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Strings Attached 

This summer, a group of New Orleans brass and jazz musicians journeyed to the heart of bluegrass in the hills of North Carolina. The rest was music.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- On the stage of the Kittredge Theatre auditorium on the campus of Warren Wilson College, nestled in the very belly of the lush Blue Ridge Mountains, seven high school music students from New Orleans are rehearsing on horns, drums, bass and guitar. Suddenly, a commotion erupts from the back of the auditorium. In walks a group of seven western North Carolina high schoolers carrying quite a different set of instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin.

The bluegrass kids climb onto the stage, and together, the two groups begin an exchange of two seemingly incongruous forms of music: bluegrass and jazz.

Veteran jazz-and-classical music professor Warren Gaughan addresses the group, talking about playing bluegrass in terms the New Orleanians can understand. "Bluegrass players get together and jam," he says. "That's the bluegrass equivalent of jazz musicians improvising." Gaughan starts the students with a call-and-response exercise, and horns, acoustic guitar and fiddle begin to make each other's acquaintance. Bluegrass player Micah Hanks explains the difference between bluegrass and jazz: "There are a lot of similarities between the two, in the way you can improvise, but the difference in bluegrass is the way the rhythm drives the music. It's straightforward, in 2/4 time. And it's fast."

Now it's time to actually play a bluegrass rhythm. The New Orleanians, most of whom have never even heard bluegrass before, look nervous but determined. Young fiddle player Katherine Parham kicks off "Old Joe Clark" -- albeit in a slower-than-usual tempo -- and, one by one, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums join in. It's a little rough around the edges at first. Gaughan brings in a chalkboard to write out the melody, which seems to help. On the next round, played much faster, those rough edges begin to smooth out. After a few more go-rounds, "Old Joe Clark" comes together in a rapid-fire tempo, with each player taking a solo in turn. Smiles begin to appear.

After the session, clarinetist Nakeisha Brown admits she wasn't sure what she was getting herself into. "I've never been exposed to bluegrass at all," she says. "I don't think I've even heard it before. I'm feeling kind of timid. It's just getting used to something new, I guess. It's a whole lot more Š well, I guess it's not that much more difficult than jazz, but it just seems like it is. It's really fast."

The seven New Orleans musicians, along with three production/recording interns, are here with the Tipitina's Foundation Internship Program (TIP) under the direction of Bill Taylor and artistic director Donald Harrison Jr. To conclude the program's first year, they've come to the Crescent City Mountain Music Summit to meet up with their counterparts: seven young bluegrass players participating in the LEAF in the Schools and Streets program, an offshoot of the popular western North Carolina music and cultural event Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF). The trip is funded by the nonprofit Tipitina's Foundation and proceeds from this week's concerts.

The TIP interns' week-long visit will culminate in a Thursday night performance at Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen in downtown Asheville, followed by Friday night's BlueBrass Project concert downtown at the Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Both venues are owned by former New Orleans residents: Thibodaux Jones by Chris Jones and Angela Thibodaux, Orange Peel by Jack and Lesley Groetsch, previous owners of The Howlin' Wolf. In addition to the students, the final concert will include an impressive array of jazz and bluegrass greats: Vassar Clements, Larry Keel, Donald Harrison Jr., Fred Wesley, Kirk Joseph and Troy Andrews.

Most of the New Orleans interns come from musical families. Seventeen-year-old trumpet player Kimberly Jefferson, a graduate of Warren Easton High who will attend the University of New Orleans this month, has been playing music since sixth grade. "My dad would play music all day throughout the house and my mom's a music teacher," she says. "Plus, my aunt and pretty much everybody in my family plays an instrument. I've grown up around music all my life."

Bass player Michael Ballard, a 19-year-old graduate of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) also heading for UNO, started out on trumpet as a child. He credits his musician father with turning him onto the importance of music. "R&B jazz, zydeco, Latin music -- my dad made sure I had a good background in a lot of different styles," he says. Guitarist Jay Marino also learned to play his instrument at the hands of his musician father.

