Hi, everyone, and welcome to Donna's! We do brass band jazz, New Orleans style jazz, and even some straight-ahead. What's that? What's the difference, you ask? The differences can be quite subtle at times but let's start with the fact that brass bands are marching bands and so have to be mobile. Now, don't go mixing up John Philip Sousa with New Orleans style brass band JAZZ! No offense to Mr. Sousa, I used to play his music in school and so do the musicians here but the similarity ends there. New Orleans Brass Jazz is mostly a swinging, raucous, funky "in your face" street jazz that makes you want to dance around and jump up and down. Down here we have a saying that describes it best,"WE ROLLIN'!!"
Brass jazz is very much alive and well and is the thread that holds the fabric of New Orleans traditional culture together. Brass Bands, such as Treme', Algiers, and New Birth, are involved in the colorful, rocking Social and Pleasure Club Parades that are held every Sunday in one neighborhood or another (You WON'T find them in the French Quarter except for the three that start across the street from me in front of the Armstrong Arch, or have Donna's as a stop--(maybe you will get lucky and be here when that happens.) They are also heavily involved in private parties all across the city and as you know, the brass bands are really the type of music people associate with New Orleans. That's because Brass Bands are always asked to play for special events by the city and by the numerous conventioneers who flock to our unique city. In addition to all that activity, the brass bands keep the tradition of the jazz funeral alive (is that an oxymoron?!). A big YES to all the folks who ask if we REALLY have jazz funerals here. And, no, you do not have to be a musician to have one. Anyone who wants to hire the band can have one. Mostly though, jazz funerals are for those who have participated in the culture as a musician, a "second-liner", a Mardi Gras Indian, or just as a member of the neighborhood who enjoys all of the above. Interestingly enough, brass bands have played jazz funerals in other parts of country because the person may have been a native New Orleanian or a person who simply loved New Orleans and participated in our customs when they were here.
Brass bands also have an instrument configuration that is different from the other two types of jazz that is played at DONNA'S. Brass has a separate bass drummer and snare drummer (can't carry a set drum down the street, now can you?)and the tuba or sousaphone is the bass line and completes the rhythm section along with percussion, especially in the streets because other folks join in with their tambourines, etc. Yes, there is a difference in a sousaphone and a tuba although we often call both the "tuba". A tuba is actually held in the arms and can get even heavier than the sousaphone (is that possible? :) on a long march through the streets (our Social and Pleasure Club parades are 4 hours long and sometimes as much as 8 miles!) So, back to Mr. Sousa who realized this years ago and invented the sousaphone (go figure) which is basically a tuba that wraps around your body so that your body supports the weight. Clever, huh?
Now, when jazz began sometimes before the turn of the century, musicians like Buddy Bolden and others would put together a brass band for the street parades but would use an upright bass and set drums for indoor gigs. Many musicians contributed their original songs to this jazz gumbo influenced by African and Carribean songs and drumming, traditional brass which at that time was more continental, hymns, and even opera rifts. So now, we have Traditional Jazz which both brass bands and bands who use the string bass and set drums play. These are songs that most people who follow New Orleans jazz can recognize and even sing unlike the younger brass bands who write originals that have a lot of funk and even rap in them. Of course, you can learn them if you want to and these songs are now "out there" being played by brass bands from Madison,WI (Mama Digdown's Brass Band) to Osaka, Japan (The Black Bottom Brass Band) who are also adding to the mix by writing their own originals which the bands down here are starting to play as well. Whew!! The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are mostly identified as starting this new wave of brass jazz and thus responsible for this long dissertation (hear me, Gregory, Roger,and the rest of you guys!)
