Stooges Brass Band climb to the top after Katrina

The Stooges Brass Band shakes up New Orleans sound and reaches the top

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

The Stooges Brass Band knows how to leave an impression.

Take its gig at Taos Brewing in New Mexico two years ago. The Stooges excited one audience member so much, says Stooges bandleader Walter Ramsey, that he invited the band to fly back from their home base in New Orleans to soundtrack his daughter’s wedding.

According to Ramsey, his band often has a profound effect on audiences.

“A typical show has a lot of good spirit with a bunch of people moving together with our music,” he says. “There is nothing like the feeling of knowing there has been a breakthrough with a new audience, and you see that they get your music by the smiles on their faces and the spirit in their dances.”

Ramsey, who plays trombone and tuba, formed the band in 1996. Inspired by the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass band — of which his grandfather was an early member — and the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, the original lineup included members of two high school marching bands. Ramsey says he was trying to put his own spin on the traditional brass band format.

“We were younger and wanted to infuse some of what we were listening to, beyond just the sounds of New Orleans,” he says. “So we worked to bring in elements of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Maze and Stevie Wonder.”

The Stooges cut its teeth on the New Orleans parade circuit, becoming a staple of the city’s famous “second-line” parades, which shake up the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. The band really hit its stride and rose to national prominence this decade, going on to win the Red Bull Street Kings competition in 2010 and earning the title “Best Contemporary Brass Band” at the 2011 Big Easy Music Awards.

It wasn’t an easy climb to the top, though. Hurricane Katrina struck two years after the band released its 2003 debut studio album, “It’s About Time.” Band members were displaced, but Ramsey kept the “Stooges” name alive, reteaming with saxophonist and co-leader Virgil Tiller and trombonist “Garfield” Bogan, along with a rotating cast of young talent.

Ramsey says that while Katrina tore apart the city, not to mention his band, it bolstered his passion for performing music.

“Members and their families scattered during the evacuation and things were difficult, but we had a plan to keep strong and unified, and we wound up with an Atlanta home base for a while,” he says. “When we were able to make it back home and begin to rebuild our homes, our community and our lives, we focused on spreading the music wherever we could across the U.S. and the world.”

As the Stooges Brass Band has gained recognition over the last 20 years, it has also functioned as an incubator for up-and-coming talent. Former members like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Big Sam (of Big Sam’s Funky Nation) have split off from the group and become major national acts.

Saturday, the Stooges will play The Ark’s Art Fair Stage at the corner of Main and William in Ann Arbor. The band is on the road supporting its new studio album, “Thursday Night House Party.”

Ramsey says the band has to be more focused when playing gigs outside of their hometown.

“People in New Orleans know our music and have their favorite songs, and at a hometown show you never know who will stop by to sit-in for a song or two, or the whole show,” he says. “This leads to it being a bit different, but wherever we play you can expect the type of music that makes you feel good and want to dance till its done.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

The Stooges Brass Band

with Anne Heaton and Haskins

4:30 p.m. Sat.

The Ark’s Art Fair Stage

Corner of Main and William, Ann Arbor


(734) 761-1451