Imagine New Orleans without jazz funerals or Sunday afternoon social aid and pleasure club parades. No lively brass bands leading second lines to celebrate special events. Picture Preservation Hall closing down for a lack of traditional jazz musicians to fill the chairs of those who passed. Under this sad proposition, we might not even have the French Quarter Festival, which kicks off this weekend.
In fact, this is how trumpeters Leroy Jones and Gregg Stafford envision New Orleans today if the late banjoist/guitarist Danny Barker hadn't established the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band. In 1971, Barker assembled a group of neighborhood kids and introduced them to New Orleans' traditional music. Jones and Stafford, who are now nationally recognized jazz artists, were members of the youthful ensemble that became an incubator for musicians prepared to perpetuate the city's musical heritage.
"There probably wouldn't be a brass band scene like there is today," speculates Jones, who became Barker's first recruit into the kids' band. "That was the rekindling of it within young musicians."
"I think the music may have died if it wasn't for Mr. Barker creating the interest in people like myself," agrees Stafford. "I think about that all the time. Because we were the last linkage to the second generation of (traditional jazz) musicians who were born in the early 1900s."
When the Fairview's Reverend Andrew Darby approached Barker about starting up a church band, the veteran musician's first stop was a nearby house where he remembered hearing the sound of a young trumpeter practicing. He immediately enlisted 13-year-old Leroy Jones in the project, and soon the garage on St. Denis Street was transformed into the band's weekly practice spot. Jones became the leader of the group that primarily was composed of neighborhood kids. The ensemble also featured the Barbarin brothers -- bass drummer Charles and snare drummer, now-trombonist Lucien -- who were Barker's relatives.
Even at its beginnings, it was a sizable ensemble of musicians ranging in age from 11 to 18, most of whom had some musical experience in their school bands. It wasn't long before the membership swelled to about 30.
Stafford, who at age 17 was already playing trumpet with Uptown groups including the Gibson, Doc Paulin's and the Reliance brass bands, had already seen the Fairview band roll at a second-line parade. "There was Leroy just blowin' up a storm," remembers Stafford. "And I was kind of fascinated to see such a young group of kids." Soon thereafter, the late trombonist Worthia Thomas introduced Stafford to Barker, who invited the trumpeter to join the band.
At the ensemble's rehearsals, Stafford remembers Barker spinning records so the kids could learn the tunes. "It wasn't formal training because Mr. Barker had this notion that he didn't want to put any music in front of anybody," says Stafford, explaining that Barker believed it might discourage some youngsters. Jones recalls musicians like saxophonist Earl Turbinton stopping by the practices to offer some pointers, and folks like Preservation Hall founder Alan Jaffe donating instruments.
The Fairview band played its first gig at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, then held in Congo Square. By around 1972, future New Orleans jazz veterans like drummer Herlin Riley, clarinetist Joe Torregano and Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen took part in the band's increasingly numerous engagements. More influential musicians would later join Fairview's ranks, including trumpeter Gregory Davis, saxophonist Kevin Harris and the Joseph brothers, tuba player Kirk Joseph and trombonist Charles Lucien, who launched the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Besides church events, Barker started booking the Fairview band for the weekly Sunday afternoon second-line parades presented by social aid and pleasure clubs like the Jolly Bunch and the Scene Boosters. It also was the subject of European and Japanese documentaries.
"We were the band, we were as popular as ReBirth and all those bands today, and there were no other young bands like us," says Jones. "We used to give the Olympia (brass band) hell."
Surprisingly, the Fairview's growing popularity became its downfall. The Fairview was increasingly hired for parades that the veteran union musicians once played. According to Jones, Barker started getting flack from the musicians' union, which accused him of exploiting the kids for monetary gains. "The (union) board told Mr. Barker he had to stop participating (with Fairview) or he was going to be fined," explains Stafford.
Barker kept his cool until he cut the Fairview band loose in 1974, and helped Jones form the Hurricane Brass Band. Barker later became active, though in a lesser capacity, with a second youthful Fairview group that included clarinetist Michael White, trumpeter Merv Campbell and Edward "Boh" Paris, among others. This ensemble was active for several years before dissolving, marking the end of Fairview's brief run.
But almost a quarter of a century later, the rich legacy of the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band lives on. The lineup of the French Quarter Festival is filled with Fairview alumni, and the sounds of traditional music. Danny Barker would be proud.