Unique all-female New Orleans brass band at Jazz Fest

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans brass band created to help students pay tuition at a Catholic high school for girls is still going strong nearly a quarter-century later. The Original Pinettes Brass Band is still apparently the only all-female group in a jazz-laced tradition dating back to the decades after Emancipation.

"They were certainly the first. And as far as I know, they're the only one," though individual women have played with other brass bands, said clarinetist and music historian Michael White, who chose the selections and wrote an essay about the history of brass bands for a Smithsonian Folkways album of brass band music published in February.

The Pinettes' funk style can be heard Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, about 200 to 300 yards from the stage where a pair of piano legends — Jerry Lee Lewis and Sir Elton John — close the day one after the other. Lewis is scheduled for one hour, John for more than two.

White and his Original Liberty Jazz band will be playing on yet another of the festival's 10 performance stages at the same time as Lewis' midafternoon set.

"That's very unfortunate, because I would have loved to go see him," White said. "But I have my own crowd, so I'm not worried."

English pop singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran is the closer at the other end of the half-mile-long infield from Elton John. At the same time, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Terence Blanchard E-Collective, and Greg Stafford and his Young Tuxedo Jazz Band will be on other stages. So will rapper T.I.; Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, the Wimberly Family Gospel Singers, instrumental rock band Woodenhead, and Cha Wa, a Mardi Gras Indian funk band.

White, who started his musical career in brass bands, said brass bands evolved from the fusion of military marching bands, black Creoles who played classical music, and jazz, which was both music and "a symbol of the life, the affirmation, the hopes and dreams of the people."

"Around the turn of the century, brass bands became part of jazz," he said. With festivals, funerals and many other functions calling for a multitude of musicians, bands began improvising because those who couldn't read music but had a good ear could make up parts, White said.

They combined European and West African traditions that had always been part of the city's life. West African traditions include the second-line dance in which a crowd follows the band, and the use of umbrellas and handkerchiefs to dance with, White said. He said musical traditions include the way vibrato is used, multiple rhythms and "bent" tones — "the emotional characteristics that come from the black singing of spirituals, the blues and, most importantly, work songs."

These days, only a few older bands still play in the jazz style; the Pinettes, like most, play funk.

Before the Pinettes go on stage, they'll lead one of the five daily parades through the infield.

They have a good, tight ensemble, said Jason Berry, whose book "Up from the Cradle of Jazz" has an extensive section about brass bands. He heard them at a previous Jazz Fest. "They played with a nice, rolling cohesion. They have a strong sense of melody. They swung at the right places," he said.

When the group won the Red Bull Street Kings brass band competition in 2013, judges said that cohesion was a big part of their reason, said drummer Christie Jourdain, who was an alternate for the group in high school, rejoined in 2000 and became the leader sometime after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

"We're not here to blow out each other. We are playing together," she said. "It's an individual effort for the team."

The group was created in 1991, when Jeffery Herbert was band director at St. Mary's Academy and a member of the Pinstripes Brass Band.

The Pinstripes were being offered more gigs than they could play and some band members' parents were having trouble paying tuition, he said. He figured that a students' brass band might be able to make some of the dates, and could certainly earn money playing on French Quarter streets for tips. Some also got music scholarships to the school, he said.

The Pinettes, which was formed, were named after the Pinstripes.

Herbert said some paying customers wouldn't take a girls' band, but they got jobs at conventions and festivals.

When the members graduated, they wanted to keep the band. They had his blessing. Like many bands, membership has changed over the years; the 10 current members graduated from high schools all around the city.

"I just wanted to help some young ladies stay in St. Mary's Academy," Herbert said. "God had a bigger picture."

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