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Pinstripes & Brass Bands: Fathers and Sons of New Orleans Jazz [Louisiana Life]

Young brass bands such as the Rebirth have updated the traditional sound. Yet the Original Pinstripe Brass Band reaches into the past to the sounds of groups like the Olympia Brass Band for their influence. Ready to bring the brass band sound to the next generation is Trombone Shorty blowing the horn.

Since the dawn of jazz a century ago, New Orleans has had a continuing line of brass bands playing for parades, funerals and myriad events. Illustrious artists of yesteryear came up "playing the streets" - King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, George Lewis, among many - in such bands as Eureka, Onward, and Tuxedo.

Running through this tradition is lineage of musical families, a topic few sociologists have touched, yet one quite at odds with the social ills of splintered black families. The 19th century impetus behind these musical kin lines is open to debate; but for most of them, music melded artistic love with livelihood as an economic means, transcending racial barriers.

The heartbeat of the family tradition lies in some two dozen brass bands, a tradition teeming with varied combinations of siblings, cousins, even fathers and sons.

Herbert McCarver III, 34, is a snare drummer with a booming baritone who leads The Original Pinstripe Brass Band, one of the youngest groups. After Pinstripe played at a convention for AIDS researchers recently, McCarver offered a cameo of the band's familiar lines: "Let's see. We have Dwight Miller, an original member of Pinstripe, who plays alto sax. His son Brice is now our lead trumpeter, " McCarver chuckles, "His daddy used to bring Brice along' cause he couldn't get a babysitter."

Pinstripe's new CD, "Your Last Chance to Dance" (Orleans Music), has just hit the stores. McCarver has a stack of CDs by his side, as people at the convention form a line to buy them.

"My dad played drums and I picked it up from him," McCarver explains. "He didn't have a name band, but we had two drum sets at home and I worked through other instruments - saxophone, trombone - and stuck with the drums."

Of Pinstripe's personnel, he says: "Then we've got George Johnson on trumpet. His father George Johnson Sr. played..."

Reaching into the Past

Making change for a lady in the CD line, McCarver calls out to his colleagues, "Who'd George Johnson's daddy play with?"

"Onward Brass Band," comes the reply. McCarver nods. The lady thanks him and departs, CD in hand. "Then we've got Ricky Paulin on clarinet - he's one of Doc Paulin's sons. Most of us started out playing with Doc's band back in '75, '76" says McCarver. "I founded Pinstripe back in 1977."

Pinstripe's devotion to traditional New Orleans jazz is something of an anomaly among young brass bands. Hot commercial groups like the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth, with major recording labels and international tours, advance an eclectic style of charming rhythms, with diverse sounds from bebop to rap.

Today's stars of New Orleans music - Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, and Harry Connick Jr. - are also products of the family tradition, but didn't cut their teeth in brass band parades. Patriarch Ellis Marsalis is a music professor. The four Nevilles had an uncle who led a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. And Harry Connick Sr., who may be the only district attorney who sings in nightclubs, oversaw his son's piano lessons and public performances starting when he was 10.

Pinstripe's music reaches into the past, fashioning up-tempo currents of gospel and blues, undulating syncopations on tuba and drums, and a splashy front line of horns. McCarver's booming voice is straight out of two church choirs in which he sings.

"We're playing the sound that our ancestors played, from Louis Armstrong, the old jazz ragtime bands and the groups that still exist like Olympia Brass Band," says Dwight Miller, the tenor saxophonist. "The old men are going out so someone's got to keep it going."

At 44, Dwight Miller is one of the oldest Pinstripe members. An uncle introduced him to music. He started out playing in a rhythm and blues group, but in the mid-'70s joined the Doc Paulin Traditional Brass Band. Through the Paulin band moved a legion of musicians who have since carved out reputations of their own.

Doc Paulin has been married 44 years and has 13 children. Six of his sons play jazz professionally. When Herbert McCarver and Dwight Miller played for Doc Paulin, the old man had enough musicians in reserve to field two brass bands when necessary. He also showed preference to his own kids when an engagement called for fewer personnel.

Marching in Hahnville

"I worked with Doc three, maybe four years," continues Dwight Miller. "Things were a little shaky with Doc. His children were under me, some of them my kid's age and saying 'this is my daddy's band' and all that " - when a gig called for fewer players "I wasn't comfortable in the second band. One day I met Herbert and them at Audubon Park. We said let's get together and get our own thing going."

Doc Paulin has led a Mother's Day parade for many years in Hahnville, a rural town 30 miles upriver from New Orleans. Now semi-retired, he declined interview requests.

Roderick Paulin, 26, a tenor saxophonist with the Rebirth Brass Band, says that his father "is around 83 but he won't say for sure... Just being around him was a lesson. He showed me lots of things, and playing the funerals and parades with him, that was inspiring." Roderick's first gig was in the sixth grade - a church parade on Washington (Avenue) and LaSalle... He'd always have rehearsals in the house."

Herbert McCarver continues: "Doc Paulin always told me, when you come to a gig, always have your clothes and tie ready: black pants, white shirt, black tie, and the cap. Doc would send you home if you didn't come dressed right... Doc taught me a lot of old tunes I'd never heard in my life, like 'Bye, Bye Blackbird' and 'Over in the Glory Land' and "South Rampart Street Parade.'"

Just as the Paulin Band spun off members into other groups, Brice Miller (Dwight's son, age 20) launched the Junior Pinstripe Brass Band, drawing in high school students.

One day, Herbert McCarver reckons, his son may join the Junior Pinstripes. "They see me rehearsing, they wanna play. I got one 6 and one 8, on piano and drums; the one on piano, he's also on the trumpet and he likes the tuba. It's like something you're born with. It's already in your genes. It's there for you... like you're carrying on from fathers to son, and they may carry it on again. We have a lot of McCarvers playing music."

---Jason Berry

Co-author of "Up From the Cradle of Jazz"


Originally published in Louisiana Life [Autumn 1994], pg. 33-34


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