Benny Jones founded the Treme Brass Band in 1993. Elliot W. Callier, a.k.a. Stackman, and the incomparable Lionel Baptist are the only founding members of The Treme Brass Band who remain with the band today. Stackman who can give Lionel a run for his money as a raconteur, chose not to talk with this reporter and said, “I get paid to tell stories.” If you have the money or he is in the mood, he has got some good ones.
Stackman wouldn’t say how he got his nickname. Lionel Baptist, who is many people’s uncle in spirit only, said, “Everybody who plays music in Treme got an alias.”
Benny comes from a musical family and his father Milton was a noted drummer. Benny has been involved in music all of his life. His most memorable moment was playing the Hollywood Bowl in the 1980s with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who were at the peak of their popularity. Benny said, “I had some serious flutterings in my stomach looking out over that crowd, but I played anyway. I hadn’t ever been nervous at a crowd since then.”
Benny feels that leading a brass band requires as much business acumen as it does musical ability. It is indisputable that Benny’s ability to “handle up on the business” has made the Treme Brass band one of the most successful brass bands in the city. Benny feels his social connections in the sixth ward help his band’s bookings. Some of those connections were forged in New Orleans most prominent social and pleasure clubs. He said, “In the fifties, I belonged to the Sixth Ward Diamonds, and in the sixties, the Sixth Ward Highsteppers, and now I belong to the Black Men of Labor.”
Although Benny takes responsibility for the bands business decisions, he shares musical and creative ones. The Treme Brass Band is recording its third disk and according to both Uncle Lionel and Benny, all the band members are contributing “a little this or that” to the songs. Both Lionel and Benny were close mouthed about the as yet unnamed disk, which will be coming out sometime this year. Benny expects the disk to be popular with both current Treme Brass Band fans and the new ones he hopes to make in our event: A Jazz Funeral for Democracy.
Carnival season has begun, and despite portrayals in the media to the contrary, Mardi Gras is not solely about flashing body parts and rowdy and lascivious behavior. For locals, Mardi Gras is about the music, the skirl of the trumpet, the thump of the bass drum, the oomph of the tuba; it is an ebullient ramble through streets cloaked in temporary mystery. Mardi Gras is certainly not about being the stationary target for some rich Republican on a float.
Brass Band music at its purest is street music and is the heart of the carnival sound. Brass Band music celebrates the ritual egalitarian revelry of carnival and the Treme Brass Band plays it as well as anyone.
Despite the Carnival season, we must mourn the death of our eight Louisiana brothers, indeed the death of all who have died in the Iraq war. Brass band music allows mourners to confront death head on without artifice or banality. It encourages grief, which in time allows healing. Unfortunately this funeral is a symbol of many funerals. If each funeral cortege from this war was linked end to end, the procession would encircle the world.
It is traditional to dance and celebrate after a jazz funeral, particularly during carnival. But at the end of the day on 20 January, the parade must transform into a march: a march to uphold our laws, preserve our civil rights, end the illegal war and restore honor to our country.