Thursday, October 04, 2007

New Orleans--The Culture War Writ Plain

In a way, this is what the whole blog is about....

Treme musicians to plead innocent

Two brothers driven to uphold tradition of nightly jazz parades
Thursday, October 04, 2007
By Katy Reckdahl

Two Treme musicians will plead innocent in municipal court today to disturbing the peace and parading without a permit, charges they say should never have been filed during their traditional send-off for a fellow musician.

Derrick Tabb, 32, and his brother Glen David Andrews, 27, were pulled away in handcuffs from a Monday night parade for their friend, tuba player Kerwin James, who died last week and will be buried Saturday.

New Orleans Police Department officers, who responded to a complaint about the parade with nearly 20 police cars, said they cited Tabb and Andrews because the two continued to play when the other 25 musicians had stopped. Spectators deny that, saying that maybe the two men stood out because of their height: snare drummer Tabb is 6-feet-4-inches tall and Andrews is an inch shorter but looks taller when he extends his trombone slide into the air.

In many ways, the Police Department could not have nabbed two musicians more reflective of the neighborhood. Part of a large extended musical family, the brothers were raised in Treme by their mother Vana Acker. And the men are determined to give today's children a Treme-style cultural education. "If you're around music, like we were in the 6th Ward, you're going to be a musician," Andrews said.

As a boy, Tabb sat daily on a neighbor's stoop, listening to drummer Harry Nance while he practiced. The two brothers walked to the French Quarter to stand outside clubs and listen to live jazz. They rode bikes along the Mississippi River to hear the riverboats' bands.

Andrews' teaching is often informal; he regularly brings a nephew or godchild with him to gigs with his band, The Lazy Six. Tabb has spent the past six months carefully forming a nonprofit music school called Roots of Music. He is applying for grants, but he hopes the school will serve up to 200 children during after-school and summer hours.

"Kids can't get into school band until ninth grade," Tabb said. By then, he said, drug dealers are whispering into children's ears, showing them how they can make money. He said he's going to start children marching earlier, at 9, and keep them learning until 14, when they can join school band.

During Monday's parade, the band included three of the men's grade-school cousins. "They were crying when the squad car drove off," said Tabb, who is disturbed about what message that sent to young people aspiring to become musicians.

Still, Tabb is a diplomat, and made a point of shaking hands with every police officer after an uneventful procession Tuesday night. "Maybe we were wrong on Monday for not getting a permit, in their eyes," he said. "But, in our eyes, the police were wrong for stopping a peaceful procession."

Andrews was less compromising, as he described how officers had silenced the band as it played "I'll Fly Away," a funeral spiritual. "How am I breaking the law by lifting my voice to God, in honor of my friend?" he asked.

Musicians were following a century-old tradition, Andrews said, of playing impromptu nightly parades that begin the day a musician dies and end when he is buried. All local musicians follow this tradition to some extent, but in the Treme, it's almost law: When a musician dies, everyone plays, every night.

"We call it bringing him down," Tabb said. "You paid your dues to the community, and we're going to bring you down, with a weeklong funeral."

Still, both men welcome squad cars at these processions, for protection. But they are adamant that the tradition should continue as it always has, unfettered by bureaucracy.

"When it comes to musicians, I don't feel a dollar should go to permits," Tabb said.

Culture, change collide in Treme

Some residents balk at musicians' traditional sendoff
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
By Katy Reckdahl
Staff writer

Monday, at about 8 p.m., nearly 20 police cars swarmed to a Treme corner, breaking up a memorial procession and taking away two well-known neighborhood musicians in handcuffs.

The brothers, snare drummer Derrick Tabb and trombonist Glen David Andrews, were in a group of two dozen musicians playing a spontaneous parade for tuba player Kerwin James, who died last week of complications from a stroke he had suffered after Hurricane Katrina.

The confrontation spurred cries in the neighborhood about the over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by police, who had often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies. Still others say the incident is a sign of a greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Treme by the very history they seem to threaten.

Police say Monday's response was in part generated from unspecified complaints.

Tabb and Andrews face misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and parading without a permit. But both returned Tuesday night to the intersection of St. Philip and North Robertson streets to lead another procession for their friend.

"I got to be here," Andrews said. "Because I have to stand up for what I believe in."

Peaceful parade

Tuesday's parade was without incident. It was peacefully escorted by the New Orleans Police Department, thanks to a newly issued permit, the result of lengthy meetings Tuesday between community groups and police officials.

Funeral director Louis Charbonnet, a longtime supporter of music in Treme who also is in charge of James' Saturday funeral service, confirmed the permit came from those meetings, which he participated in. He was vague about who paid for the permit. "We've got a permit and it's paid for," he said.

Some neighbors said buying a permit was a cop-out, arguing the traditional parades should be unencumbered by the bureaucratic formalities.

"It is" a cop out, Charbonnet agreed. "But sometimes you have to do what you have to do."

As Charbonnet stood waiting for the parade to start, he emphasized that the meetings already had an effect. "Look around," he said. "Today you've got police out here protecting people. Yesterday it was harassment," he said.

