The consistently excellent Neighborhood Story Project will celebrate the release of its newest book, Talk that Music Talk: Passing on Brass Band Music in New Orleans the Traditional Way, with a party from 7 – 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 17, at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Ave.). The book, which documents the ways in which traditional New Orleans music has been and continues to be passed down from generation to generation, is the product of research and interviews conducted by Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Rachel Breunlin. It is a thorough, expansive work, yet utterly readable and enjoyable, illustrated by droves of wonderful historic photographs. Though Barnes and Breunlin—a veteran park ranger at New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and co-director of the Neighborhood Story Project, respectively—brought the book together, its creation was truly a collaborative process that involved the voices, memories, documents, and care of multiple generations and communities of New Orleanians who keep the music moving.
The party, which is not to be missed, will feature music by Tremé Brass Band, New Wave Brass Band, Original Royal Players, Storyville Stompers, New Orleans Young Traditional Brass Band, and All Around Brass Band with the Black Men of Labor Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The event is free and open to the public.
Here, we’ve posted an excerpt from the chapter “Organizing Music in New Orleans: Life Histories of Social Justice, Art, and Community-Based Education,” featuring an interview by Barnes of Jerome Smith, longtime educator, activist, director of the Tremé Community Center, and all-around pillar of the city.
All images are from the book.
Bruce: When I first began working at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and started thinking about music education in the city, musicians and community activists were constantly directing me to Jerome “Big Duck” Smith. For more than 60 years, he has been a cultural investor. He created a curriculum for understanding how music, street culture, and social justice are connected in New Orleans, and then taught it by example. One of the co-founders of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a nonviolent direct action civil rights organization that helped dismantle Jim Crow segregation in the American South, he took the prin- ciples of civil rights organizing into Tambourine and Fan, a community-based organization in the Sixth and Seventh Wards of New Orleans.
Through Tambourine and Fan, Jerome helped to create the Bucketman Social Aid and Pleasure Club and an annual parade called Super Sunday that brought the young people into the street with brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians. In preparation for the parades, children learned that the music of people like Louis Armstrong came out of similar neighbor- hoods. When Louis traveled the world as the United States’ Ambassador of Jazz, and people asked him about his music, he always told the stories of growing up in New Orleans, and the people and institutions who helped him become an icon.
Introduction: Where You Hear Music
Jerome: I’ll ask kids, “Where you first hear music?” They’ll say, “On the radio!” “In the choir!” I say, “No. That ain’t the truth. You know where you hear music at? I n your mama’s womb. You hear her heartbeat. A nd then you come attuned to your own creation.”
Some of us come out there and can hold onto it, but everybody comes with it. Some places help you hold onto it easier than others. Some kids are lucky to grow up in New Orleans around music—they are fortunate enough to be in situations where they can hear it, and then see it celebrated. Other kids have to seek the music out. If you want it, you can come from anywhere. If you love something, you can find it.
When I was growing up in New Orleans, the streets were so swollen with the music. You had the ragman with his cowbell buying old rags. There was the lady coming around with the pralines. You had to deal with the lottery man, selling the gigs like 4-11-44. There were the produce peddlers. Hobo Gable would come through with his wagon singing, and I used to work for Fred Johnson’s father with Tom, the mule. He was one of the top peddlers. We used to have some fun on that wagon because he could rhyme for days. They had certain streets he would come down. It would be mostly Italian ladies, and he knew how to give it to them:
Watermelon, watermelon, red to the rind. Come here pretty lady ain’t nothing sweeter than mine!
That was his magic. His magic wasn’t his produce. The magic was him. He’d sing about the okra and potatoes. It wasn’t like they were buying, it was like he was bringing them gifts because of the way he would handle the music.
And then you’d be passing by the jukeboxes in the clubs, and on Sundays, before Indian practice, there would be a band—a piece of horn, a half a drum— before all the tambourines. Pork Chops and Kidney Stew would be on the corner tap dancing before they went into the French Quarter. And you had all the conversations on the street.
The saying of “good morning” and “good evening” is New Orleans music. That is to say, everyone is an instrument. Their voices enter into your creativity as an artist. Part of Louis Armstrong’s music is the way he said, “Good evening, everybody!!!” These greetings mean that you care for the other. That’s what I teach with these youngsters—recognize the humanity of the other. That’s a healthy thing. It has to do with a decency of spirit and it’s reflected in the song of saying, “good morning” and “good evening.”
When I think about brass band music in New Orleans, I think of how the music was tied into all these other sounds of the neighborhoods, and how it was part of community rituals. We can call it traditional, but what we are dealing with is sacred sounds. I would say it “is the is.” Danny Barker often talked about “the root music.” When you say “root,” you can identify with a tree. It is anchored and can spread.
For many people in New Orleans, and then all over the world, the music is a synonym for life-giving. As a teacher, someone who wants to pass it on to the next generation, you have to find ways to hold the spirit of where it came into existence. It came from this city, which had a different social fabric than the rest of the South—the rest of America. From its inception, black people used the streets and the music they created to express themselves. They invented something that prevented us from committing suicide.
