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Stafford Agee: Horning In With the Rebirth Brass Band

Jeff Kaliss on November 3, 2014
Stafford Agee
Stafford Agee

A musical force has been blowing through New Orleans for well over a century, surviving racism, political corruption, and the destructive forces of both Mother Nature and renegade capitalism, which followed each other through the past decade there. Aside from the spirit of survival, New Orleans, perhaps more than any other American city, has been associated with the survival of a regional traditional music. It’s called “trad jazz” there, “Dixieland” in other parts, and it evolved around the turn of the last century by brass bands taking the music training and instruments carried to Louisiana by Germans and other Europeans, and by applying syncopation and call-and-response from the African tradition, with elements of what Jelly Roll Morton termed “the Spanish tinge.” Passed down from generation to generation in parades, festivals, and clubs, as well as on recordings, trad jazz has more recently been showcased to the rest of the world in the HBO TV series Treme (see story and the associated video), as well as by touring and recording ensembles such as the Rebirth Brass Band, which will appear next Saturday at the Mezzanine, in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Rebirth trombonist Stafford Agee, 44, chatted by phone with SFCV from his New Orleans family home.


The Rebirth Brass Band came to San Francisco in 2011 to do A Night In Treme for SFJAZZ, when the TV series was in its second season. You and a whole bunch of New Orleans musicians were involved in it, and we got to interview some of them, including [trumpeter] Kermit Ruffins, who founded Rebirth. How did you feel about Treme?

We’ve got repertoire from over 31 years, I’ve been with Rebirth for 29 years, so we don’t ever have a set list. We kind of play what we feel from the audience.

I saw it as a good thing for the city, mainly a good thing for a lot of artists. We had a showcase where millions of people around the world was getting to see the different cultures of music that we have in New Orleans.

Were the scripts accurate?

I’m gonna say it was close. But I don’t think any TV show can showcase the real New Orleans. And I believe the writers would have to be part of our cultures for you to get a true idea about our cultures, instead of just a writer from somewhere else sitting down with people from New Orleans.

Were you sad to see the series come to an end last December?

Financially? Yes, I was sad to see it come to an end! [Laughs] I was the on-screen trombone sound for the main character [Antoine Batiste, played by Wendell Pierce].

We interviewed him, too. How did that collaboration work? What was Wendell like to work with?

He was a wonderful guy to work with. He doesn’t just study his craft, he would study your craft enough for him to be better. He would study the individual, as well. He didn’t want to be an actor playing a trombone, he wanted to be like a trombone player acting.

So this time around, Rebirth is touring behind your own new album, Move Your Body, on Basin Street Records. Is that where your set list at the Mezzanine will come from?

We’ve got a repertoire from over 31 years, I’ve been with Rebirth for 29 years, so we don’t ever have a set list. We kind of play what we feel from the audience. Our set list changes from night to night.

Has the repertoire changed over time?

Kinda sorta. But it’s all emotion, from deep within the band members.

How much original, how much from the tradition of trad jazz?

I think it’s like 85 percent original music. But we have some of the older stuff in there because we never want to forget where we came from. There’s other bands that come up under us, and we always want them to know that we still go back to the tradition, some of the stuff we learned growing up. Because, in order to know where something can go, you have to know where it come from.

What bands helped give you form?

One or two, like the Dirty Dozen, the Olympia Brass Band, Pinstripe Brass Band, and stuff like that.

The best teaching we can give is experience. It’s like with any NFL football team.

On the other side of time, what younger bands are looking up to you?

New Breed, and all of the younger brass bands. If we need any replacement players, we get ’em from the New Breed Brass Band.

Are any of you teaching any of them?

The best teaching we can give is experience. It’s like with any NFL football team: You learn what you learn in college, and when you get asked to come on a full team, you have to be prepared to play.

There are a number of prominent players, in various parts of jazz, including Trombone Shorty and the Marsalis brothers, who came through the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and other schools in the city. Are those schools still generating working musicians?

I think it’s on the incline right now, after a decline. There’s a lot of teachers starting to focus more on the history of music, outside of just teaching the fundamentals. I do volunteer work at Landry-Walker [College and Career Preparatory High School], and I teach the brass band there, also. So I always try to make sure they’re familiar with the older musicians. That’s been missing for a while. I asked one kid if he’d heard Dizzy Gillespie, and he didn’t even know who Dizzy Gillespie was! We were introduced to some of those oldsters when I was in school. For high school trumpeters, if they hear about Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis and don’t know who those artists are, then they’re missing some of the roots of the music.

So now trad jazz is an important part of the curriculum?

