The band talks about Trombone Shorty, Frenchmen Street, and how a brass band plays without horns before performing on the Jazz and Heritage Stage this Saturday.
New Breed Brass Band is not so new anymore. Formed in 2013 from the remnants of The Baby Boyz Brass Band, it has been quietly climbing in the New Orleans brass ranks for some time now. On Saturday, the band will be at Jazz Fest, taking the Jazz & Heritage Stage at 2:45.
From the start, New Breed has been blessed with guidance from New Orleans’ patron saint, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, whose nephew Jenard plays snare drum for the band. Andrews has helped New Breed define its sound and differentiate itself from the pack of young New Orleans brass bands, a pack that seems to grow larger by the minute. He recognized the group’s potential from the start, and encouraged the members to move away from the proliferation of Rebirth cover bands flooding the scene. The result is impressive—a tight, multicultural sound that borrows from influences far removed from the New Orleans tradition.
Jenard isn’t the only member of the band with deep roots in the New Orleans musical community. Trombonist Caleb Windsay is the grandson of legendary vocalist Topsy Chapman, and saxophonist Douane Maples has ties to the Picoults, an old family of woodwind players. Aurélien Barnes, who plays the trumpet and is New Breed’s youngest member, is the son of Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, frontman and accordionist of the zydeco group Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots.
“I think we’re doing alright,” Barnes says. “I think we could be doing better. For me, not a lot has changed because I’ve been in school the whole time, and I’ve been on this grind. I’m hoping that next year we’ll be able to make a big change.”
Barnes joined New Breed in late 2013, around the same time he enrolled at Tulane. For the past four years, he’s been living a double life, studying by day and playing shows by night. The band plays every Wednesday at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street, a gig it has held down almost since its beginning. Barnes appreciates the security of the routine, but the repetitiveness can be frustrating.
“Sometimes it gets hard,” he says. “Especially on Frenchmen Street, it feels like you’re working. We try to get through that gig now. But at the same time, we always have to have fun. There’s always somebody clowning.”
The Blue Nile is one of the better gigs on Frenchmen, and Barnes acknowledges that. It’s the direction of Frenchmen as a whole that he takes issue with.
“We’ve all heard the talks about what Frenchmen is becoming, and musicians complaining about not getting paid enough, and it’s all true,” he says. “I think we need to move past that. It’s such a tourist vibe now." The constant presence of tourists on Frenchmen does not always translate into more cash for performers. Many of the bars and clubs there, Blue Nile included, don’t charge a cover, and tips are inconsistent.
Luckily, New Breed has had opportunities to showcase its sound outside the Frenchmen bubble. In 2014, New Breed played at Exhibit Be, headlined by Erykah Badu. In 2015, it played at Bonnaroo, and last year it took the stage with Common at Essence Festival. It’s been a somewhat quiet 2017 so far, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been working.
“I think the songs have changed a lot, Barnes says. “We don’t play them at all like how they were originally made. And then we’re making new music at the same time.” For a brass band, songs are not fully fleshed out entities set down on paper. They are templates, constantly tweaked and improved upon each time they are played. New Breed, nearing their four-year mark, has had some serious time to mess around with its core set, and it sounds better than ever.
“For the most part, we’re learning,” Barnes says. “We’re going on the road a lot and we’re learning how that works. The road is a hard place." New Breed found this out the hard way. On the third day of a month-long West Coast tour, their van was robbed and all their instruments stolen. Still, they never missed a show.
“We started a GoFundMe and asked people to send us instruments,” Barnes remembers. “We had to play one gig—a hippy festival up in the mountains somewhere—with no horns at all. I played keyboard, Caleb played bass, Jenard played the drum set. Desmond, our tuba player, played percussion. Douane didn’t have an instrument, so he was the frontman. It went fine. I mean, we were just jamming for the most part.”
This type of resilience is essential for any band that’s serious about making it, especially here in New Orleans. Playing at Jazz Fest, Barnes contends, is also essential.
“It’s kind of like a landmark every year,” he says. “You can gauge where you’re at by seeing first if you get into Jazz Fest, and then also what stage you’re at and when you’re performing. It’s like the ultimate judge.”