In my first novel, A Bridge Of Straw, a pivotal scene takes place in a club in New Orleans.

A few people have asked me about that scene, and how accurate it is. So here is the story of The Rebirth Brass Band and Frenchy, an artist.

My wife and I booked a holiday of a lifetime, two weeks in New Orleans, just before we planned to have kids. As it happened, she fell pregnant shortly before we left – rather frustrating for her as it meant she wasn’t able to partake in the amazing (and seriously potent!) New Orleans speciality cocktail, the Hurricane.

A local Bristol jazz DJ, the wonderful Tony Clarke, had recommended a particular New Orleans record shop, run by a friend of his, Lippy. Sure enough, Lippy recommended plenty of fabulous music recommendations, from jazz to blues and even a zydeco album I still put on occasionally!

He also told us which bands to go and see and, crucially, suggested we go to see the Rebirth Brass Band at The Maple Leaf club in Uptown New Orleans.

Lippy gave us one specific instruction. The club was not in the most salubrious part of town. Get a taxi to the door, he said, get out of the taxi and straight into the club; when you leave, phone for a taxi, get straight in and go back to your apartment. Under no circumstances do you walk down the road looking for a taxi.

We got the message.

We arrived at The Maple Leaf at 11pm. The club itself is two rooms joined by a door near the front. We got our drinks, went to the side of the room in which the band was to play, and waited.

There was no stage, and the only lighting was a lightbulb dangling from the cord towards the front of the room. To our right, a stepladder stood in front of a canvas, which was attached to particularly tall easel. A spotlight attached to the easel was bent over to illuminate the canvas.

Slowly the room filled, and men holding various brass instruments started to congregate at the end of the room. All of the Rebirth Brass Band had been playing gigs elsewhere in central New Orleans that night, and were assembling at the Mapleleaf to blow until the early hours.

Eventually, the room – now full of smoke of questionable origin – went dark as the trumpet player reached up and unscrewed the lightbulb. The Maple Leaf equivalent to the house lights going down.

To our right, the artist – known as Frenchy – ascended the stepladder. As the Rebirth begans to play, so he began to paint them performing.

The ensuing two hours remains one of my three top gigs of all time. No amplification, the drummer standing behind a kit consisting of a snare, bass drum and cymbal. Bass provided by a tuba, and a brass front line.

Each song would start with a fabulous melody, then various soloists for minutes at a time, creating an extraordinary wall of intricate noise. Somehow, by some kind of miracle, everyone would suddenly burst back into the main melody at the same time, without so much as a glance at each other. The symbiotic relationship between player and instrument, and between the players themselves, was extraordinary to behold.

Written by : Chris Budd

Chris Budd

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