Keith Frazier, bass drummer and a founding member of Rebirth Brass Band, sits in a quiet coffeeshop near the Fair Grounds Race Course on a gorgeous spring afternoon between French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It's been more than two months since Rebirth won the first Grammy ever awarded to a New Orleans brass band, but the congratulations are still rolling in. The band was just named the Big Easy Awards' Entertainers of the Year.
Unassuming in his baseball cap and black-framed glasses, Frazier clearly hasn't let success go to his head. "We won the Grammy and it was like the Saints winning the Super Bowl all over again," he says. "Everyone I know was saying, 'Hey, we won!' It wasn't just for our band—it was for everybody."
It's not hard to imagine Rebirth happily sharing its Grammy with the entire city of New Orleans. Almost 29 years have passed since Keith Frazier, tuba player and bandleader Phil Frazier, and a few other teenage musicians founded Rebirth Brass Band while honing their chops on the streets of the French Quarter, playing traditional jazz for nickels and dimes. Over that time Rebirth has joined a handful of working bands that fully represent New Orleans' music to the world. And no other band maintains a stronger or more natural connection to the people and sounds of the city.
"To me, they're a populist band," says New Orleans writer and historian Jason Berry, co-author of the book, Up From the Cradle: New Orleans Music Since World War II. "Rebirth draws an energy and a force from the constant flow of the street." Initially those streets were in the 9th Ward, where Phil and Keith were born before moving on to other parts of the city in their youth. The constant was their mother, Barbara Frazier, who for decades has played gospel piano in churches all over town. "That's where I got my musical background," Phil says.
Barbara doesn't take much credit for her sons' early forays into music. "They never had the opportunity to see me teaching music to the children in church," she says. "They did come to choir rehearsal with me, but they just picked it up on their own. They're the type that pays attention to everything."
In elementary school, Keith started on the snare drum, and then switched to the marching-band baritone horn, which he would play all through college before finding his way back to the bass drum for Rebirth. "My brother Philip taught me how to read music," Keith says. Phil started on trombone and switched to tuba while in the marching band at Joseph S. Clark High School in Treme. "It's all the same bass clef family," Phil says. "I'd sleep with it in my bed, wake up playing the tuba. I said, 'That's my calling.'"
At Clark, the core group of young musicians that would soon evolve into Rebirth Brass Band included the Frazier brothers, Kermit Ruffins on trumpet, Reginald Stewart on trombone and Kenneth Austin on snare, among others. "We played a few gigs at the school, and then we started playing in the French Quarter for tips," Phil says.
The new band's local idols included Olympia Brass Band, The Chosen Few, Tornado Brass Band, and — especially — Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "Oh, man, that was my band," Phil says. At that time, Dirty Dozen played a regular gig on Monday nights at the Glass House Uptown. "We were kind of young, so we'd sneak in and say, 'We've got to do this, these guys are good,'" Keith says. "If it weren't for them, we probably wouldn't be here. They set the tone." (A mindblowing clip of Dirty Dozen at the Glass House in 1982 is currently available on YouTube, courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.)
In the late 1970s, some musicians took the traditional New Orleans brass band and evolved something new, incorporating elements of funk, soul, rhythm and blues and other modern forms while maintaining its ties to early jazz and the street culture of second-line parades. The tuba became a defining instrument largely through the work of the legendary Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, who played with Treme Brass Band and Olympia Brass Band, among others. Dirty Dozen tuba-master Kirk Joseph carried on that tradition, and the band's driving rhythms and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink repertoire had a profound influence on local musicians.
By 1983, Rebirth Brass Band had found its name and was already forging its own identity and sound. "Rebirth's music is much more rhythmic, and it relies on this pulsing sound from Phil that starts to bob and weave, and then the horns come in," Berry says. "It's not as deeply grounded in melody as Dirty Dozen was. Rebirth played so many more second lines and funerals."
It wasn't long before the band hit the road, and stayed there. "We were going to Europe three or four times a year," Keith says. "We blew up in Europe before we blew up in the States. They have a deep respect for American music and jazz. They'd tell us, 'You're maintaining something that's two or three hundred years old.' So a lot of bands go to Europe first."
