As the global coronavirus pandemic has altered every aspect of daily life, in New Orleans, the streets are noticeably much quieter. Indoor live entertainment is still not allowed under Phase Two of Louisiana's reopening, and outdoor live entertainment is still restricted. The absence of the booming sound of live music that usually fills the summer is felt by many. For musicians themselves, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions have altered every part of normal life. The local Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band has struggled in the face of this to get through the crisis without being able to perform for crowds, according to band co-founder and bass drummer Keith Frazier.
"I miss the crowds, the energy of the crowds," Frazier said. "You know, we can get together at any time and perform. We did a rehearsal like that, and it just was not the same. It was not the same energy, because the people dancing and standing up watching you give you a certain motivation to put your all into it."
Rebirth Brass Band had to wait three months to get together in person, meeting for their first rehearsal together just a couple weeks ago as New Orleans moved into Phase Two. "It felt good to just play, but it wasn't the same as a performance for an audience or a crowd of people," Frazier said.
While some local bands have experimented with virtual concerts through livestreams or socially distanced car concerts, Frazier said it's hard for the band to transition from typical high-energy live shows to that more detached online form.
"Streaming is a good way to generate a little money, but you can only do it so much before people get tired of just watching streams," he said.
Socially distanced concerts in the future will be something the band will have to consider. "I think we would do it if it is viable, not just for bands but for venues," he said. "But a lot of what happens in New Orleans is based on the energy of the crowd, so a person in the car at a concert is like a person watching a livestream. It's just not the same, so I don't know how it'll play out."
COVID-19 has had a personal impact on the Rebirth Brass Band. Phil Frazier, band co-founder, tuba/sousaphone player, and Keith's older brother, tested positive for coronavirus in March and has since recovered.
"He already had some health issues, so when he said he was positive for it, we were all pretty scared because most of the people who were passing away had underlying health problems," Keith said of his brother. "So, him coming through it, we were really grateful for that."
Keith reflected on the ways this pandemic, as well as seeing a close family member battle it, has shaped the experiences of himself and those around him, especially mentally and emotionally. "It has a mental part, kind of like having post-traumatic stress syndrome. You're always thinking about it because we don't know how it affects you after you have it, if you can get it again. We don't really know. And if you haven't had it, you're thinking about contracting the virus," he said. "At that point, you're not really thinking about the music and when it's coming back. You're just thinking about your health: 'Can I be healthy enough, and can I stay healthy?'"
While Keith focuses on health, financially, the pandemic and shutdowns have also deeply affected Rebirth Brass Band, as it has made it difficult for the bandmembers to make a living.
"We've been getting donations from different musical organizations, like Musicians Care and the Jazz Foundation and different places like that. Some of us have been able to apply for unemployment and depend on unemployment, but without that, it would be pretty rough."
While Frazier is glad that so many people have rallied around performers with these donations, he worries for the future when it isn't such a focus. "They're starting to run dry, so if something doesn't happen by way of Congress or something like that, it's going to be pretty rough," he told Where Y'at. "Musicians can't really go back to work or any kind of performing because our work depends on people gathering up, and right now, that just can't happen."
He is also concerned for the future of venues such as the Maple Leaf, which are struggling to get through this pandemic while unable to host live music that supports them.
"It's a big topic of conversation among musicians and club owners," he said. "I've been reading a couple articles from the National Independent Venue Association, talking about the venues going away. When everything's over, where are we going to perform at, if those places go away? We signed a letter saying Congress needs to help those guys out because they still have to pay rent, taxes, overhead, and that kind of stuff. And those places need to stay around because if they go away, that part of our economy is pretty much going to be done."
Keep up with Rebirth Brass Band and check out some clips on their Facebook and website. You can support the band by buying their merchandise on Bandcamp and donating through Basin Street Records.
Center photo by TheeErin.
Cover photo by Jeffery Dupuis for Cape May MAC.