Over the past 18 months, Alejandro de los Rios, Jonathan Bachman and Michael Seaman have traced the history of New Orleans brass band music for their film “Brass Roots.” De los Rios and Bachman, both journalists, have been taking video footage of performances and recording audio with the help of Seaman, an experienced audio engineer and producer. Through interviews with musicians, music historians and other locals, the trio has followed brass band music from its roots in jazz at the turn of the century through the renaissance in the 60s to the present scene which has incorporated aspects of funk and hip hop into the traditional jazz repertoire. I caught up with de los Rios by email on the eve of the group’s Kickstarter project, which will help fund the last bit of filming and the talents of a professional narrator for the film. Make sure to check out the film’s trailer at the bottom of this post.
(On a side note, the excellent font used in the film is Goudy Old Style, which Brass Roots chose because it was closest to old New Orleans street signs.)
Daniel: What was the first influential New Orleans brass band?
Alejandro: To frame the overall history of brass band music, we’re obliged to start with the beginnings of jazz. From all the interviews we’ve conducted we’ve learned that New Orleans brass band music today is, in many ways, still the same as it was when Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong were playing. Obviously the catalog has changed and has been expanded over time, but the basic principles of the style-skilled individual musicians coming together in ensemble rhythms and melodies-has remained the same. That being said, most of what will be covered in occurs between now and the time known as the “brass band renaissance” in the late 60s and early 70s.
It’s hard to nail down one band and call it the “first” influential brass band because there are so many and, especially when it comes to the musicianship, one could just put it all on the feet of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet and call it a day. Our documentary examines not only the influence bands had on music but also on the overall culture in New Orleans. Though people talk about the “renaissance” happening in the late 60s, older bands like Eureka and Olympia were very popular in and outside of the city. But what makes this time period significant was that you had people like Danny Barker and Doc Paulin who were actively recruiting younger musicians and getting them involved in brass band culture. It was through Barker that many of the original members of the Dirty Dozen met and it was there where they laid the groundwork for the next few decades in the genre.
Daniel: What’s the difference between trad jazz and brass music? Is there a connection between the two?
Alejandro: It’s hard to say there’s a difference between the two because in many ways brass bands’ music is a sub-genre of jazz. “Traditional” jazz, as most people know it, consists of many of the same instruments, songs and arrangements as brass bands (except now few, if any, brass bands incorporate a clarinet, and trombones have emerged in a more prominent role). Many brass bands songs were written 60 to 100 years ago, and you can hear them being played the same way today as they were back then.
The biggest difference, though, is that modern brass band music has evolved whereas bands that play traditional jazz stick to a repertoire of older rag-timey and gospel tunes. Brass bands today span a wide range of genres when they play, flowing from funk to jazz to rock and roll to hip hop all in the same set; the bands also vary dramatically from group to group, and sometimes you have one band that varies its act from show to show.
Yet as different as modern brass music sounds from traditional jazz, what the musicians are doing now is very much the same as what they were doing during traditional jazz’s heyday. Bands like Rebirth and the Soul Rebels today are borrowing from the popular culture they grew up in the same way that Louis Armstrong did. In that sense, brass band music is just the natural progression of New Orleans-style jazz.
Daniel: How does the current brass music scene in New Orleans compare to past decades?
Alejandro: From what we’ve gathered, the biggest difference between now and any other point in brass band history is the awareness of the culture by outsiders. As long as there have been Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (over 100 years), there have been second line parades, and as long as there have been second line parades, there have been brass bands that play in the street and in clubs. All the most popular bands had regular night spots where they played, generated dedicated followings and developed their talents. But back even as recently as the 1980s, the interest in the culture from people living outside of the historically black neighborhoods in New Orleans wasn’t there.
Now there’s not only all sorts of outside attention, but also outside participation; tourists and non-natives are not only going to see brass bands in concerts, but also going to the regular nightspots, second lines and jazz funerals. There’s also a greater amount of media attention that you see placed on the bands, especially since Katrina and with all the movies and TV shows being filmed constantly in New Orleans. Obviously our documentary is a part of all that, but I think if I had moved here 20 years ago, my awareness of brass band culture wouldn’t have been as strong or, if it had been, it wouldn’t have seemed as accessible as it is now. For the most part, the culture seemed to be isolated in places like the Sixth and Seventh Wards, and you had to know what you were looking for if you wanted to immerse yourself in that culture. Now Rebirth and Soul Rebels play regular Uptown shows in front of rooms packed with college kids and tourists and anyone can experience a piece of that world.