Phil says 25 musicians have played with Rebirth Brass Band over the years, including the nine currently in the band: trumpet players Chadrick Honore, Derek Shezbie and Glen Andrews; trombone players Stafford Agee and Gregory Veals; sax player Vincent Broussard; snare drummer Derrick Tabb; and Phil and Keith on tuba and bass drum. This lineup has been pretty stable over the last three or four years, both Fraziers say. Tracey Freeman, who produced Rebirth's Grammy-winning album Rebirth of New Orleans, believes the band has never sounded better. "Members kept coming and going, but once they found this lineup and it was solid, that was it," Freeman says. "Twenty-nine years of hard work. They just never give up."
Freeman is no stranger to awards. He earned a Grammy in 2002 for producing Harry Connick Jr.'s Songs I Heard. And he has worked with Rebirth twice before, on 2005's Throwback, for which Rebirth reunited with Kermit Ruffins, and 2008's 25th Anniversary album. According to Freeman, one key to the success of Rebirth of New Orleans — the band's 13th album — was preparation. "The band had a bunch of original songs, and they were adamant about not doing extended jams," he says. "They mapped it out ahead of time. I remember one rehearsal at Howlin' Wolf where they just stood in the middle of the floor until they'd worked through all these songs."
There were some small changes to the band's usual recording process for Rebirth of New Orleans. The drums and horns were recorded in separate rooms for better isolation, and most of the solos were added later to the full-band recordings. "I think this helped because it gave the guys some time to think about what they wanted to do," Keith says. Freeman gives a lot of credit to Basin Street Records, which was working with Rebirth for the first time. "It was the right record, the right label, the right promotion and a great performance by the band — everything kind of fell into place," Freeman says. "It really says something when an indie label wins a Grammy."
Anyone who wants to experience Rebirth Brass Band in its true element need look no further than the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. The band has played there every Tuesday night for 23 years when not out on the road. "It's the home place," Keith says. "We feel like we can do anything there. We made a mistake? So what. It felt good. Do it again!" The band no longer rehearses — it tries out new material in front of its fans on Tuesday night. Often Phil will play a fresh bass line and the rest of the players gradually come in with their own ideas. Or they'll play a Rebirth classic like "Do Whatcha Wanna" in an entirely different way, and it turns into a new song. "We try to be spontaneous and let it happen," Phil says. "We can see if people like it — the raw energy of the crowd."
Ask Phil and Keith — the "Bass Brothers," as they are sometimes known — about their greatest accomplishments, and they start talking about the connections they've made with audiences around the world. They've toured with the Grateful Dead and Ani DiFranco among others, winning over audiences who had no idea what to expect from a New Orleans brass band. They traveled to Syria in the early 1990s when it wasn't entirely safe to do so. "People may say I'm crazy, but I think that was one of the greatest things we ever did," Keith says. "Everyone told us, 'It's the Middle East, they're Muslim, they're not going to dance.' And when the first note hit them, they got up. They danced just like us. This music comes from Africa, and it will make anybody move."
Back in New Orleans, Rebirth has long served as a model for young bands — especially those that come from humble beginnings — just as Dirty Dozen inspired Rebirth in the early days. Phil and Keith played in their Junior High and High School marching bands but did not have the benefit of a world-class music program like the one at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), which today gives many talented young musicians in New Orleans the education they deserve. "Rebirth was a band that showed younger players they had a shot, that if they hustled and worked hard they could have a brass band and be a musician," Berry says. "In that sense they really blazed a trail."
Of course, there's one person who never doubted Rebirth Brass Band or the Frazier brothers' chances for success. "I told them over the years, 'One day you're going to get a Grammy,'" Barbara says. "They used to say, 'Oh, Mama, go on, you're too much.' When they got it, I forgot I had a pacemaker and I was jumping up and down," she laughs. "I tell everybody: They earned it. They went through many toils and snares. There's a song I want to teach them, 'You got to go forward, you can't stop until you reach the top.' I'm going to hear them play that for me."