Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival
Central to the musical traditions of New Orleans are the African American brass bands that play for traditional funerals and street parades. Among the most beloved of these is the Tremé Brass Band from the venerable and storied Tremé neighborhood. The group is led by a New Orleans institution, drummer Benny Jones, Sr., who has been parading for nearly 60 years.
The origins of the Cresent City’s brass bands are linked to 19th-century military bands. New Orleans musicians took these instruments and created a new, looser, less regimented music, combining African rhythms and polyphony with European forms to produce the earliest jazz. The rise of benevolent societies (later known as “social aid and pleasure clubs”) that assisted dues-paying members with funeral expenses and the like helped to maintain and support brass band activites.
Benny Jones, Sr. was a founding member of the seminal Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and formed the Tremé Brass Band a quarter century ago. Today “The Tremé” are known internationally through their recordings and tours, as well as their role in Spike Lee’s Katrina documentary, When the Levee Breaks. Despite this fame, the band remains firmly rooted in the New Orleans community, playing regularly for social aid and pleasure club parades, Mardi Gras Indian gatherings, jazz funerals, and packed houses at local institutions like the Candlelight Lounge.
Hurricane Katrina had a devastating effect on the lives of the Tremé band members, as it did with most all of New Orleans’s working musicians. They had to evacuate the city with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and several lost their homes and all of their possessions. They were scattered all over the country, as far away as Arizona. What happened next is indicative of the importance of the Tremé Brass Band to the city: longtime fans organized a support network that raised money to bring the group back to New Orleans, buy new instruments for them, and find them work in the schools teaching jazz workshops. In 2006, the Tremé Brass Band’s contributions also received national recognition. The band was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.
As with most of New Orleans’s brass bands, the membership in Tremé is fluid, a mixture of old masters with the ‘rat-tat-tat’ born in their blood and young innovators adding more contemporary sounds. Tremé regularly appears at a children’s program presented by New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, which, to Jones’s delight, can draw as many as 20 novices sitting in with the band. “Sometimes there are so many kids on the bandstand that it looks like us senior citizens have to stand on the outside,” says Jones.
Whatever the setting, the constant is Tremé’s desire to keep the music alive. We “still need somebody to do the traditional music so we can pass that to the younger generation,” says Jones, “Somebody got to hold that spot down.”