Holding on to tradition means holding onto the rituals that gave the whole thing its life. The power in ritual is passing on inheritances from generation to generation. A branch can come off here, come off there. But it “is the is” of sounds. That’s why the dirges are so beautiful. It’s the sound, but also the rituals connected to it. I remember going to hear John Coltrane and Rahsaan Ali in New York, and all of a sudden, I jumped up and almost started second lining. After the set, I said, “There was something in there that brought me back to home.”
Rahsaan said, “Where are you from?”
I said, “I’m from New Orleans.” He said, “That’s it. Coltrane’s been experimenting with traditional jazz.”
In my youth, I heard those songs in jazz funerals that would pass by Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. Once in awhile, my friends and I would roll out of the first-floor window and follow the processions. Coltrane was dealing with the bottom of this spiritual music in New Orleans, too. He was fascinated by how musicians here kept time without using numbers. They could do an emotional count. Coltrane’s experimentation shows that the branches can spread out when they have strong roots. It is the first step of what is and what will be.
Something Bigger Than You
In the 1990s, a group of children in Tremé had their little parade, grabbing anything they could for instru- ments. They called themselves the Box Band because the boxes were the dominant instruments. The kids were doing it for play because they saw the music all around. They grew up in a place where if somebody hit the beat with the bass drum, the next sound they heard would be the shutters. The shutters on the front windows of houses would start opening, and the youngest to the oldest would be looking out for the band.
That’s the kind of thing that made it so easy to teach the kids more. We saw it all the time with Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ desire to participate. He saw the power of the music, and the way it brought people together. Sometimes when he would be out on Dumaine Street with the Box Band, Uncle Lionel Batiste would come around there, take one of them boxes, and play with them. Herlin Riley sat on the block and said, “Give me a box, too.” Guess what the little bass drummer put around his wrist? A piece of wire because Uncle Lionel wore that watch.
If I caught one of the kids on the street, I’d say, “What you got? Where’s that mouthpiece at?” If they have it, I give them a few dollars. And if they don’t, I punch them in the chest. But, you know, that’s a traditional thing, too. There were men who would do similar things with us. They’d put something on your mind. They would applaud you and punish you. They wanted you to feel connected to something bigger than you.
My whole life I’ve watched the connections between New Orleans and jazz musicians considered to be the best in the world. In New York, I went to see Herlin’s uncle, Melvin Lastie, play with Willie Bobo. Miles Davis was on the corner. A man comes up with a group from overseas. “I want to introduce you to the greatest trumpet player of all time.” And Miles cuss a lot, I won’t cuss now. He reprimanded him, “No, you mother— I’m not the greatest, but I’m not the worst. There ain’t no such thing as the greatest. Pops done did it all, man. Pops done did it all.” Oh, that was something to hear because you get caught up in that whole public thing. He could have shaken the man’s hand and went on with it, but he checked that. He was humble, and honored Louis Armstrong and the music of New Orleans. Serious jazz musicians will tell you they honor the source.
One time the saxophone player Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was blind from an early age, was following our second line parade for the Bucketmen. He was balancing himself between the people. And then for a few blocks he put his head down close to the ground. I was hitting the band marshal to check on him because I thought he was going to fall. He was listening to the sounds of the dance steps. Each step is a sound, and it’s just like your fingerprint. When you had all those people dancing, with all these different sounds, he couldn’t stay away from it. He was hip to that. And then he’d yell some- times. He had a free spirit, that rascal.
I got introduced to the drums early at Craig Elementary. I was always doing something with my hands on the desk, tapping out a rhythm. My teacher said, “I’m going to put you on the bass drum.” Bass drum!? I wanted something pretty! She said, “No, you gonna play the bass drum.”
At the time, I had serious impediments to speech. I felt my speech was like a car wreck, and I didn’t think I would be able to participate in the theatrical produc- tion of the year. But my teacher had a plan. She gave me a word, and I had to pronounce the word on the beat of the bass drum. It started building up my confidence. The sound of the drum protected me from being criticized if I stumbled with my speech. Ultimately, when she noticed I was consistently pronouncing my words with some clarity, she gave me a word outside of the beat, and put that word into the script. It gave me a means of participation with putting on that play.
My father, Walter Smith, was a seaman, and he traveled the world. He used to tell me, “Anywhere man lives, they are going to tell stories about themselves. Shakespeare and all them fellas, why do they get all the promotion?” You know, that don’t mean writers like Shakespeare aren’t giving something you can’t appreciate. But you can’t appreciate it if your own sense of self is going to be denied. There ain’t no fairness there.
Every night when my mama, Leona JuLuke, would come from work, she read to me about black performers like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. She used to tell me, “ You are black and you are poor, but you will not be dirty or dumb. And they are not better than you.” She read me all kinds of poems, but I had to pay a price. I had to make up poems, too. My favorite was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “ The Village Blacksmith.” I thought of it when I went to the International Long- shoreman’s Union Local 1419’s Labor Day parade each year. The men put on overalls and had all this music. I looked down the line and saw all these hands, all grotesque and swollen up big from that hard work:
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
I was impressed with that and developed an emotional attachment. It was the poem that allowed me to see more.