Clarinetist Nakeisha Brown, a 17-year-old senior at Warren Easton High, says everyone in her family either sings or plays an instrument. The same goes for trumpet player Chris Cotton, who'll join Nakeisha as a senior at Warren Easton. "My daddy played the trombone in high school and college, and my brother played the trombone in high school, and my other brother played drums," Cotton says.

But growing up surrounded by music doesn't guarantee a wide exposure to styles beyond brass, jazz, rock or hip-hop. "A lot of kids who are very talented are not going to have the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of types of music," says TIP artistic director Harrison, renowned nationally as a saxophonist and in New Orleans also as a Mardi Gras Indian chief. "The New Orleans music scene is so insular; it can be very limiting."

Harrison says he was luckier than most: he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and enjoyed stints first with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and later with Miles Davis. He hopes his work with the TIP interns can similarly open up their worlds. "I want to be able to give kids a more universal idea of what music is, and if they want to try something new in their career, they'll be able to do it," he says. "They'll be more open."

Harrison also sees this trip as an opportunity to find the connective tissue of jazz and bluegrass: "We all play the same 12-note system and we all have rhythm, so there's a common ground somewhere. Let's get together and find it."

After the Warren Wilson rehearsal, everyone piles into the van for the short trip into downtown Asheville and a more intensive workshop at Thibodaux Jones. It's an appropriate setting: It was co-owner Jones who first came up with the idea of bringing bluegrass and brass together. Realizing the commonalities between the two genres -- both have deep roots in gospel -- Jones called on New Orleans musicians Troy Andrews, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Philip Frazier and Julius McKee and brought them together with bluegrass players Larry and Jenny Keel, Woody Wood, Bryon McMurry and Jason Krekel. The result was The BlueBrass Project: In the Same Pocket, Vol. 1 (Meantime Lounge Records, 2004), a glorious, genre-bending ride on such standards as "Lil' Liza Jane" and "Old Rugged Cross."

At Thibodaux Jones, workshop leaders Wood and Cary Fridley are in the midst of an old-time jam on the small stage at the back of the restaurant. Wood is somewhat of a music icon around the Southeast. A founding member of former Sub Pop Records band the Blue Rags, he can sing and play guitar, banjo and just about any other instrument put in front of him. The son of world-class banjo great A.L. Wood, the skinny blonde is known for his bizarre banter and evangelical zeal onstage. Fridley, a former teacher, has a fierce regional reputation as an old-time singer, guitarist and stand-up bass player.

After a half-hour of lugging instruments, cameras and lights, the students are arranged in a semicircle in front of the stage. Fridley begins to explain old-time music in terms the TIP kids understand: "The fiddle plays the melody -- that would be like the trumpet," she says, "and the banjo plays chords and harmony, which would be like the clarinet."

Everyone nods.

When it's Wood's turn to teach, the energy increases. Wielding, by turns, a banjo and a guitar, and tossing out offbeat remarks like "I'm gonna take you all home to live with me and start a band. Hope you like bread and mayonnaise sandwiches," he quickly wins over the room. Finally, it's time to actually play. "Don't worry a bit about what you sound like -- just get in there and play," he says, launching into "John Henry Was a Steel Drivin' Man," and then the bluegrass classic "Cripple Creek."

"How many of you have heard ŒCripple Creek' before?" he asks. No hands go up. Before long, though, each student takes a short solo on the song.

But it's later, on the standard "East Virginia Blues," that the TIP kids really begin to shine. Wood and Fridley start the tune at a slow tempo then gradually speed it up. Kimberly Jefferson and Chris Cotton perform soaring trumpet solos. Nakeisha Brown and Leslie Patterson, though still a bit gun-shy, don't miss a note on their clarinets. Fifteen-year-old Joey Peebles (or "Jo Jo Peeps" as Wood soon dubs him) attacks the drums. Michael Ballard tears through bluegrass bass lines and Jay Marino plays intricate guitar riffs.

Toward the end of the session, Wood and Fridley ask the kids what they want to play. Ballard immediately requests Bob Marley, and Wood immediately rips into the unmistakable opening strains of "Get Up, Stand Up." The kids, bluegrass and jazz alike, jump right in.

