The news went by almost unnoticed to many. Not even a blip on the radar screen of our celebrity-crazy culture. In a week that saw the "big news" of the passing of legendary musicians Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon, it's not surprising that few outside of New Orleans even caught the passing of Rebirth Brass Band saxophonist James Durant. But for the brass-heads the news traveled fast. For people such as myself, who schedule their New Orleans visits around Rebirth shows; who second line like idiots even when dancing to house music; for people who want their ashes scattered on the floor of the Maple Leaf, this was a shot direct to the soul. My favorite player in my favorite band of all time had disappeared from this earth just a few short months after we had celebrated his return to action.
To understand why James was so important to me, and to many Rebirth fans, you have to go back a ways, and look at the history of this incredible group. Though they were founded in 1983, and their membership has fluctuated almost from the start; Rebirth's foundation has remained the Frazier brothers; Phil on Tuba and Keith on drums. But in front of the Fraziers, a roundtable of horn and drum talent has moved through the group; always with two things in common; tremendous chops, and that exuberant, aggressive, PARTYTIME Rebirth attitude. By the time I got hip to Rebirth, in 1993 while a student in New Orleans, the band was already 10 years old, and their two most famous front men, Kermit Ruffins and Roderick Paulin had moved on to solo work. The band was still ripping; concentrating on the unbridled energy of (then) young front men Stafford Agee, Derrick Shezbie, Glen Andrews.
But Rebirth's music isn't just about power and energy. If you catch them enough, you realize that it's an intricate balance of power and sweetness; of funk AND soul; of rock AND jazz. Usually the trombones and trumpets provided the power but it was up to the saxophone to take you on the jazz trip, to get the band through the mellower moments into sweeter territory. Paulin was replaced by "Prince" a saxophonist of immense range and skill, a guy who could take you on journeys in time and space just in the breadth of one solo. But he was an enigmatic character; often moody and distant, a guy who would smoke all your weed and then walk away without so much as a thank-you. He had neither Paulin's grace, nor Ruffins showmanship.
Still, it was at this time that I caught the brass band bug. Like thousands of other people who have moved to New Orleans in the past 20 years and "discovered" the Maple Leaf, I put in a LOT of time there. Every Tuesday for my entire college senior year, I listened, watched, and eventually participated in the riot that is Rebirth. I mean this was the first music of ANY kind that I became fanatical about. I learned to dance, to smile, to sweat bullets for the sake of the nasty dancefloor electricity. I learned that race, gender, creed, and outlook end at the edge of the dance-floor. I, like many thousands of others, was REBORN funky. To this day, I credit this experience as my musical education, my internship in funk, my Masters Degree in life. Everything I have devoted my life to since then, from Djing to co-founding a funk Festival has been linked to this time-period and the Rebirth Brass Band. I left New Orleans and took them with me in my heart.
One day soon after, I caught Rebirth and James had arrived on the scene. James Durant, about 5 feet tall and half-again as wide, with a grin that lit up the room. Chops aplenty (you don't even get to sit in with Rebirth until you've proven your wares in one of the city's dozens of other stud brass bands), and like Prince and Paulin, capable of balancing the band's raucous energy with jazzy solos. But what stuck out with James was the soul, the smile, and the humor that he brought to the band. James brought a showmanship to Rebirth unseen previously outside of Kermit Ruffins. Don't get me wrong; Stafford, Derrick and the rest are showmen, they get the crowd riled up like few other horn players. But what James specialized in was getting the band through the slower moments; when the horns died out, the groove slowed down; the part of the songs where you would dance WITH your girl, instead of just gyrating next to her.
What is the difference between a "good" band and a "great one?" In my humble opinion, it's the ability to move the listener at any tempo, at any time. That's what separates the Dead from most of the jambands that have come after them; they could move you to tears even when they weren't moving your feet. And Rebirth, with James in the groove could reach points of greatness seldom seen by other brass bands, funk bands, or bands in general. Almost every show, sometime during the second or third set, the cries would go out from the ladies for "Marvin Gaye." But it wasn't Marvin they were crying out for; it was James, his sweet voice leading the audience through a feel-good sweet stretch of "Let's Get it On" or "Lovely Day" letting the band rest up for another charge. More importantly, on larger stages, James was a focal point for newcomers and fence-sitters; an easy man to enjoy watching, whether he was doing the "worm" through his band-mates' legs, leading the audience in chorus, or just smiling while someone else took a solo.
James has been on the "DL" quite a bit in the past few years. A variety of personal issues have caused him to miss time with the group; and he was indeed missed. Byron "Flea" Bernard filled in ably and aptly, with tremendous chops and skill; and the band was always a raging mix of jazz, funk, soul and rock. But there was always a little something missing when James wasn't there; like the cherry on the sundae, or the sausages in the crawfish boil; James was Rebirth's "somethin' extra," it's "lagniappe." You could see it in the slower moments of shows on bigger stages, when James' sweet voice was replaced by different raps and skits by the other front men; it worked, but it didn't connect as well with the fence-sitters. Still, Rebirth is a group of survivors, "jazz warriors" in many ways, whose members have overcome much more than mere lineup changes. Phil and Keith and company seemed to compensate for James' loss by making the band even hotter, and tighter. The jams, dance steps, everything got more intense. And for Rebirth fans, life went on, cause we loved this band and its music more than any one player.
And then this summer, we Rebirth nuts got a most welcome and pleasant surprise. We welcomed them back to San Francisco for the North Beach Jazz Fest, full of anticipation of another Rebirth blow out. And then the news started to spread back-stage; "James is here... James is here... he's back? He's Back!" I swear, you have never seen people so amped and jubilant BEFORE a show as the North Beach staff was, simply because the cherry was back in the sundae. And Rebirth did not disappoint; both that afternoon in the sunshine of Washington Square Park with James' signature sound of "Lovely Day" and that night at the Great American Music Hall with "Let's get it on." The added intensity and tightness was still there, but the focal point was back as well, the dance steps, the "worm" the voice and most of all, the smile, ear to ear with a bunch of gold in the middle. James was back with Rebirth and all was right in the world.
The news came last week like a thunderbolt. James had died in his sleep of some kind of seizure, only hours after playing Rebirth's weekly Tuesday night Maple Leaf throw-down. Little news, if any was available, only a small notice on Nola.com and the Rebirth message board. But this didn't surprise me much, as James was a man whose talents went mostly unnoticed to most of those not familiar with the band. He was humble often to a fault, and he often seemed the last to believe the positive effect that he had on the world. And so, while the "Man in Black" and Warren Zevon were celebrated in song and image on every channel; James' passing went mostly unnoticed to those outside of the Crescent City. But not to me, and not to the thousands of others who have been "reborn in the power of the horns." To Rebirth fans, James' loss is a tragedy only mitigated by the fact that we had one last chance to see him before he left us. It was almost like a swan song. Fly on James Durant. We will remember you the best way we know how, by listening, smiling, and dancing our asses off; throwing enough love out to the heavens so that some day you too will be reborn in power of the horns.
My prayers, and those of many others go out to Rebirth Brass Band, and James Durant's family; especially his children who will miss this most lovable of people more than any of us will know.
JamBase | Bay Area
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