September 2008

New Orleans’ Treme Brass Band: Crowded House

Everybody knows everybody at the Candle Light Lounge, the Wednesday night headquarters of the Treme Brass Band. When the group strikes up at the small, down-home New Orleans bar, located in the heart of the Treme neighborhood, it often looks more like an orchestra than a brass band. Sometimes as many as 15 musicians swell its ranks, with old friends and eager young musicians stopping by to sit in.

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Demian Roberts

New Orleans' Treme Brass Band

Benny Jones Sr. and Lionel Batiste are more than simply the leader and assistant leader of the Treme Brass Band. They stand at the core of the New Orleans brass band community and historically and spiritually represent the neighborhood from which the group takes its moniker. Jones, the mild-mannered snare-man, and Batiste, the ever-jovial bass drummer and vocalist known affectionately by all as Uncle Lionel, grew up in the musically rich Treme. Since childhood they’ve been active in the area’s diverse goings-on: jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure club parades and Mardi Gras Indian and Black Carnival activities.

Their unique backgrounds enrich the music with two essential elements: a sense of tradition and a sense of fun as experienced on the Treme Brass Band’s latest album, New Orleans Music! (Mardi Gras). “You’re hearing history,” Jones offers of the rhythms and flavors on the disc’s classic tunes such as “Bugle Boy March” and the rarely performed instrumental “Sing On.”

Batiste, 75, says one of his favorite things about playing with the Treme is the band’s repertoire. “We play songs that remind me of when I was a young boy,” he explains, mentioning selections like the CD’s “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Caldonia.” He remembers hearing his father and other neighborhood musicians, including Jones’ father, drummer Chester Jones, playing them. “I also liked dancing to them too and seeing the older people and how they were enjoying themselves.”

The Treme is the go-to band when folks want to honor a musician or loved one with a traditional jazz funeral. It can be guaranteed that every member will show up with the required white shirt, black tie and pants and hat. The hip-hop, funk-infused brass band style of the next generation doesn’t come into play at these occasions.

“It’s really important to play dirges and hymns at a jazz funeral,” says Jones, who was an original member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and played with Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen’s Chosen Few before forming the Treme in the early 1990s. When it’s time to hit the streets or perform at one of the band’s many private functions or club dates, the Treme is up to playing in the hot style as demonstrated on two selections from the album, a revisit to a fan fave, “Gimme My Money Back,” and the modern R&B groove of “Tuba Fats.”

“When we’re on the streets we play that party music,” Jones confirms. “We bring it all. We mix the music up because you’ve got old people and young people. We relate to both parties.”

Folks from 8 to 80 respond accordingly, especially when Batiste is temporarily freed from his bass drum duties and hits the dance floor to have some fun with the ladies or kick in a second line. “I enjoy what I’m doing, just dance the night way,” says Batiste, adding that when he steps off a bandstand he’s actually acting as a grand marshal whose job is to get people dancing. “I’m not a flirt,” he says with an ever-present twinkle in his eye. “I’m just an entertainer.”

“He brings a great spirit because he’ll bring all kinds of rhythms,” says Jones of his partner. “You have to keep up with him. You have to be on top of the game to stand beside him. He makes you work,” he adds, crediting Batiste as one of the reasons for the Treme Brass Band’s internationally notoriety. “He’ll start a parade all by himself.”

“Music is something that causes the body to vibrate,” responds Batiste, who praises Jones for providing that “old beat” that’s not too loud on his aptly tuned snare. “So if you get to moving like that, you’re going to get up and dance, and if you can’t dance you’re going to try like hell.”

Tradition in the New Orleans jazz world also means passing on the knowledge and the culture. Young musicians often get their start sitting in with the Treme, and novices have benefited from the group’s regular Saturday morning appearances at a children’s program presented by the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park. It can draw as many as 20 young people. “Sometimes there are so many kids on the bandstand that it looks like us senior citizens have to stand on the outside,” says Jones, whose greatest joy is to make audiences, and especially kids, happy.

Just like the neighborhood from which it bloomed, the Treme Brass Band is welcoming. It is of the spirit of the people and remains functional in the life of the New Orleans community.

“It’s music that you dance to,” says Batiste. “It’s music that has meaning to it. When people get to know it, that’s it.”

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