tried to put a brass band together. It didn’t happen until I got to high school. I used to trade instruments until I got every one of them. I just didn’t have the musicians to play them,” he laughs.
Although he played trombone for many years, the sousaphone is his main instrument in the band, another situation that seems equally fated. He recalls, “It was a Friday night. We played at a club and they didn’t have the money to pay us. My tuba player got frustrated and quit. I said ‘But we got weddings tomorrow!’ He just handed me his horn. I had to keep the band going so I got up the next morning, learned about three to four songs so we could do our gigs that day.” From that day on, Walter studied other tuba players he admired to help build his chops. “I looked at what (Rebirth) Phil gives, the energy, the hype-ness. Also turned to (Treme Brass Band’s) Jeffrey Hill for the tone. The way he plays the tuba is how you play bass guitar. (Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s) Kirk Joseph was so funky. I grabbed funk from him. Then I went to Jackson square where Tuba Fats was and he had all the elements.” He laughs, “I went all around the table when I coulda gone straight to the source!”
Founded in 1996, the Stooges have fostered the growth of many of the city’s best known brass band musicians. Alumni members include Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews, Big Sam, Ellis Joseph of The Free Agent’s, Hot 8 snare drummer Sammy Cyrus and bass drummer Dwayne Williams to name a few. “About 35 musicians have come thru us,” says Walter. “We’re like brass band 101.”
Another well known brass band figure who was a Stooges alumni was Joe ‘Shotgun Joe’ Williams, the Hot 8 trombonist who was killed by the NOPD in 2004 in full view of Treme neighborhood residents. In fact, one of the most well known anthems in brass band music is ‘Why They Have to Kill Him (Oh Why)?’, a song often attributed to the Hot 8 but which was actually written and produced by Walter and the Stooges upon learning of their friend and former bandmate’s demise.
“When I received phone call that he was killed and got to scene, I talked to police officers and asked why did the police kill him. They had no explanation. They basically said ‘We don’t have to explain ‘why’ to you.’ The next morning, I saw in the newspaper they quoted me asking ‘Why?’.” The Stooges left for a gig in Japan that morning, but what should have been an opportunity worth celebrating was now marred by loss and grief. Back at the hotel, the band members sat alone in their respective rooms. “I went to humming the sound and then I heard a beat come thru the wall. All the band members were in their room, started humming this song, adding on to it. Later we had a sound check to do and we did it then. During the show, we performed it and were crying so hard the audience started crying with us.” When the band returned to New Orleans, they performed the song and the other brass bands picked it up, playing it so often it eventually became codified in the second line parade culture.
Another little known fact about the Stooges band is that they are accomplished music producers for several cable networks such as ESPN, BET and MTV as well as high profile artists such as Manny Fresh, Jessica Simpson, Jadakiss. “Seventy-five percent of ESPN’s music is done by Stooges. We’ve worked with their music department three to four years now, recreating their theme songs: college game day, the Sports Center theme song, basketball, NCAA sports.”
Predictably, with all of this success comes some problems. For the Stooges, problems come tend to come in the form of beefs between other local bands. Last year, the Stooges incited a series of challenges to Rebirth Brass Band which culminated into a scuffle at a second line in the lower Ninth Ward. Tempers eventually cooled and, as usually happens in the brass band scene, musicians in both camps renewed their collegial relationships and resumed attending each others shows and supporting one another's creative endeavors.
But controversy resurfaced when the Stooges won the Red Bull Street Kings competition. Some of the competing brass band hotly contested the Stooges win, citing unfair advantages such as the Stooges t-shirts worn on stage that bore the Red Bull company logo and the Stooges having more musicians on stage than was permissible according to competition rules. Another issue that complicated the outcome was that the judges did not share their judging criteria with the audience or the band members. Neither Red Bull nor the event producers ever addressed the public’s concerns about the ruling and left the bands to hash it out on their own, which played out on social media forums like Facebook and at performances around town. A show of hard feelings erupted one night when members of the Stooges went to a Free Agents Brass Band show carrying the large WWE Boxing-style Street King’s belt to the show.
Walter recalls one such incident. “I watched one guy grab the belt and jump and stomp on it. He was so upset. I guess he thought we would be upset too. The belt was just a gift. Its not that serious. When he saw that it didn’t bother us, he realized ‘Wow I’m tripping. Its not that serious.’ It kinda broke the ice to mend the situation.” The bands have since reconciled their grievances at least enough to play a recent Christmas night gig together at the Green Room, a Midcity bar that serves as home to the Free Agents Brass Band. The bigger reconciliatory victory, however, came from their mentor and former rival The Rebirth. “We always looked at Rebirth as the Street Kings. For the Rebirth to embrace us after the Red Bull competition and say ‘We’re proud of yall’, that was a huge compliment.”
Asked if he was surprised by the response of some musicians to his band’s victory, Walter responds, “Nah, I wasn’t surprised. If the shoe was on the other foot I’d probably feel the same way. Those guys didn’t understand this was a competition. I’m very competitive. I’m gonna out-think, out-play y’all cause thats what I do. I was kinda disappointed cause the Rebels are a great band. They shoulda made round two. Not to take away from the Free Agents but the Free Agents don’t know how to catch the audience. TBC too. Sounding good is one thing, getting the people into it is another. You can’t just play for yourself. Most sound great. Some sound better than the Stooges. They just don’t know how to relate it to the people. Its more than just playing your horn. Its about being an entertainer.”
More than the ups and downs that come with battling his band’s competition, Walter says his biggest challenge to leading The Stooges is keeping his bandmates happy.
“Right before (their debut album) ‘Its About Time’ came out, around ‘03-’04, I learned how to manage the band better. In the beginning though it was tough. At times I got big headed, thought I was all that. I had to learn too... I’ve learned you’ve got to deal with different personalities. If we vibe together, we make good music. I have to make sure we have enough gigs to make enough money to keep wanting to do this, make sure they stay out of trouble, make sure the music is good so people want us.” His best advice for other band leaders starting out is to “not put money first. Try to have the love for the music first and have fun doing it. That’s the number one things we promote first. Try to do your best to make it fun and everyones heart will be in it and stay in it. Its not always about the money. We do a lot of community service. Most of the time we volunteer our service. Also be fair and reasonable with money and decision making. And its very important as a leader to handle conflicts when they first start, keep a level head, and find resolution to them.”
May 2011 will mark the 15th anniversary for the Stooges during which time they plan to release their next CD. There’s a certain divine symmetry in their commemorative year: “The first parade we ever played was the Rebirth's 15th year anniversary," says Walter. "The next year, we picked up our first parade. At first we struggled with holding one or two fans. Now we hold the largest crowd, play the most second lines. We feel honored.” He laughs and notes, “But that’s not gonna last too long. There are other bands coming.”
The Stooges Brass Band currently consists of trombonists Alfred Growe and Ersell Bogan; trumpeters Chris Cotton, Glenn Preston and Eric Gordon; Antoine Coleman on snare, Thaddeus Ramsey on bass drum, and John Dotson on percussion; and Clifford Smith and Walter Ramsey on sousaphones. You can catch them every Thursday night at the Hi Ho Lounge 2239 Saint Claude Avenue - or at a regular Sunday second line, routes and times listed here every Friday by yours truly.