In the middle of a bluegrass/blues medley, Donald Harrison Jr. walks in fresh from the airport, the epitome of summertime cool in an all-pale-yellow outfit. He unassumingly sits down at a table near the back and quietly takes out his alto sax, examining the mouthpiece carefully. Toward the end of the song, he effortlessly joins in, at first quietly and then turning up the volume with a riff that sounds like a G-run -- a solo bluegrass break popularized by legendary bluegrass guitarist Lester Flatt.

In addition to the young musicians, the New Orleans group includes production interns Alex Hemard, Cassandra Koederitz and Calvin Simmons. On Thursday, Hemard, an 18-old graduate of Jesuit High who's entering Loyola University, shows up at Thibodaux Jones with a mouth harp -- a small, hand-held, traditional mountain instrument that looks like an inordinately large, thick paper clip. Between setting up lights and running cameras, Hemard insists on playing along with the musicians.

"We've started to realize that everyone in our group has a mountain counterpart," he announces with a laugh. "There's a Mountain Joe, a Mountain Chris, a Mountain me, a Mountain everybody."

Today's plan is to lock in the tunes learned on Wednesday in preparation for this evening's concert. Wood and Fridley launch into "John Henry Was a Steel Drivin' Man" and the young musicians begin to nail it, although Brown and Patterson still hold back. Harrison, now wearing a Fat Albert T-shirt, joins in and takes his own solo along with each student. Peebles' drum solos have become pyrotechnic delights. Wood and Fridley lead in round after round of "John Henry" until it becomes seamless.

The young musicians are then broken up into two blended groups: group one features clarinet, trumpet, fiddle and guitar; group two is mandolin, banjo, trumpet, clarinet and guitar. Wood tells them to come up with a tune of their own making, in any style they choose. The groups go to separate corners of Thibodaux Jones, and soon a weird cacophony pervades. Will this experiment work?

A little more than an hour later, each group is brought onstage. The results are astounding. Group one has dubbed its original tune "Something Pretty," and it is: jazzy, lush, with an underlying bluegrass vibe driven by 17-year-old Caitlin Durham's fiddle. Group two's untitled song is a bit edgier, but also beautifully blends jazz and bluegrass. Confidence is beginning to soar -- after all, each group came up with an original song in an hour.

"I want to learn to play a string instrument," Brown announces after the session.

"I want to learn to play fiddle," says trumpet player Cotton.

Woody Wood is sweaty and exhausted. On this Thursday, he taught a guitar lesson, led the workshop for almost four hours, has a 6 p.m. gig (it's now 5 p.m.) and will come straight from that gig back to Thibodaux Jones to perform with the interns for nearly four hours. He was also spotted after the Thibodaux Jones gig -- at about 1:30 a.m. -- jamming in front of a local bluegrass bar.

In the midst of all this, Wood pauses to reflect on the Crescent City Mountain Music Summit, which he sees as opportunity to cross more than musical boundaries.

"I've seen these kids relate to each other on an interpersonal level -- the New Orleans and the bluegrass kids," he says. "And that's really nice, because in the South, I don't think you get that very much. I still believe that the South is secretly segregated. When you get to things like racism, the only ways you can ever combat that is through the young people. You have to teach the kids a different way.

"Two little kids playing in the sandbox together don't know that there's something different about the other one. But then the parents come along and ruin that. So to me, even past the music, even if they didn't get anything out of it musically, the whole thing would have been worth it and any amount of money spent would have been well spent."

Later that evening, a half hour before the Thursday evening performance, the scene in Thibodaux Jones is a study in perplexity. Well-dressed patrons have arrived for dinner, and the diners peer curiously at the odd mixture of young musicians setting up and tuning their instruments near the stage. The concert has not been "officially" announced -- it's more a word-of-mouth thing. Wait staff take circuitous routes to tables, stepping over camera cords and instrument cases. Finally, Woody Wood and Cary Fridley take the stage, playing a bluegrass romp on banjo and guitar; Joey Peebles holds down the drums.