Daniel: What stage is the movie in now? When will it be finished?
Alejandro: We’ve been filming for 18 months now, and we’re confident that we’ve collected the vast majority of the footage we need. We’re hoping to be completely finished with production by September 2011. At the same time, there’s a part of me that knows that there’s a lot more to be filmed-there’s still a good number of bands that we need to film in a situation where we can also capture high quality audio. Right now, though, I’d say we’re 75% there with just a few live performances we need to coordinate and all of the post-production video editing and audio mixing.
It’s a pretty big undertaking, all things considered. Luckily we have one of the best sound engineers in the city, Michael Seaman. He’s not only put together countless albums but has also worked on feature films and knows what it takes to put together an extended project like this and mix it so it all sounds like one coherent piece of work. In terms of the video editing, Jonathan and I are taking on that load, but we’re breaking most of it up into chunks, and a lot of the shorter videos we’ve released online have elements and clips that you’ll see in the finished product. Our main goal is to bring viewers as close into the culture of New Orleans brass band music short of buying them a ticket and bringing them to a second line. For the most part, I think the work we’ve been putting together does that.
Daniel: How can people help support the Brass Roots movie?
Alejandro: Our Kickstarter donation drive begins April 1st and ends May 4th. The goal is to raise $20,000 to finish the production of this film. It sounds like a lot-because, well, it is. But when you put it in a greater context-namely that we’ve already invested at least three times that amount in time, money and labor (in that order) and it’s still a fraction of what even independent films costs-we don’t see it as being so much. That is the sum we calculated to be enough to push us through the home stretch of filming and post production. With that money we’re going to fund the rest of the live performances we have to film, trips to follow some of the bands on tour and pay for a professional narrator. (We’re in talks with a local celebrity who we think is a perfect fit, but nothing is set in stone and we don’t want to jinx it, so we won’t divulge who it is yet.)
The best part about the Kickstarter fund is that people can donate on many different levels. We have rewards packages for people who donate $1 all the way past $1000 that include Brass Roots schwag, copies of the movie and, for the biggest donors, executive producer credits in the film. We also have plans beyond just finishing the documentary and sending it to film festivals. If we’re lucky enough to get wide distribution, we want to partner with the Roots of Music so that they get a portion of the ticket sales. And no matter what happens to the film after it’s finished, we’re going to donate copies of all our raw footage and audio to local schools and museums so they can serve as a resource for anyone interested in learning about brass band music and culture.
Anyone who wants to donate can just go to Kickstarter.com and search for “Brass Roots” or they can go to www.brassrootsmovie.com or facebook.com/brassrootsmovie or follow @brassrootsmovie on Twitter and follow the links we’ve posted to our Kickstarter project site.
And just very quickly-by way of thanks-these are all the bands and individuals we’ve interviewed thus far: the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, Soul Rebels, Treme, Hot 8, Free Agents brass bands and various members associated with them (between 30-40 people all together). Also, Glen David Andrews, Leroy Jones, Jay Electronica, Mannie Fresh, Dee-1, Lolis Eric Elie, Tom Piazza, Bruce Raeburn and Matt Sakakeeny.
We’ve been in talks with and have plans to reach out to many more people on this including other writers, academics, SAPC members, bar and club owners, non-brass band musicians, the NOPD, City Hall and pretty much anyone who’s been within 50 feet of a second line until we ship out the film. Also, this story is constantly evolving as we film it and bands change members or new bands form all together, and we want our film to provide as current a view on the subject as possible, as any decent documentary should.
Lastly, I want to make a point of saying how genuinely blessed we feel to be working with such a great group of people. Every single musician we’ve interviewed has shown us incredible generosity of spirit and goodwill. One of the true treasures we’ve discovered about New Orleans brass band culture (and we’re talking the bands, SAPCs, second liners, Mardi Gras Indians, BBQ cooks and anyone else) is its ability to bring people together as a community in such a positive and joyous way. To be able to document it all-and to have a soundtrack with musical talent ranging from undeniable to otherworldly-has been a distinct honor and pleasure.