Stealing the Show

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while

What he's hoping for is that the powers-that-be in the city's infrastructure — the Greater Houston Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, the big money folks on the River Oaks gala circuit, the people who book the high-dollar spring and fall festivals — will give him a call. (Indeed, the Houston International Festival has already done so.) "I haven't got that consistent flow yet," he says, and adds that bands like his are logistically simple to book. "We have all our instruments on us," he says. "We're like a miniature version of a marching band, so we're able to set up easy and do performances in the smallest or biggest of spaces with no hassle. The music really gives the people a home feel."

Indeed. "A home feel." Houston is now home to this kind of music, just as much as New Orleans is. And this is not the first time large numbers of black Louisianans have migrated to Houston. The 20th century saw rural Creoles from southwestern Louisiana come to Houston by the thousands, bringing with them gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya and the rural music called "la-la" that would evolve here — when it fused with the blues and R&B of the locals — into zydeco.

We're at a similar cultural crossroads right now. And the pot is simmering, even though Kermit, the New Birth and dozens of other New Orleans musicians have returned home. At the Orange Show gala earlier this month, Hingle played with a version of the New Birth he slapped together through a few phone calls to various members of other brass bands living here in Houston.

New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while
photo: Daniel Kramer
New Orleans musicians blew into Houston on Katrina's winds and everything was magic for a while

And LeBlanc has done some work in the schools — "Not a plethora of things, but I would like to do more," he says. Also, the New Orleans-style jazz funeral could be starting to catch on here with the local black community. "A while back a string of funerals came along for a string of families that were from New Orleans," he says. "We got another gig out of it — the minister at one of the funerals was a man from Houston, and he liked that we knew the spiritual hymns. He took our card."

In order to play more local shows, he's thinking about training some local musicians — possibly kids from the TSU Ocean of Soul band — to fill in here for the Soul Rebels who have moved back home. "Sometimes the gigs I get don't pay enough for me to ask the guys in New Orleans to travel to Houston. But the ones who are here, like me, the bass player and the lead trumpet player — if I could find like a sax dude or a trombone player who would do the gigs with me here, that's a whole quartet or quintet right there. We could make magic, you know."

Or, much as the New Birth does at New Orleans Saints games, he would be willing to become the house band for the Houston Texans. At Saints games, the New Birth leads a parade around the stadium's concourses throughout the game, and the people fall in behind, partying along with umbrellas in hand. LeBlanc thinks Houstonians might be bewildered by something like that. "In New Orleans, they know what that is. I don't know how people would respond to that here, but it would probably be good to have it in the stadium in one spot or something."

LeBlanc just wants any Houston outlet music he can find. "I love Houston. I came here for an important part of my life — college. And the only reason I went back to New Orleans was the music and my family, so I had to go back where my roots were. But Houston should be a prime place for this music. It's a big place."

LeBlanc does not believe that Houston lacks a music scene. What it lacks, he believes, is what New Orleans has tons of — mystique. Hip-hop is fine, he says, but it's music made by people looking to get paid, first and foremost. "That's more commercial," he says. "You need some authenticity. That's what New Orleans still has on the rest of the world — the authentic mystery of music. And they support it. In some ways it's a little prostituted, but that's to the advantage of the musician, because we make a living off it. Whenever you see New Orleans, it's always 'New Orleans jazz.'"

And now it could also be Houston jazz. Maybe the Soul Rebels will be able to round out their Houston lineup with locals, and then maybe some club will make a weekly Soul Rebels gig work. Maybe they can spice up the Texans games with some second-line funk, and maybe one day there will be a New Orleans-style street parade here. Maybe the powers-that-be that market this city to tourists will have something other than "world-class" symphonies, malls and medical centers to tout — namely, fun, great music and, yes, authenticity and soul.


john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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