Then it's time for group one to perform "Something Pretty." Clarinetist Brown and trumpeter Jefferson are now totally engaged. Jefferson's trumpet solo brings a huge burst of applause from the diners. Following an acoustic guitar set by Marino, the music titans begin to arrive, in town for the following night's BlueBrass Project concert at the Orange Peel: trombonist Fred Wesley of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic fame, 76-year-old bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, renowned dobro master Curtis Burch of Newgrass Revival fame, and Troy Andrews.

The students jump onstage to launch into a day-old (and stellar) version of "Cripple Creek," featuring clarinet, trumpet, banjo, mandolin and guitar. Finally, the entire group takes the stage for the much-rehearsed "John Henry Was a Steel-Drivin' Man." It's at this point when magic starts to happen. Harrison takes a rich, complex sax solo. Wesley slowly rises from his seat, raises his trombone, and walks toward the stage, all the while playing what can only be called a bluegrass/second-line concerto.

Next, it's a surprise for Harrison. The young musicians, jazz and bluegrass alike, launch into a 20-minute jam of one of his signature tunes, "Indian Blues." Not missing a beat, Harrison takes a long, note-bending solo. Troy Andrews plays a trombone extravaganza, and Wesley joins him with the equivalent of a call-and-response. The young horn players instinctually jump in with Harrison and Wesley. They hold their own and then some.

TIP program director Bill Taylor has the look of a man who is both jubilant and sleep-deprived. "I'm beside myself! And it's mostly due to that man right there!" he exclaims, pointing at Harrison.

Yet staying in the dorm with the interns hasn't been easy, he admits. "I'm getting next to no sleep," Taylor confides. "These kids are running around playing horns all night long. I'll be almost asleep and then this trumpet solo will ring through the house."

All that nocturnal practice shines in the next song, a 30-minute jam of the late John Hartford's "Streetcar" (a standout on the BlueBrass CD), with Clements and fellow bluegrass great Bobby Hicks on dueling fiddles, and Harrison and Wesley each taking intricate solos. Chris Cotton jumps in with a flaming trumpet solo of his own, and all the young horn players are full-on into it now. The show ends with a rapid-fire version of "Lil' Liza Jane," a standard for both brass and bluegrass players. At the end of the show, shy Leslie Patterson -- who was hesitant to even play at all just yesterday -- takes a graceful clarinet solo as a grand finale.

Although the younger participants think that they're starting out on opposite sides of the musical spectrum, Vassar Clements, whose bluegrass career spans more than 50 years, knows better. Clements began playing with Bill Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," at age 14. In the 1970s, he played on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's seminal 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and went on to record and perform with the likes of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, David Grisman and Paul McCartney.

"I grew up in the big band era," he says, "and around Kissimmee (Fla.), I was scared to let anybody know I was trying to learn to play fiddle or guitar. I thought they'd think I was a hillbilly. I never found out how wrong I was until later, but you know how a kid thinks. I fell in love with bluegrass because we had a little radio and my mother would let me listen for 30 minutes on Saturdays and I always picked Bill Monroe up. At that time, I didn't know anything about any other kind of music hardly, except big bands. And that influence has stayed with me.

"I hear horns in my head when I play fiddle," he reveals, smiling.

At Friday's workshop, Troy Andrews is everywhere -- trombone in one hand, cell phone in the other. Andrews' propensity for relentless wireless activity has become quite the in-joke. In fact, as Asheville television station WLOS turns on its cameras for an interview with Andrews in front of Thibodaux Jones, his cell phone rings yet again. Not missing a beat, he picks it up. "Call you back," he says. "I'm on TV."

Andrews has mentored this first class of TIP interns all year. "They never really come out, they kind of held back," Andrews says of the group. "But last night, they shocked me. I felt proud. They really came out of their shells. Maybe it was because they came up to Asheville and everybody from the bluegrass scene told them to play, and not worry if it's the wrong note. Just play. The longer you hold back and the longer you never try anything, you're going to regret it."

Although Andrews grew up immersed in jazz and second lines, he's no stranger to bluegrass. "Sometimes I'll just go to a store and pick up CDs, and I picked up a couple of bluegrass CDs having not heard it before, and I really enjoyed it. I was trying to play over it and it really challenged my mind to play it."

