When Walter Ramsey was only a child, he saw the Rebirth Brass Band, a terrific New Orleans group that's practically a Big Easy institution, perform at his middle school. Right then and there, Ramsey, who plays trombone, knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"I was blown away and said, 'I want to do that,'" he says via phone from his New Orleans home. "They got the kids to get up and dance and I liked the music and culture and feel of it. I was familiar with brass bands and saw them parading in the streets. Seeing them perform on stage was like, 'Wow.' I didn't know they could do that. It was a different feel from just watching a jazz performance. It was upbeat dance music that got people involved. Afterward, I felt happy and good. I thought if I felt like that, other people could. I wanted to do this."
The only problem was that he wanted to bring together musicians from two rival schools. Because he knew some musicians who lived on his street, he wanted to recruit them to perform in his Stooges Brass Band, which he formed in 1996. But the fact that they played in a rival band that would often compete against his school's marching band made things difficult.
"We were marching band rivals but we became friends," he says. "But when we were playing in the marching bands, we didn't even talk to each other. It was that competition that made New Orleans marching bands what they were. It was an experience. There was some episodes, I can tell you that much. There was always controversy about how we were doing it. It made the band popular. The band wasn't all that good sound-wise, but we were very popular. The sound hadn't gotten to us yet."
One his early recruits was none other than Trombone Shorty, a popular musician who's gone on to become a headliner in his own right.
"When we first started, he had a brass band called the Trombone Shorty Brass Band," he recalls. "It was like 8-, 9- and 10-year-old kids. They were beating on cardboard boxes and made-up instruments. It was five of them. They were very good. As they started growing, they got instruments. They came from musical families. We found ourselves in the same perimeter. One day, we were hired to play a gig and we wanted those two young kids who were playing with them. They were so small but had real talent. He and his cousins. We got them in the band. Once they played that gig with us, they were part of the band. We were 16 or 17. They were like real brothers to us."
He took Trombone Shorty under his wing.
"I groomed him," he says. "I was a mentor to him. I bought him his first car. He was like my little brother. I took care of him. I'm very proud of what he is today. He's an entertainer. I like that. That's what I taught him with the Stooges. I showed him to be not just a great musician but a great entertainer."
The band might operate in the shadow of other, more well-known New Orleans brass bands, but the group has created a significant legacy in its 18-year run. The band mixes hip-hop and New Orleans jazz into a style it calls "street music." In 2012, the U.S. State Department even selected the group to tour Pakistan, and it became the first American band to play in Hyderabad. Percussion-driven songs such as "Wind It Up" mix in hip-hop beats and have the kind of infectious beats that will inevitably get an audience up off its feet.
"We grew up in that time," Ramsey says when asked about the incorporation of hip-hop rhythms and rhymes. "That was our element of growing up. We naturally brought to the band what we were inspired by. Being musicians, we listened to hip-hop and at the same time, we were listening to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. We had a horn section so we were listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. There were a lot of different musical influences going in us at one time."
Even roughneck New Orleans rapper Master P was an influence.
"I have to say this — and I never say this in any of my interviews — I was really inspired by Master P," says Ramsey. "He was one of the first artists to come out of New Orleans and he was a huge inspiration. I'm not saying I was in love with his music. He was giving out all these free T-shirts. I got a free T-shirt. His approach was amazing. We learned and took some stuff out of his playbook."
The band hasn't put out many albums but Ramsey doesn't see that as a problem. He'd rather work on singles than dedicate his time to putting out a CD that includes one or two good tunes and plenty of filler.
"We've recorded a lot, but I'm more of a perfectionist," he says. "It's not like we've put out 10 records. We put out quality songs versus records. We wrote songs that we branded for years. It's more of that with the Stooges versus selling thousands of CDs. For us, we don't have radio play so the world can't hear our music. We just don't want our songs to die. We don't want to put out a 15th CD if no one has heard the first one. We don't want to create a hundred songs and have somebody only know two of them. We want to create 15 and brand those songs. That was different from other bands. People told us we were crazy, but we're just different."