Essence Music Fest: The World’s Only All-Female Brass Band Takes the Stage

“That’s especially why we need to keep this going, to be an example and a model for the young girls coming up.”

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Elsa Hahne / Offbeat Magazine

The Original Pinettes Brass Band

On Saturday night, in a dressing room behind one of the smaller Superdome stages at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Christie Jourdain was ready to go. “You’ve got three minutes!” she announced to the nine other assembled musicians. The Essence Fest is a New Orleans staple and brass-band music is a New Orleans staple and the group that Jourdain leads is one too, in its own way—but this was the only time the group, the Original Pinettes Brass Band, had played Essence. And that wasn’t the only “only”: the Original Pinettes bill themselves as the world’s only all-female brass band.

“There’s a lot of female bands out there that are trying to mimic what we’re doing,” says Jourdain, “but that type of brass-band music is born and raised out here in New Orleans, Louisiana.”

The Original Pinettes were formed in 1991 by the band director at St. Mary’s Academy, the school attended by the band’s founding members. Jourdain, who plays the snare drum, was one of those girls. At an all-girls school, the gender mix of the band was a no-brainer, but the world of brass-band music—a horns-and-drums style that has grown in New Orleans for about 100 years and contributed to the birth of jazz—was largely male then and continues to be so.

“You may see a few women performing around New Orleans, but it’s very few,” says Natasha Harris, who plays saxophone with the group. Janine Waters, who plays tuba, adds that, before the Original Pinettes became well-known within the New Orleans brass-band scene, male musicians had a “whatever” attitude toward the group: “they looked at us like, ‘oh, it’s just girls,’” she says. “They know us now. They treat us like the next band. We’re like their competition.”

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Getting past assumptions about their ability to play has not been the only gender-specific hurdle for the Original Pinettes. Jourdain says that male bands can shape-shift easily, swapping out one member for another, but that’s because there are so many male horn players in New Orleans. With fewer eligible musicians, the Original Pinettes have to hold tight to their core group.

That cohesion was challenged in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and scattered the Original Pinettes. Both Jourdain and Waters ended up in Texas, eventually reconnecting in Houston; another Pinette ended up as far from home as Boston. And, as the recovery began, many of those women had settled into their new homes. “Everybody was like, ‘no, I have my new life here, you all go ahead and good luck with it,’” Jourdain recalls. “We had a few members come back home but nobody wanted to do it. Everybody threw in the towel.”

Jourdain was ready to do so herself, until Waters convinced her that the two of them could handle running the band themselves, with Waters as assistant band leader—an arrangement that has held since 2006. “When the bands came back everybody was getting the gigs but us,” Jourdain says. They had one gig in 2006, at Jazz Fest, but Jourdain says that the last two years have finally seen the payoff for sticking around. “We’ve been trying to get on Essence since 2000, and when we got that call a couple of months ago…I’m still smiling,” she says. And the band has also seen successful recruitment, straying from their St. Mary’s roots. Christie, the original member, is 37 years old; the youngest member, who has been playing with the band for a little over a year, is 16. Her name (appropriately enough, although she says it doesn’t feel like fate) is Jazz Henry.

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The Pinettes may be the only all-female brass band in the world—anyone can form a band at any time, so there’s no way to confirm it, but Christie Jourdain scours the Internet regularly and has not found anyone else out there—but they are not the first. In the 1880s, an African-American cornet player named Viola Allen led the “Colored Female Brass Band” in East Saginaw, Michigan. There was an all-female brass band in Indianapolis about three decades later. In the 1920s, other groups appeared in Omaha, Nashville and Brooklyn.

But Sherrie Tucker, a professor at the University of Kansas who writes about gender in jazz, says that the Original Pinettes may well be the first all-female New Orleans-style brass band—although the dominance of male-centered historical records means that there’s always a chance something else will pop up. “My job as a historian of women in jazz requires me to presume that a lot of women musicians are missing from the historical record,” she says. “Until we know more about the history, each woman who plays an instrument or style presumed to be a men’s instrument or style gets seen as the first time it’s ever happened.”