Andrews had a sneak preview of what BlueBrass can be a few months early, when some members of the North Carolina-based Acoustic Syndicate, through the efforts of Chris Jones, played at the Maple Leaf. "Chris called me up and told me about the show, so I took my trombone down and took Wayne Williams of the Lil' Stooges and we played with them -- two members of a brass band and the rest were string players. It turned out so good."

A few months later, Andrews visited western North Carolina for the first time when he sat in with Acoustic Syndicate at the Orange Peel. "Man, I had an experience," he says of that show. "I was jumping around the stage and then they started jumping around. People said they'd never seen Acoustic Syndicate jump around before."

Seeing the interns' burgeoning enthusiasm for bluegrass gives Andrews hope that the New Orleans music scene can begin to expand its boundaries. "Maybe they can add bluegrass to their repertoire," he muses. "They might want to write a bluegrass song -- you never know. Some of these kids might go back to New Orleans and say, ŒMan, we don't have much bluegrass in New Orleans, so I'll make some bluegrass up and start something new.' Put it together with Latin music or something. You can do anything."

Backstage at the Orange Peel on Friday night, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux wanders back and forth holding aloft a plastic cup filled with red wine, smiling beatifically. The 62-year-old is wearing bright yellow pants and a multi-colored jungle-print shirt. A profusion of fluorescent orange feathers cascades out of his suitcase. Nearby, pony-tailed fiddler Kaitlin Durham and clarinetist Nakeisha Brown sit next to each other on a vinyl couch, a dobro between them. Brown painstakingly follows Durham's finger patterns on the dobro.

The show is a huge hit. It begins with a bluegrass set featuring Clements, McMurry, the Keels, Wood and Krekel, then moves to the BlueBrass set with Fred Wesley, Kirk Joseph, Donald Harrison, Lee Shezbie, Anthony Bennett and Bernie Worrell joining all the bluegrass players onstage. It all ends with a crazy hip-hop/funk/freestyle set featuring Troy Andrews & Orleans Avenue, along with Wood, Harrison and various others. The intern-led rhythm section of Michael Ballard and Joey Peebles is aggressive and confident. Harrison does a long funk/hip-hop set, and Wood goes into a surreal freestyle rap.

Then, Harrison sweeps backstage and pulls Jefferson, Patterson, Brown and Cotton out front. The young women dance in a line, while Cotton blows a trumpet solo with Harrison holding the mic inches away from the horn to get the best sound. Durham is pulled onstage with her fiddle, and the group, lead by Andrews, breaks into hip-hop.

As the music finally winds down, Bill Taylor and the interns huddle in an interlocked circle, arms around each other. The circle breaks up and everyone begins playfully posing for pictures.

During a set break at the Orange Peel show, trumpeter Jefferson talks about how she was brought up to appreciate music of all kinds -- her mother, after all, is a music teacher -- but bluegrass remained foreign. At the beginning of the week, Kimberly wasn't sure she'd ever get used to the new sound. "We just had to try and wrap our brains around the whole bluegrass thing at first -- just listen to it and let it seep in and try to feel comfortable with it," she says. "Once I started to feel comfortable, though, I just jumped right in."

Indeed. Her trumpet solo on "John Henry Was a Steel Drivin' Man" at the previous evening's Thibodaux Jones concert brought down the house. "It's hard to explain how I feel about bluegrass now," she continues. "It's just like with any type of music -- it's just a feeling that you can't express in words. I will definitely incorporate bluegrass into some stuff I do, because this whole experience was to learn and to take your music and blend it with something new. I believe if everyone had the capability to listen to bluegrass and had access to it, they really would like it and take a shine to it like we did."

TIP director Taylor knows these young musicians inside-out after mentoring and cajoling them throughout the school year, but he says he's never experienced anything quite like this trip. "I think getting out of their comfort zone in New Orleans gave them a chance to start fresh," he says. "Also, there was so much support from everybody -- Asheville folks, musicians, everybody that was involved.