Modern New Orleans jazz is harder to describe but LeRoy Jones, a fantasic trumpet player from here, is the recognized master of this genre. Leroy plays at Donna's every Monday night when he is not out entertaining lucky people in other parts of the world. Once again, a subtle difference in traditional jazz and this style. Many of the songs are traditional in the words but may have different arrangements which is a "no-no" to diehard traditionalists--see what I mean. Also, a lot of swing jazz standards are included in this genre, originals are accepted and encouraged (Leroy writes some great songs), and we even wander into the Bebop realm with songs like "Green Dolphin Street". The point is, the melody is always recognizable and nobody goes very far out on their own with a solo; music is hot and swingin' and imminently danceable. Modern NO jazz is generally played with the piano, set drums, and upright bass as the rhythm section and the trumpet, trombone, and/or sax as the front line. To those who know jazz, a New Orleans musician who is schooled in this genre is instantly recognizable as being from New Orleans--one doesn't have to see a face, just hear the horn! Maybe its the fog rolling off the Mississippi River or the gas lamps that still burn outside many French Quarter houses or maybe the eerie clopping of horses hooves in the still of the early 3 am morning but New Orleans music has a sound all its own--an intangible mood setting quality that is found nowhere else and still best enjoyed in the little "hole-in-the-wall" neighborhood clubs like Donna's. Straight-ahead jazz is the stuff of Miles Davis, Coltrane, Charley Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy, (I could go on and on with the greats in this genre but you get the idea). This, too, is usually played with the piano, string bass, and set drums with the trumpet, trombone, or sax. This is the jazz-style reigning supreme in most other cities so it is only natural that New Orleans musicians want to play this too. What is different in many cases is that a particular musician may start out in the brass band genre and then branch out into bebop. Steve Walker, a young man of great talent has done just that. As an example, he started playing his trombone in Donna's when he was only in the 10th grade as a member of the Treme Brass Band and still plays with them. However, he is a graduate of NOCCA, our performing arts school here and is now studying with Ellis Marsalis at UNO. Steve holds down the Wednesday nights at Donna's and is developing quite a following. I have watched his playing mature over the years and now I tell everyone he is the man to watch because he will be famous one day. Musicians recognize his attention to detail and his ability to play complex rifts and so rush over after their own gigs to sit in and jam with him. Artists like Delfeayo Marsalis and Wes Anderson encourage and support Steve when they are in town by sitting in as well. That's why we call his gig 'Steve Walker and Friends"--we never know who else might pop in for a few songs! Donna's is the little "Mom and Pop" jazz venue that all music lovers are looking for where musicians, not only in New Orleans, but all over the world feel free to bring their "ax" and sit in with the locals.
I always feel a little sad when out-of-town visitors only discover us the last day of the visit. I can read the expression that says, "if we had only known" because this is the "real" New Orleans, the one that people who have never been here picture in their minds--hot jazz--overhead fans faintly stirring the air, "Mom" behind the bar and "Pop" bringing out seemingly endless platters of delicious food with exotic names like jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etoufee, and of course, the best BBQ in New Orleans-- Musicians pausing long enough to do a little 'second-line' strut with the locals and visitiors--everybody picking the brains of the musicians about their music-- Charlie (the "Pop" here) spinning tales of Chicago music halls and studios when the blues and jazz greats worked for $5 or $7dollars a night when they were just starting--Donna (the "Mom" in this duo) explaining the musicians and New Orleans Indian photos on the wall- calling the people in the pictures by name--locals telling the out-of-towners and the "out-of town-regulars' telling the new folks about the "Second-line" on Sunday or the jazz funeral taking place in the "hood" or their favorite festival in some local park no outsider ever hears of. This is Donna's, where you learn all the good stuff, can actually ask a question (or directions!) and get an answer and never have to worry about safety or whether someone is going treat you right--if you come once--You'll be back!
Donna's has been featured in several documentaries, here and in Japan, has been featured or mentioned in countless magazines, guidebooks, and newspaper articles, and, along with the Hot 8 Brass band is the subject of a full-length documentary to be released soon as well as a part in a just -filmed Discovery documentary on New Orleans.
Donna's has its own record label called "Rampart Records" and has just released two CDs--"Kick Some Brass" by the Michael Foster Project and "Slippery Seven" by Mama Digdown's Brass Band. Our next recording will feature A.J. Breaux, singing country, and the session is currently scheduled for the end of May. Stay tuned to the website for further details on the documentaries and recordings.
Donna's Bar & Grill