Tucker points to a study done by a historian named Susan Cavin in the 1970s, an analysis of the development of jazz in New Orleans’ Congo Square: using the same documents that earlier historians had to determine that men played instruments and women danced, Cavin found that early female jazz drummers did exist. “The gender got changed by the historians who were making particular kinds of gender assumptions about who played and who danced,” says Tucker. “This is not an unusual story in historical research of women in jazz.”

Whether or not those assumptions about the history of jazz are accurate, they have trickled down into the popular culture that surrounds the music. Brass bands and the city of New Orleans are integral to the history of jazz, says Charles Hersch, author of Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans: the racial and ethnic melting pot of the city married with the military-style marching band music prevalent at the turn of the last century to produce a new sound. And, in a city where jazz is seen on the streets and in parades rather than pay-to-enter clubs, the music remains a key part of life—but, even a century into that history, gender helps determine legitimacy. “Even today you still don’t see nearly as many female trumpet players and saxophone players as you do pianists and vocalists,” says Hersch. “I’m sure there are more than there used to be, but the horn players are still largely a male domain.”

Audience expectations about horn playing can work in the Original Pinettes’ favor, since a group of ten female musicians stands out from the pack. Bruce Boyd Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University recalls that Quint Davis, the producer of Jazz Fest, found “intrinsic interest” in an all-female brass band—but Raeburn also says that uniqueness can be a challenge, raising the question of whether their success is due to tokenism or talent. He says that they must play better than other groups in order to be recognized, that the audience can demand they play just as well as the Rebirth Brass Band, one of the most famous groups on the scene, in order to win respect. “The gender biases that have been a part of jazz for a long time still exist, and the Pinettes are a great barometer of the fact that they still exist,” says Raeburn. “They have challenges ahead of them because they’re women.”

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Playing at the Essence Fest, on the same stage where Rebirth played the night before, means reaching a milestone for the Original Pinettes, says Janine Waters. Last year, they reached another milestone by performing overseas. “It’s like we’re reaching all of our goals,” says Waters. “The next milestone would be to be full-time musicians.” For now, they hold a variety of day jobs. Waters is a student. Christie Jourdain is too, and she is also working on starting an organization to help abused children. Natasha Harris works at St. Mary’s, the school where it all started.

Another goal for the Original Pinettes is to lose their claim to fame, to encourage more women to enter the game. “I would love to see women be more involved in the music scene,” says Harris, “and for the men to understand that we as females can perform and do the same things they can at the same level.” For now, they struggle to convince the younger women they meet that playing an instrument isn’t just something you do in high school, that playing brass-band music—which is improvised and more difficult than marching band—is worth it. “Once [female musicians] finish college they’re getting into families, having kids, a lot of them don’t have the time to put into it, so they put it down—and I think some of them feel like they can’t make it,” she says. “That’s especially why we need to keep this going, to be an example and a model for the young girls coming up.”

But in the meantime, on Saturday, the goal was to put on a good show. With no pre-show ritual, just a calm hoisting of horns, the Original Pinettes Brass Band took the stage. They were three trombones, three trumpets, sax, tuba, snare and bass drum (which, on that night, was actually played by a man; the usual bass-drum player had fallen sick and there was not a female substitute). Janine Waters, balanced on bright red peep-toe wedges, let out a little warm-up bellow on her tuba. Here and there, under the blue stage lights, a polka-dot lining peeked from inside the fitted mix-and-match pinstripe outfits they wore. They were the first performance of the evening and, starting exactly on time, faced a crowd of only a few dozen people. They promptly announced themselves as the world’s only all-female brass band—but then, except for the usual stage banter, they stopped talking and played. “We’re not just up here to say it’s all females playing,” says Harris, “but that we can actually play and play well.”

Within a few minutes, the crowd had grown, filling the room. Prompted to dance and make some noise, the audience did. And when the Original Pinettes launched into one of their original songs, it was clear that they had fans who knew the material. The whole room sang along with the refrain: “Hey, don’t go nowhere! The Pinettes’re on their way!”