The Gabriels: Brass band musicians for 6 generations

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

Some Saturday evening after a Tigers game you might wander into Greektown for a bite to eat and hear the sound of brass band music rising above the bouzouki melodies wafting out of Greek eateries.

It’s jazzy. It’s funky. It sounds straight off the streets of New Orleans. It’s the Gabriel Brass Band.

Band leader Dameon Gabriel can trace his musical lineage back at least six generations. His father was a horn player, his grandfather played, his great-grandfather played, his great-great grandfather played. He feels the weight of all that musical heritage and revels in the heft of it. He’s on a mission to keep it alive through another generation and to preserve the rich history of a family steeped in traditional jazz like crawfish in a dark-rouxed gumbo.

He’s 35 years old, a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Defense Department and a soulful trumpet player. “When I was majoring in engineering in school my teacher would always tell me — he’d shake his head — ‘Why are you not majoring in music?’ ” Gabriel said. “But when I’m playing, it takes my mind away from everything else, so I didn’t want it to be a job.”


Wayne Henry on alto saxophone, left, Gabriel Agboruche on sousaphone, Dameon Gabriel on trumpet and Shavon Johnson on sousaphone break into song on "Bourbon Street Parade" as the Gabriel Brass Band performs at the opening party for The Loft Warehouse shipping container condos on Trumbull in North Corktown on July .

“And you will hear those stories about musicians being very good, but very broke,” he laughed.

There’s a longstanding tradition of brass band music in New Orleans, where the Gabriel family comes from. The bands play for funerals and weddings and lead processions of “second-liners” in parades for all occasions. You may see them playing in bars or in the neighborhoods, or playing for change — and hoping for dollars — on street corners wherever tourists may be found.

It’s a musical tradition passed from fathers to sons to grandsons. Sometimes three or four generations may play in one ensemble.

Dameon comes from such a family, its roots in New Orleans, transplanted to Detroit in the 1940s. And he has revived the tradition of Gabriel family musicians by forming the Gabriel Brass Band with his cousin Larry Gabriel. Marcel Gabriel, 20, Dameon’s cousin, is the youngest family member to join.

The band is one form of heritage preservation, but Dameon wants to take it one step further. He’s bought an old, empty building on the edge of Detroit’s West Village and wants to develop it into a New Orleans-flavored restaurant with a second-floor family museum. He plans to call it Gabriel Hall.

The grand marshal

Detroit freelance writer Larry Gabriel plays banjo and guitar, sings with the band and is the family historian. His book, “Daddy Plays Old-Time Jazz,” chronicles the branch of the family tree that leads to his generation, the fourth. That his distinctive waist-length dreadlocks are peppered with gray only adds to his gravitas as grand marshal when the band leads funeral processions.

The grand marshal is the man out front with the sash, bowler hat and umbrella who sets the tone. Larry marshalled for the Celebrations of Life rites for Detroit trumpet great Marcus Belgrave and rock poster artist Gary Grimshaw.

“In the 1960s, we went on vacation to New Orleans one summer,” Larry remembers, “and we were told we had to go down to the French Quarter because Mr. Barker was in a parade. And I’m thinking Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day Parade like you see in Detroit, with giant bands marching down the street.

“So we go down on the street and we’re standing there and here comes this guy dancing down the street with an umbrella — and that was Mr. Barker. And he had maybe six, eight musicians with him, and I was like, ‘This is a parade?’ and that was the first New Orleans-style brass band parade that I ever saw.”

Larry says brass bands were very popular in New Orleans in the 1800s. “There were these (social aid and pleasure clubs) and each club was represented by a brass band,” he said. “And if you wanted to have a great funeral, you belonged to as many of these clubs as possible, because each club would put up a band for you for your funeral.” Most New Orleans jazz musicians also played in brass bands and there was a lot of cross influencing between the genres.

The tradition faded a bit in the mid-20th century. But in the 1970s iconic banjo player Danny Barker began working with youngsters at New Orleans’ Fairview Baptist Church and introduced them to the music he loved.

One of those kids was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who started playing at Fairview when he was only eight. Larry’s father, Percy Gabriel, collected instruments in Detroit and sent them to Barker. Larry likes to speculate that one of Marsalis’s horns may have come from Detroit. The youngsters put their own spin on the traditional music and Barker’s program is where today’s New Orleans brass band sound originated with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. That funk and hip-hop-inflected sound is what the Gabriel Brass Band brings to Detroit.

The Gabriels’ many bands

Over the decades the family has had several bands under the Gabriel moniker. The Gabriel Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band was Dameon’s grandfather, Manny, and his great uncle, Percy. The fourth generation created The Gabriel Family Traditional New Orleans Jazz Band.

Detroiters may remember the Gabriel Family Traditional Jazz Band that included Charlie, Larry’s father, Percy, and Marcus Belgrave, with occasional appearances by Charlie’s other brothers. One of those brothers, Leonard Gabriel, 84, is thinking of getting back into the family business and joining the Gabriel Brass Band.