Jerome Smith, who runs the Treme Community Center a block from Monday's arrest scene, said the police response was heavy-handed and culturally insensitive. He compared it to the Police Department's heavily criticized treatment of the Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph's night in 2005, which was the topic of Big Chief Tootie Montana's City Council testimony the night he collapsed and died in the council chambers.

First District Capt. Louis Colin avoided such comparisons, defending his officers' response Monday night. "If a law is being violated, we have to uphold the law," he said. But after Tuesday's meetings, he said he is determined to work with neighbors to find "long-term solutions" to this issue.

'I need to be here'

Lifelong Treme resident Beverly Curry, 65, is one who believes that permits should not be required for the neighborhood memorial parades. Despite a failing leg, Curry made it to the procession's start Tuesday night. "I need to be here, to show my support for our heritage," she said.

For a century, she said, that heritage has included impromptu second-line parades for musicians who die, "from the day they pass until the day they're put in the ground," she said. Those memorial processions still occur with regularity, without permits, as is the tradition. But, increasingly, NOPD officers have been halting them, citing complaints from neighbors and incidents of violence at similar gatherings.

In some ways, the police complaints parallel those NOPD officials raised earlier this year, as they defended the high permit fees that the department was charging New Orleans' weekly second-line parades, hosted by social aid and pleasure clubs. Ultimately, the NOPD settled that suit, assessing much lower rates to allow the clubs to parade. Club members saw the court victory as an admission by police officials that they had been insensitive to New Orleans' culture.

But Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood's historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood's architecture.

"They want to live in the Treme, but they want it for their ways of living," Curry said.

For newly arrived neighbors, Curry sometimes serves as a cultural interpreter. "I tell them, 'When someone dies in the Treme, you're going to hear a band,' " she said. But to those neighbors dismayed by the noise or the crowds that come along with those bands, Curry is stern. "I say, 'You found us doing this -- this is our way," she said.

Mourning a friend

On Monday night, about 25 of the city's top-rung brass-band musicians mourned Kerwin James the way they hope to be mourned themselves: They paraded around Treme, taking the same well-trod route that the spontaneous parades often take. They started at the corner of North Robertson and St. Philip streets, then criss-crossed through the quiet streets of old Treme, which stretches from Esplanade Avenue to Basin Street, from Rampart Street to Claiborne Avenue.

On horns and drums were James' lifelong friends, bandmates from the New Birth Brass Band and members of the Rebirth Brass Band, including James' brother, tuba player Phil Frazier. Dancing along with the band was a crowd of about 100 people, including about 30 children. At some street corners, the band stopped and played for a few minutes while fancy dancers strutted and dipped and elderly neighbors in bathrobes stepped out onto their stoops to wave and give their condolences to James' family.

Then, about 8 p.m., a squad car pulled up behind the parade, which was just yards from its ending point, back at the corner of North Robertson and St. Philip.

When a New Orleans Police Department car approaches, musicians say they never know what's ahead.

Sometimes a squad car arrives and quietly follows the parade. Other times, an officer will emerge and ask for the bandleader, then discuss the reason for the parade and the planned route. In those cases, the two parties may negotiate a different route or ending point, but the parade typically is allowed to continue.

But on Monday night, the squad car meant the parade was over. The band had just launched into the funeral hymn, "I'll Fly Away," and some musicians had tears running down their faces as they sang the lyrics: "One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away." At that point, officers used the car's intercom to tell band members that if they continued playing, they would be arrested.

Most musicians kept playing, as they walked into the parking lot. "I wasn't trying to defy police," one trombone player said. "But I was just carried by emotion."

Officers repeated their message, with little effect, so they began running into the crowd and grabbing anyone with an instrument. Some officers grabbed at mouthpieces, others tried to seize drumsticks out of hands.

James' sister, Nicole James-Francois was shocked. "There were so many police cars," she said. The scene was so peaceful and beautiful while the band was playing the hymn, she said. "Then it beaome almost something demonic, with all these officers saying, 'Don't you play.' "

Soon, 20 squad cars were lining the blocks of North Robertson between St. Philip and Dumaine streets, filling the night with red and blue flashing lights.

'A part of life'

Warren Johnson, 65, who had walked out of his door and followed the parade, said that he knew that James had died, so he wasn't surprised to see the procession. "Second lines in the Treme are a part of life that's what the Treme area is known for," he said quietly to an officer.

Sgt. Ronald Dassel, among the first ranking officer at the scene, understood Johnson's point, but said it didn't matter. "We don't change laws for neighborhoods," he said.

Oddly, one result of Tuesday's marathon meetings may be exactly that: relaxed standards for these impromptu processions, specifically to accommodate Treme's musical tradition. "Good things came out of our meetings," Colin said. But the charges against Tabb and Andrews, he said, would move forward.

At the end of the parade, Tabb walked around and thanked all the officers personally.

Kerwin James' brother, Phil Frazier, also greeted officers along the parade route. But he wasn't sure about the need for a paid permit. "I feel odd," he said, slipping his tuba off his shoulders. "Because we've never had to do it before."

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Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or (504) 826-3300.