Introducing tourists to authentic New Orleans cooking probably makes downtown restaurateur Chris Jones pretty happy.
However: “If we have Vassar Clements jamming on a Parliament tune by the end of the [BlueBrass finale show], I’ll be really happy!” declares the Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen co-owner and head instigator of the BlueBrass Project.
Veteran fiddler Clements is somewhat irreverently acknowledged as the father of hillbilly jazz (depending on your age and level of consciousness, you’re likely to associate him either with Jerry Garcia or Larry Keel). And Parliament is, of course, one of two groups masterminded by funk grandmaster George Clinton.
Thibodaux Jones, meanwhile, is among the startling fistful of New Orleans-flavored businesses to infiltrate Asheville in recent years — while BlueBrass is a bold marriage of Appalachian-music stylings and Crescent City brass-band sounds.
It’s a case of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue … grass.
And it makes more sense than it sounds.
Picking on the second line
Jones and wife Ashley left New Orleans a couple of years ago, bound for the higher pastures of Boone. There, the long-time brass-band enthusiast started singing a new tune — mountain music.
When Jones later headed back south, he was disappointed to find that his hometown sported nary a banjo or Dobro among its French Quarter’s countless jazz clubs. So he did what any self-starter would: He began bringing his North Carolina pals — like Cleveland County-based Farm Aid vets Acoustic Syndicate — to New Orleans.
“At first, people were confused, especially during Mardi Gras,” Jones recalls. “They were expecting the Rebirth Brass Band, and there were these guys tuning their guitars for 20 minutes.
“At first it was shock value,” he admits with a laugh.
But the thing about bluegrass, as with New Orleans second line, is it’s both fun and danceable. Crescent City folks warmed to it quickly.
And this ignited an even deeper revelation in Jones.
“It was the first time I’d heard music outside of New Orleans that was as culturally deep,” he reveals, noting that both traditions are heavily influenced by gospel, and that both share songs among their respective repertoires.
“In the center, there’s this pocket where they’re the same musically,” the restaurateur explains. “It’s the bass line and the tuba — the bottom end.”
So Jones started playing bluegrass music for his brass buddies, coaxing from them an equal excitement. The Thibodaux Jones chef had stumbled into the common ground between two very different musical genres (at least culturally speaking) — and in the country’s last two holdouts of indigenous traditional music, to boot.
And out of this sprang BlueBrass.
A two-day recording session involving members of Snake Oil Medicine Show, Acoustic Syndicate, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Larry Keel Experience, the Blue Rags and the Rebirth Brass Band resulted this year in the independently released The BlueBrass Project: The Same Pocket, Vol. 1.
But starting a “new” tradition counts for naught unless you can get the younger generation in on the action.
More than kickball and a snack
Last year, the owners of what is arguably New Orleans’ premiere music venue started a curriculum for kids, Tipitina’s Intern Program. TIP, as it’s known, auditioned promising young musicians for extracurricular study under the tutelage of such greats as funk warlock Doctor John, jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison and soul songstress Erykah Badu.
Obviously, this was not your average kickball-and-a-snack after-school program.
“By the end of the year, [these kids are] writing and producing,” reveals Bill Taylor, director of the Tipitina’s Foundation (www.tipitinasfoundation.org), which funds the internship program and other educational projects.
It’s a practical thing: “They learn not just to be better musicians, but also about the business and how to make a living.”
As TIP’s first year began winding down, Taylor started looking for a way to reward the program’s young players. Then Warren Wilson College President Doug Orr invited the talented kids to participate in the yearly Swannanoa Gathering, a summer-long series of traditional-music workshops.
Taylor and his pal Jones next hatched a plan to combine TIP’s visit to WNC with a benefit not only for the Tipitina’s Foundation, but also for a similar program just begun here in Asheville that’s designed to introduce traditional music into local schools.
And so 14 jazz-educated high schoolers from New Orleans are in Asheville this month to study bluegrass, country blues and old-time with the likes of Woody Wood (ex of the Blue Rags) and old-time singer/guitarist Cary Fridley. The young visitors will also hang with their Appalachian peers — a group of WNC teens schooled in mountain music.
The program’s star quotient will be upped on Friday afternoon, with a public Master’s Seminar Series at Thibodaux Jones featuring such red-hot honchos as Clements, Trombone Shorty, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and others. The whole thing will then be capped off by a Friday-night jam with all the BlueBrass collaborators at — where else? — The Orange Peel, run by another pair of Crescent City transplants.