"I noticed Woody (Wood) kept calling them Œartists,'" he says. "And they did develop into young artists during the course of the week. A lot of the kids have never had the feeling that people were really there to support them. It made all the difference. Now when I walk in the dorm, I hear horns and guitars. The kids are constantly practicing. It definitely wasn't that way in the beginning.

"Growing up on streets of New Orleans, you're presented with a style of music that's very powerful," Taylor says. "Here in the mountains, there's equally powerful music. And the students were able to adapt and thrive in a world superficially different than their own. They really rose to the occasion. They could have freaked out and frozen up. Instead, just the opposite happened."

Early Saturday afternoon, Koederitz and Brown lounge on twin sofas in the Warren Wilson College dorm. Ballard, Marino, Simmons and Peebles' mom, Pat, play cards at the dining room table. Joey Peebles wanders back and forth from his room to the living room. Jefferson stumbles in, obviously roused from a deep sleep. Hemard is still sleeping.

Most of the interns name last night's BlueBrass Project concert as the high point of the week -- above their own Thursday night concert, even. Marino says that he came to North Carolina "thinking bluegrass was just nothing, but now I like it, especially the blueBRASS part."

Brown aims to turn her folks onto bluegrass. And Cotton believes he has a new appreciation for music. "The biggest thing I've learned about this is to always be open to different types of music, not just one type, and always be willing to try new stuff," he says. "If I'd just heard bluegrass recorded and not been introduced to it the way I have, I probably wouldn't like it as much as I do."

But maybe the most salient lesson learned was by Jefferson: "I've learned that music is definitely universal and for everybody -- the jazz people who came and played the bluegrass and the bluegrass people who people came and played the jazz -- we have so much in common." As the conversation winds down, Marino and Ballard pull out Ballard's video camera. It seems they taped a post-concert performance of sorts last night during a late-night Waffle House breakfast. In the clip, a rather startled but appreciative waitress claps along while the interns tap out a rhythm on buckets. Soon Alex gets down on his mouth harp, with voices rising in unison in a stellar version of "Lil' Liza Jane." &127;

click to enlarge Bluegrass fiddler Kaitlin Durham (right) explains the - dobro to New Orleans clarinetist Nakeisha Brown. "I - guess it's not that much more difficult than jazz, but it - just seems like it is," Brown says of bluegrass music. "It's - really fast." - JODI FORD
  • Jodi Ford
  • Bluegrass fiddler Kaitlin Durham (right) explains the dobro to New Orleans clarinetist Nakeisha Brown. "I guess it's not that much more difficult than jazz, but it just seems like it is," Brown says of bluegrass music. "It's really fast."
click to enlarge Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and funk keyboardist Bernie - Worrell hang out backstage at the second show of the - week at the Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club. - JODI FORD
  • Jodi Ford
  • Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell hang out backstage at the second show of the week at the Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
click to enlarge Legendary bluegrass musician Vassar Clements performs - with New Orleans clarinetist Leslie Patterson. - JODI FORD
  • Jodi Ford
  • Legendary bluegrass musician Vassar Clements performs with New Orleans clarinetist Leslie Patterson.
click to enlarge New Orleanians Jay Marino (far right, on guitar), - clarinetist Leslie Patterson and trumpeter Chris Cotton - mix with bluegrass musicians Brian Chauncy (mandolin) - and Mark Hixon (banjo). - JODI FORD
  • Jodi Ford
  • New Orleanians Jay Marino (far right, on guitar), clarinetist Leslie Patterson and trumpeter Chris Cotton mix with bluegrass musicians Brian Chauncy (mandolin) and Mark Hixon (banjo).
click to enlarge Bluegrass fiddler Kaitlin Durham trades notes with New - Orleans trumpet player Kimberly Jefferson. "I've learned - that music is definitely universal and for everybody," - Jefferson says of her experience in Asheville. "We have so - much in common." - JODI FORD
  • Jodi Ford
  • Bluegrass fiddler Kaitlin Durham trades notes with New Orleans trumpet player Kimberly Jefferson. "I've learned that music is definitely universal and for everybody," Jefferson says of her experience in Asheville. "We have so much in common."
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