Maddison Shimmel, holiding selfie stick, and Taylor Adamson, both of York, Pa., take a picture with Wayne Henry, left, Isaac Orton, Dameon Gabriel, Ken GillShavon Johnson and Wayne Ramocan as the Gabriel Brass Band takes a break while performing on a street corner in Greektown.

Dameon mercifully shortened the name for his fifth generation Gabriel Brass Band. “We play a lot of stuff people wouldn’t consider ‘traditional,’ ” he said.

Their repertoire leans heavily on current New Orleans bands, with songs like “Let Your Mind Be Free” by the Soul Rebels and Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do What’cha Wanna” and “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up.”

Band personnel change a bit from gig to gig, but the core is Dameon, Larry, Wayne Henry on alto sax, Isaac Orton on trumpet, Shavon Johnson on sousaphone, Ken Gill on trombone and percussionists Donald Mims and Wayne Ramocan.

They may not be actual family, but many of the band members have known Dameon from way back. Percussionist Donald Mims met Dameon in middle school at Bates Academy for the Gifted and Talented. “It’s great being an honorary Gabriel,” Mims said. “It’s a very warm and open family.”

The New Orleans years

The Gabriel story begins in 1856 when Narcisse Gabriel emigrated from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to New Orleans. He played bass, but earned his living as a bricklayer, as did his son, Martin “Big Manny” Gabriel, who played cornet. Big Manny led a jazz band call The National Orchestra in New Orleans.

His sons, Martin “Little Manny” and Percy Gabriel, moved their families to Detroit in the 1940s when auto jobs were plentiful. This was the third generation of Gabriels.

Little Manny, Larry’s uncle, had six sons, all of them musicians. Elliott played with Lionel Hampton’s Hamptones, as well as Bobby Day and the Satellites. Their cousin, Clarence Ford, played in Fats Domino’s band and was one of the go-to guys in New Orleans for clarinet for many years.

“He played on hundreds of recordings,” said Dameon.

Fifth generation family member Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow is pianist and music director at St. Augustine and St. Monica Catholic Church in Detroit. Charlie Gabriel and Marcus Belgrave started a Jazz on the Lawn event there and Marjorie has kept the tradition going.

The best-known Gabriel today is Dameon’s uncle, Charlie (fourth generation), who came to Detroit from the Big Easy at age 14. At 16 he was asked to join Lionel Hampton’s band and went on to play with Nancy Wilson and J.C. Heard. In the 1970s he was a member of Aretha Franklin’s orchestra. In 2009, he relocated to his ancestral home to become a member of the New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, where he’s is still going strong at 82.

He was great friends with late Detroit trumpet player Belgrave, who learned about New Orleans traditional jazz from Charlie’s father and uncles.

“Marcus Belgrave was like part of the family,” said Dameon. “He used to joke around and say I’m Marcus Gabriel.’”

Preserving a family legacy

Dameon, Larry and Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow have formed a nonprofit organization, The Gabriel Music Society. They want to pull together family photographs, documents, instruments, audio archives and memorabilia that are scattered in museums and libraries from Detroit to New Orleans.

They recently reacquired his grandfather’s drum kit that was on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum. “We have things in my attic and basement,” Dameon said. “We need one place where people can understand this history, which is not only New Orleans,’ but Detroit’s as well.”

The Gabriel family is well known in New Orleans, he said, “but in Detroit, all people know is they see this brass band that pops up every now and then playing New Orleans music and really don’t have any idea why.”

But the nonprofit isn’t waiting for the restaurant to gel and preserving Gabriel history isn’t its only goal. They are already working to promote music education for young people. This spring, they worked with the organization Hungry for Music and collected more than 20 instruments for DPS students and are still collecting more.

“Music is one of the first things that goes,” when the school system looks for ways to economize, Dameon said. “Music, a lot of times, is the thing that keeps kids in school. It helps kids learn discipline and helps them solve problems more creatively. We definitely want to keep that in Detroit Public Schools,” he said.

In a way, the Gabriel family story is the Detroit story. “What family didn’t come to Detroit in the 1940s because Detroit was such a happening place? The auto industry was booming and you had clubs and music on every corner,” Dameon said. “That is the Detroit story.”

Larry Gabriel, the first Gabriel to be born in Detroit, points out that “Most of the (African-American families) in Detroit came here from the South. Some people think of Motown music as factory-inspired music. Most of those musicians and the families that they came from were from the South.

“That southern culture has really flavored what Detroit culture is,” he said.

Where to hear the band

The Gabriel Brass Band’s next scheduled gig is Friday at PJ’s Lager House with New Orleans band Water Seed. Follow the band on Facebook to see where and when they might be popping up on the street.

They also will perform at Jazz on the Lawn at St. Augustine and St. Monica Catholic Church on Aug. 23. They will lead a second line out of the church and onto the lawn at 11 a.m. Other bands will play until 6 p.m.