Larger groups of musicians appearing under a shared name in different places are nothing new to jazz. It goes back at least as far as James Reese Europe’s Clef Club in the early teens. Name bands have also often toured with a core group filling out their ranks with local talent. Leaders often offer the services of everything from a duo to a full band, all carrying the same banner. There are also many commonwealth bands that split both decision making and the kitty.
The modern incarnations of these economic necessities may not be as different as they feel, even when they’ve absorbed some of the autonomous instincts of the artistic young. The Baby Soda Jazz Band in New York and The Loose Marbles in New Orleans often seem to be made up of anyone who comes along. But there is often a method behind the madness. The Berlin Syncopation Society is made up of fixed bands but they serve the same purpose of mutual promotion.
Case in point is The Secondhand Street Band in New Orleans. A collective established in 2015 they now consider themselves to have over 40 regular members from six different countries. They are culled from the traveling young who routinely pass through the Crescent City, and supported by a few permanent residents.
They started as buskers on Royal Street but now have regular gigs at a number of local clubs. They’ve even launched several tours. This June and July they played Mississippi, Tennesee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Their third trip along that route. I asked how it had gone and trombonist Adam Lessnau put it this way:
“A big contributing factor to the fun of our tour was the variety of venues and types of shows we booked: this tour included a town festival for the 4th of July, late-night bars, a BBQ joint, a shared bill with 2 other brass bands, a brewery, a swing dance night at an ice cream shop, a couple nice jazz clubs, a drag queen parade, and a couple of small-town cafes. It makes every night a bit different and helps keep the tour from feeling monotonous.”
They, of course, have a core unit, but even that evolves. I asked Adam to talk about their sound. After he checked out the paper he was concerned it might not be our bag, saying:
“We take a lot of inspiration from hot jazz, ragtime, and swing, but we’re certainly not preservationists of those styles. We also take a lot of inspiration from funk, brass band music, and other North American & world styles, and we aim to come out on the other side of the process with a unique sound of our own… I’d understand if what we do strays a bit from what y’all normally cover. ”
It’s true, on this release and in live shows, they do sometimes bring the funk, at least of that particularly New Orleanian variety. They also get playful with themes from cartoons like “Inspector Gadget”. But compared to the electric blues or guitar driven Zydecco our bands often share a stage with The Second Hand Street Band is practically the ODJB. To quote their website, which promises to deliver the goods at everything from weddings to political rallies, “Our small trad ensembles are a perfect fit for cocktail hours and cozy bars. Our larger funk outfit is often booked as a party band for nightclubs and larger event environments.” Traveling artists aren’t so different from other working musicians.
Adam says that everyone “has their own voice and role in the group, so our identity fluctuates often just based on who is around and playing actively with the group during any given season.” Their June release, JKush and the Rythm Section, features their six piece touring band from 2018 along with a guest on several tracks. The first album, by comparison, included 13 musicians with different lineups throughout.
The instrumentation on the album includes, in various combinations, clarinet, tenor sax, sousaphone, trumpet, trombone, snare and bass drums, and guitar. The album kicks off with a rollicking eight minute “Royal Garden Blues”. There are strong references to NOLA Brass Band conventions, especially towards the beginning of the track but then they descend into a long jazzy jam. “Inspector Gadget” has a funky soul vibe and they work the nuances of a great tune more than you might expect. They’re all solid musicians, but Dan Ruch stands out on both trumpet and sousaphone.
“Lulu’s Back in Town” and “That’s a Plenty” are played in a toe-tapping traditional jazz style. Cannonball Adderley and Jon Hendricks’ “Sermonette” is a great number and the highlight of the album for me, charming even with the half shouted vocals of a true street singer. Most tracks are in the 5-6 minute range, but they close with a 15 minute “Funk Medley #2”- a crowd pleasing New Orleans brass jam.
One of the things that does stand out with this group is their openness to get involved in politics. I’ll let Adam explain:
“We view street performance as a wonderful privilege, and one that carries a lot of social responsibility. We try to engage the public and use the street as a forum to create a dialogue that might otherwise not be there, often discussing current political events, distributing pamphlets or information from activist organizations, or even just delivering messages of hope and camaraderie to folks. We also make our group available to activist causes, and are passionate about donating our time to organizations that align with our values – examples include #NODAPL, Doctors Without Borders, The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Coalition, the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the Krewe of Mermoux, and the Unanimous Jury Coalition, among others.”
The band still busks regularly, but they also get booked for private gigs and have weekly quartet engagement at the Bourbon O Bar. They’ve just started a monthly residency at Siberia, a hot spot for jazz and Baltic brass. Keep up with them at http://www.secondhandstreetband.com.