If you didn't look at the track title on the Treme Brass Band's demo CD, you'd assume it was party music: jaunty tuba gets a jump on a buoyant melody filled in with trombone, trumpet and sax. The swaying rhythm is hand-clappin', foot-stompin', old-time New Orleans jazz -- the sound of jubilation, people dancing in the streets, and shiny bead necklaces flying into grasping hands. Even the vocals sound upbeat, until you visualize the lyrics: "Here comes that muddy water, here comes that water now."
The song is called "Katrina Levee Blues," and it's a two-minute slice of life for a beloved Big Easy band living in the Valley -- for now, at least. The eight members, who range in age from 27 to 73, reunited here after Hurricane Katrina scattered them across several states, among shelters and relatives' homes. A friend wrote the tune based on the story of trombonist Eddie King (who recently moved back East; the group is continuing as a seven-piece), and the band recorded it just a few weeks ago at a private home studio in Chandler.
That muddy water took everything from King. "Katrina Levee Blues" is about losing a home, going hungry, witnessing devastation -- and still marching on. It's humbling to hear this kind of determination, especially the way it's delivered ("Ain't no flood gonna keep me down, we're gonna all rebuild this town"). Treme Brass Band has earned the right to play world-weary, down-and-out blues, but instead sticks to the sunny, uplifting traditional sounds that have made the New Orleans music scene so famous.
Bandleader Benny Jones Sr. wouldn't have it any other way. "I tell you, when New Orleans gets back on the map, everyone will come out to see the music," he says. The 62-year-old founded the Treme Brass Band 30 years ago, and also was a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Jones comes from a musical family -- his father and brother were drummers -- and he's been making music since age 14, when he started banging on pots and pans around the house. Five generations of Jones' family have come from the Treme District (pronounced "tre-may"), the area that many historians consider to be the birthplace of jazz. Louis Armstrong Park is there, and the French Quarter is just a few blocks away.
Over lunch at 98 South, the cozy Chandler wine bar where the Treme Brass Band has been playing Saturday nights for the past month, Jones talks about his long journey after the hurricane hit. He left New Orleans just in time -- on August 28, the day before the levee broke. While his older daughter had packed things up from the house and left town, he stayed behind to board up the windows. They met up on the highway to Baton Rouge, and then went to stay with Jones' granddaughter in Lafayette. Other relatives showed up, too -- and 18 people crammed into a small room didn't please the landlord, so they soon left for Dallas, to stay with Jones' younger daughter for a few weeks.
Jones came to the Valley after talking to trumpet player Mervin Campbell, who fled the storm with his fiancée and 3-day-old son, winding up in Tempe with relatives. Together they made a lot of calls to track down King, Anthony Bennett (bass drum), Jeffrey Hill (tuba), Edward Boh Paris Sr. (trombone), Elliott W. Callier (sax), and Fredrick Sheppard (sax).
Bart Salzman, director of the Sun Lakes Big Band, heard about them from a fellow member of Jazz in AZ, and decided to help. He hired a friend to pick them all up from several states and drive them to Chandler, where a hotel offered them three free nights. The Valley Presbyterian Church adopted Campbell's family and Hill's family, providing a year's housing and utilities. However, for the six other members, who came here alone, no sponsors showed up to help out.
Salzman personally rented two condos for them and helped them get instruments. As one of the three founders of the Jazz Refugee Project, he's also been trying to raise money to support the band's school music clinics. There's help on a national level from the Jazz Foundation of America, which has committed to giving the Treme band two school gigs a month, but the musicians have to make their way back to New Orleans first. For now, it's still a struggle to make ends meet. "In New Orleans, music is an attraction, but here, it's been hard to even get a weekly thing going," says Salzman.
Campbell performs as "Kid Merv," and plays with his own group of four to five guys, but he says it's been hard to get the "good jobs" because he doesn't have an agent here. (Although he did get a really cool job in November, when Lincoln Center and the State Department invited him to be part of an eight-piece brass band that traveled to places in Africa and the Middle East, including Senegal, Morocco, Kuwait and Egypt.) So far, he's been relying on word of mouth to play parties and private events. "I like Arizona. I would like to start my life here, if I can afford it," he says.
Back home, these guys would live and breathe music, and work was plentiful. Jones proudly talks about how his band used to play four to five gigs a week (and when they were really busy, sometimes several in one night). The Treme Brass Band has an accomplished lineup -- Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and the Neville Brothers are just a few of the legends that some of the members have performed with over the years -- and along with a long-running Friday night set at Dinah's Bar & Grill, the group would perform regularly at carnivals, parades, jazz funerals, convention events, and on tour dates around the world.
People in Arizona have been really nice, Jones says, and he'd consider staying here for a while if he had the work. He has a granddaughter who lives in Chandler, and they talk often. But it seems like Jones really misses New Orleans when he reminisces about the parades. He's well-known for organizing eight- or 15-piece brass bands for parades sponsored by such community groups as the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and the Young Men's Olympian Social Aid & Pleasure Club. All of the musicians would wear sharp black suits, white shirts and band hats, and Jones would lead the way for a four-hour parade. Thousands of people would come out to cheer them on.
The memory seems to keep him going as he deals with more basic problems, like transportation, coming up with rent, and continuing to pay the mortgage on his water-damaged house, where shingles blew off the roof, walls started caving in and the furniture was ruined. He says people are already going back to the neighborhood, and he plans on returning as well.
"It may take a while, but it'll bounce back," he says.
Don't be surprised if the rebirth of New Orleans has a great soundtrack.
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