Brass Bands in the Big Easy

New Orleans' French Quarter has long been alive with jazz, blues, and now brass

NEW ORLEANS rhythm and blues artist Ernie K-Doe once mused: "I'm not sure, but I'm almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans."

No where in the Big Easy does this theory ring more true than in the French Quarter. Day or night it's hard to meander the narrow streets of the lively 90-square-block area without hearing the sultry sounds of a saxophone or the rousing notes of a brass band. Jazz, blues, gospel, rock, honky-tonk, cajun, and zydeco pour out from every caf, club, and doorstep, the rhythms mingling like the wafting aromas of gumbo and jambalaya.

One of the most significant developments occurring on the New Orleans music scene is the renaissance of brass bands, which serve as a magnet for young kids, particularly African-Americans, who want to play music but can't afford to attend conservatories. The bands, which perform at parades, funerals, and clubs, blend their own streetwise version of jazz, gospel, rap, and rhythm and blues.

"The health of the brass band in New Orleans is almost like a barometer of the health of the music scene in general," says Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University.

Music has always been woven into every fabric of community life here. Jazz made some of its most significant advances in New Orleans, thanks to pioneers such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet.

Today jazz is still alive and well, though many musicians who start here move to New York or Los Angeles to make it big. But music is still thriving in other ways: Drummers make pilgrimages here just to soak up the city's African-Caribbean rhythms and street musicians have been an institution for more than a century.

"The city has long been an incubator for music," says Jason Berry, co-author of "Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II."

The love affair with music was fostered by the French, Spanish, and African cultures that settled the flat land along the Mississippi River in the 1700s. The city spawned a history of families who played music, made fiddles, and repaired instruments. That tradition is still deeply rooted and explains why so many young musicians keep appearing, Mr. Berry says.

The new brass bands, along with all the other music that filters from city clubs and streets, is an economic boon to the Crescent City. Visitor spending due to music has a total impact of nearly $600 million, roughly 20 percent of total annual visitor spending.

Some joke that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, set to kick off this weekend, used to feature more musicians than audience members when it started in 1970. Now, more than 420,000 people come to hear local and national jazz luminaries.

The tourists who come for Jazz Fest also help fill the worn-leather instrument boxes of the city's street musicians with dollar bills. They play under the lacy ironwork that wraps around balconies of French Quarter houses or beneath the street lamps on Bourbon Street and Jackson Square.

It's not a lucrative way of living. Torrence Bowie, a native who wails on his saxophone along the Mississippi River for hours every day, makes about $500 a month. As tugboats ply by, Mr. Bowie explains how he's been at this full time since he lost his government job two years ago.

"My real pay is what I get out of seeing people enjoying the music," says Bowie, dressed sharply in black with black-framed sunglasses and a straw-colored hat. "One time a big burly dude with overalls asked me to play 'Sitting at the Dock of the Bay.' I did and he started crying. It was the song he and his buddy played in Vietnam. When I touch people like that, it makes my day."

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