It’s starting to be. For the last four years they’ve been having Class Got Brass [produced by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation]. They give all the high schools a chance to put together a brass band, and it’s a competition; the winner gets $10,000, which goes towards buying instruments or other things for their programs. They have between 20 and 30 high schools that have put together brass bands that compete.

Do trad jazz and modern jazz coexist in the city?

For high school trumpeters, if they hear about Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis and don’t know who those artists are, then they’re missing some of the roots of the music.

Clubs in New Orleans basically book music, period. They’ll book trad jazz, contemporary brass bands — whatever genre of jazz they’re looking for. It’s all being seen at all the same clubs. It’s not really separated.

Delfeayo and Ellis Marsalis were telling me about how the music scene has moved from Bourbon Street to around Frenchman Street. What kind of change has that made for?

It made a change for the musicians, I would say, because it’s a different pay scale. On Bourbon Street, they get paid like they’re on an hourly job, and they might be there for six or eight hours. On Frenchman Street, they bring in bands, and it’s on a more professional wage scale. … It has more natural music than just cover bands.

And they’re booking locals as well as acts from elsewhere?

It’s probably a mix, but heavily weighted towards locals. You can go anywhere any night and see local artists, except for big events like Jazz Fest or Voodoo [in progress this week].

Are you doing anything outside Rebirth?

I don’t perform with other bands. But I have an instrument repair company I started, because of the lack of repair stores in New Orleans for musicians. It’s called Rebirth Instrument Repair.

Do you work only on brass?

Some woodwinds [also]. But the reason for me starting, and for volunteering in the schools, is that I see the kids marching in the bands with tape on their instruments. In the school setting, seeing instruments broken, I wasn’t liking that. Even though, back when I was in high school, we had to borrow instruments.

How did you learn repair?

I studied with Mike Corrigan, The Horn Doctor, out of Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City. After the storm [Katrina], he started coming down as his way of giving back, repairing instruments, setting up his mobile unit on a corner — for free. And he keeps coming back. He just left New Orleans yesterday.

Have Katrina or any of the other disasters put a drag on the music?

A lot of people are past all that, but it’s just a part of the memory bank. Me, I don’t believe Katrina was a disaster. I believe that it was, spiritually, a time of cleansing. In order for something to get redone better, you have to tear it down. That’s the state of New Orleans. Some just walked away from their houses, because they couldn’t afford to rebuild. I am 90 percent done, doing repairs to my mother’s house, as we speak. And I did every repair myself: gutted the house and cleaned the house out, and went back up from scratch.

What kind of trombone do you play?

I’m playing in between a King 3B and an Edwards. It’s good for longevity and a solo jazz artist.

What’s the difference between those two horns?

They’re about the same weight, but my King 3B is an older model, made in the U.S., back when Conn-Selmer had their factory in California. It’s a hundred years old! The Edwards horn is another horn made in the U.S., and not on an assembly line. It’s not mass-produced, not made in China. It’s a newer horn.

When and why would you switch from one to the other?

It’s like if you buy a new car and have this old car sitting in the garage, you just gotta take the old car out because you love it that much.

What about the older style of jazz? Is it safe in the hands of the next generation?

Talking to a lot of younger bands, I’m wanting them to be getting more into the traditional side of the brass band music, versus the contemporary part of what Rebirth does.

Your publicity says you have some rasta music on the new album.

Talking to a lot of younger bands, I’m wanting them to be getting more into the traditional side of the brass band music, versus the contemporary part of what Rebirth does.

That song was not set out to be a reggae song. It might have been Trombone Shorty who was at rehearsal with us, and that’s how we had him playing the solo on it. It was originally more of a smooth jazz thing. Everybody has their own different voice in the music; I think that’s what makes Rebirth so great, because everybody loves different genres of music. So we kind of collaborate in all those genres. The solos are our individual inputs.

The publicity also says to watch out for the lyrics in one of the tracks, “Hbns.”

[Chuckles] I don’t know how to talk about that.

Any way you want.

One second, let me go in another room, because my daughter is right here. [He relocates.] We are a band that, any phrase that is heard anywhere, we’re subject to take it and run with it. We could be jokin’ around in the dressing room, and somebody say something about hot-butt-naked-sex. And we just start singing, and before long it’s made into a song. [Chuckles again]

Out here in San Francisco, are you gonna have any of that marching up to the stage that you had with the Treme show?

Basically, we’re just gonna set up on stage and go up there and have a ball. I believe that San Francisco is just like playin’ at home. The vibes from the crowd, the venues — it’s the same feeling we get at home. San Francisco and Oakland are both some of our second homes.

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