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Treme Brass Band: Living And Breathing New Orleans

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Treme Brass Band: Living And Breathing New Orleans

Treme Brass Band: Living And Breathing New Orleans

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Treme Brass Band lives and breathes New Orleans traditions, often leading jazz funerals and second line street parades. They've been featured on the HBO series of the same name and in Spike Lee's documentaries about Hurricane Katrina. The musicians survived the storm, and five years later NPR's Mandalit del Barco caught up with them in their neighborhood.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Late Wednesday nights you can find the Treme Brass Band jamming in a down-home joint called the Candlelight Lounge. It's packed with new TV fans and local loyals like 37-year-old Buster Andrews.

Mr. BUSTER ANDREWS: Well, they fabulous, they wonderful. Old Treme neighborhood band. Been around here all my life.

DEL BARCO: A funky mix of both seasoned and younger musicians rotate in and out of the band, led by 67-year-old snare drummer Benny Jones, Sr. His band has helped to keep alive a New Orleans brass band tradition that began at the turn of the last century.

Mr. BENNY JONES, SR. (Treme Brass Band): Still need somebody to do the traditional music, so we can pass that tradition down to the younger generation. So somebody got to hold that spot down.

DEL BARCO: That includes leading dancers through the streets to mourn and celebrate. Jones says the band stays rooted in the customs of an earlier era, such as a dress code.

Mr. JONES: My band always had the black pants, the white shirt, ties, coats. You know, that's a New Orleans tradition. What the older bands did years ago.

DEL BARCO: The Treme Brass Band has been a training ground for other musicians, like Sam Williams, who now has his own funk band.

Mr. SAM WILLIAMS (Musician): If you haven't played with the Treme, you don't know what's up yet.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: Central to the band's popularity is the stylish bass drummer, Lionel Paul Batiste, Sr. Uncle Lionel, as he's known, is never without his dark sunglasses and a hat, two-tone shoes, gold watch and rings on his fingers.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hey, uncle's the man, you know what I'm saying? I'm just real cool, daddy, you know what I'm saying? And he gets all the women. Just a cool cat.

LIONEL PAUL BATISTE, SR. (Treme Brass Band): I keeps myself up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: The debonair 78-year-old's iconic image now looms over Times Square on a banner for Spike Lee's latest New Orleans documentary.

Mr. BATISTE: It makes me feel real proud I'm getting my recognition. I always try to put a smile on someone's face.

DEL BARCO: Batiste grew up dancing on Bourbon Street and playing in kazoo bands. But he's most famous for keeping time with his ragtag, upright bass drum with a cymbal on top. Earlier this year, he lost that drum during a parade.

Mr. BATISTE: And the fellow that was supposed to be watching it, he was half drunk.

DEL BARCO: Immediately, the word went out over radio station WWOZ, says DJ George Ingmire.

Mr. GEORGE INGMIRE (Radio DJ): When it was stolen, we took it very seriously. There were a lot of people very upset about it. When you think of New Orleans, one of the things you think of is that bass drum as a symbol. Forget the steaming bowl of gumbo or the beignets, the clich�s - it's Lionel's drum that makes it. Hitting it with a coat, you know, a wire coat hanger, you know, thats - that's New Orleans to me.

DEL BARCO: Uncle Lionel's drum turned up within a day, and another drum actually saved his life during Hurricane Katrina.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Here comes that muddy water, here comes that water now. Here comes that muddy water, here comes that water now. (unintelligible), levees break, here comes that water now. Got not house or food to eat. Here comes that water now.

Mr. BATISTE: Yeah, I was watching the water rise and drinking my (unintelligible) liquor.

DEL BARCO: You didn't want to leave that(ph).

Mr. BATISTE: I didn't want to leave it, but I'm kind of glad I did. Yeah, I'm glad I did.

DEL BARCO: True to form, Uncle Lionel evacuated in style.

Mr. BATISTE: I used my bass drum and turned it flat and just paddled my feet.

DEL BARCO: Like a life raft.

Mr. BATISTE: Yeah, and of course I had my liquor on top there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Your drum saved you.

Mr. BATISTE: Oh yeah, it saved me. It's still in good condition, still be taking that beating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BATISTE: Still taking that beating.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, I'll fly away, whoa, I'll fly away. Oh, when I die, hallelujah (unintelligible) I'll fly away.

DEL BARCO: The musicians lost friends and family, their homes and instruments to the storm. Some lived for a time in Red Cross shelters and toxic FEMA trailers or with relatives scattered across the country. But many managed to work their way back, and when Spike Lee made his documentary "When the Levees Broke," he featured the Treme Brass Band leading a jazz funeral for Hurricane Katrina.

Clarinet player Michael White says they paraded and danced through the devastated Lower 9th Ward.

Mr. MICHAEL WHITE (Treme Brass Band): You could feel when we were going through the streets that there were still undiscovered bodies and remains in some of the houses. And the spirit was very strong that day. I remember the silence of the loss of people was very powerful and very haunting.

DEL BARCO: Five years after Katrina, most of the Treme Brass Band members are back in New Orleans. But Benny Jones isn't finished rebuilding his flooded house, and he says despite their newfound TV fame, the jazz musicians are still struggling.

Mr. JONES: Were making money just to survive, you know, pay our bills, keep food on the table for our children, our grandkids. You know, we surviving pretty good. Ain't like we rich, you know, but - what I'm thinking about, trying going to Oprah Winfreys show, take the band over there, perform over there, and tell them we need money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BATISTE: Ain't that right.

Mr. JONES: Amen on amen.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: That's what I'm talking about, baby. That's what I'm talking about. The Treme Brass Band, y'all. This here is a little bit (unintelligible) back, y'all. Let's do it.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can see video and listen to songs by the Treme Brass Band at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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