When Herbert McCarver IV was a kid, his father used to sneak into the living room at night to listen to jazz after everyone had fallen asleep. Much to the dismay of his mother, his father would sometimes pull out his drum set and play along with the tracks. McCarver – lured by the sounds coming through his bedroom walls – would join his old man, just watching, a young boy in awe.
“I thought, wow, this is something I really want to do,” recalls McCarver. “It was amazing.”
He would get his wish. McCarver’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all played jazz in New Orleans, and today he is a stalwart defender of the city’s traditional music.
“My brother started off on trombone. He wants to be a rapper now. My cousin touched the drums a little bit in high school, but none of them stayed in the music world,” McCarver says. “It’s really all on me now.”
This year, McCarver’s band the Young PinStripe Brass Band will play at New Orleans’ legendary Jazz Fest. They’re one of more than ten bands of young, local musicians on the lineup, but what differentiates them, says McCarver, is their emphasis on the city’s classic tunes. The Young PinStripes won’t just be playing the hip-hop inspired jams and funky tuba lines that have become the default sound for New Orleans’ newest generation of brass bands. They’ll be playing the songs that have been passed down in the city for generations, like “Li’l Liza Jane,” which was first published in 1916, and “Bourbon Street Parade.”
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These tunes – which have historically accompanied weddings and funerals – often come with a uniform (a pressed white shirt, black pants, and a band cap) and require a level of technical proficiency McCarver says keeps the city generating some of the best local musicians in the country. McCarver says learning these songs means a musician cares: it means they care about playing their instrument properly, preserving an experience visitors expect to have when they come to New Orleans, and making sure they’re going to be able to accompany formal occasions in which a modern sound is not always appropriate. He’s not sure, though, how much this all matters to his peers.
“When I was coming up, the bands still had that traditional vibe. They would do funk and then they would hit the tradition,” says McCarver. “Everybody now is just straight funk, all the young cats on the street. We’re still that band that’s doing both. No matter what.”
These two brass band genres represented at the fest – the traditional and the contemporary – might just seem like different musical experiences to the passive listener. But for some musicians in New Orleans, they signal something much larger: respect for or divergence from the sounds which served as the backdrop for dignified – and spiritual – brass band parades for generations.
The evolution of these sounds has been the subject of much debate since at least the ’60s, when young horn players started incorporating R&B into their music. But Derrick Tabb, drummer of Rebirth Brass Band, says that this time it’s different. He believes Hurricane Katrina created a gap in historical knowledge among the latest generation of local musicians. When dozens of new, young horn players popped up on street corners in the years following the storm, they mostly were looking to make some extra cash emulating the hip-hop brass-band sound he and others made popular in the ’90s without taking the time to learn how the sound evolved.
“You have a big gap where kids are not understanding and not really wanting to know their past and understand the traditional music that went on,” Tabb says. “The music has suffered a lot.”
McCarver, thirty, says dedication is the antidote to this gap, something which he learned at a young age from his father. He takes special care to follow through on commitments and show up on time, qualities he says can’t be taken for granted on the local music scene. When answering questions about his band, he speaks slowly, intentionally, with gentle eyes about his desire to make his dad proud and his love of New Orleans. He’s got a youthful, heart-shaped face, a full, short stature, and a happy-go-lucky attitude that make him seem ten years younger than he is – and somehow fit perfectly with the shape and playful nature of the tuba. The most competitive he gets is on Sundays at the city’s “second line” parades, when he frantically shakes his legs and dances on his toes, sly moves he also says he inherited from his old man.
McCarver used to play on the street when he got back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he “fell out of love” with the scene. There were too many players, he said, who weren’t serious about the music. “I might go out there on the corner just to show ’em this is what a tuba player is supposed to sound like,” said McCarver. “I don’t know whatchu playin’.”
He grew up – like his father, and Louis Armstrong, and countless other jazz legends –
learning the city’s traditions and songs in public spaces. He fondly recalls sitting next to the beloved, late Tuba Fats when he was only four or five years old in Jackson Square, hoping to pick up Tuba’s rhythms via osmosis. Before McCarver was allowed to play in second line parades, he’d keep up with the musicians by dancing behind them with one hand in his dad’s pocket.
Now, the Young PinStripes play their own second lines weaving seamlessly between genres depending upon the occasion. A video of the group from last year could have been taken fifty years ago. It shows eight young musicians (three trumpets, a trombone, a saxophone, a tuba, a bass drum, and a snare) playing “Avalon” – a jazz standard written in 1920 – as they walk in two rows at a calm, even tempo.
They wear the same outfits McCarver’s father’s band – the Original PinStripe Brass Band – wore in the ’60s: short-sleeved white collared shirts, black and white pinstriped ties, and black dress pants.
The trumpets in the band play “Avalon’s” recognizably peppy melody while the other horns fill in with neat, complimentary riffs. Then, the trombone comes in for a jazz solo and the band wraps up by playing through the melody one last time. Next up on their set list: “When The Saints Go Marching In” – famously recorded by Louis Armstrong and a kind of unofficial New Orleans anthem – which they perform with the same, predictable structure: melody, solo, melody.
But then, unexpectedly, they take off their hats and throw on YPS t-shirts like a live, reenactment of the brass band evolution. They play the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” and when the sax player solos with less rigidity, some of the guys dance and encourage him with a few “ohs!”
The YPS never makes it to the ’90s brass band sound that day. But just a few blocks away, young local musicians were likely offering this experience to tourists. For the last few years, a rotating crew of horn players and drummers have posted up every afternoon in the historic Jackson Square. They’re not in any particular brass band – it’s more of an open jam. They blow their horns as loud as possible and show off their dance moves. The booming sousaphone, or small tuba, maintains a funky bass line that repeats over and over like the riffs in old-school hip-hop. These riffs last as long as ten minutes, only breaking for the musicians to chant and clap in an unspoken request for the crowd to dance.
Ben Jaffe, creative director of Preservation Hall, offers an alternate interpretation of what these musicians are doing. Tradition is not, he argues, about one particular kind of music played in a particular kind of way, but about combining an inherited sound with cues from popular music. According to this definition, all the young players in the city are preserving New Orleans’ music, regardless of how they interpret it.
Matt Sakakeeny, Tulane University ethnomusicologist, agrees. And he warns against fueling the narrative that New Orleans traditions are at risk of disappearing. They’re “alive and healthy,” he said, and there will be, as there has been in every generation, dedicated musicians who perpetuate them.
McCarver has already made this a part of his life’s mission. He’s a band director at Sophie B. Wright Charter School, a high school in uptown New Orleans where he hopes to mentor the musicians coming up underneath him. He adores it, but he also takes it seriously.
One of his students – who calls him Mr. Herbert – recently told him he wants to learn traditional music more than funk. He laughed recalling his surprise. “That just put the halt to that right there,” McCarver said. “I’m like, ‘Whatchu know about tradition?’” It’s hard work, McCarver told his student. “You have to know your stuff, you have to play it correctly and dress correctly.”
“I think I can do that,” replied his student.
“Don’t think,” McCarver said. “You have to.”