Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Dejan’s Original Olympia Brass Band

In the more civilized parts of this country, carnival season is under way and reaches a peak week after next, when Ash Wednesday brings on Lent.  I’m talkin’ Mardi Gras, ya’ll, so this week let us spin a record that can be played at this time of the year or any time when your spirits need to get up and dance.

We have a copy of New Orleans Street Parade, a 1968 offering from Dejan’s Original Olympia Brass Band. The brass band tradition is nearly as old as the Crescent City itself, and the Dejan’s band is one of the last of the old-time street bands that played parades, particularly those funerals that wound through the streets in a raucous second line.

The tradition of funeral parade music in New Orleans reaches back to the 198th century when slaves under the French were allowed to bury their dead with music. The custom was practiced in many countries, but no more than in the southern United States – particularly in New Orleans – and that music became what we now know as jazz.

The original Olympia brass band formed around 1883 and over the years its personnel revolved in and out and could have included at one time or another jazz greats Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

There always was an Olympia brass band in New Orleans throughout the 20th century – drummer Arnold du Pass was its leader when saxophonist Harold Dejan joined up in the 1920s. Back then they were known as the “Olympia Serenaders.”  He took over the Olympia Brass Band in 1960, scouring the city for its best players to fill spots in the 12-piece group.

The outfit that cut New Orleans Street Parade included Dejan, Andy Anderson and Milton Batiste on trumpet, Klaus Einfeld on tuba and many others. They cut the album in Berlin, presumably sitting still in a studio rather than dancing down the streets of the German capital.

The album offers a pretty good sampling of the repertoire of those old-timey New Orleans brass bands: “We Shall Walk Through The Streets To The City,” which opens the album, is perhaps the most famous New Orleans funeral song. Then you also gotta have a hymn or two, so “Glory Land” and “Take Your Burden To The Lord” fill that requirement.

Dejan wrote one of the tunes, “Olympia Special,” which is a spritely Dixieland jazz tune peppered with flavorful trumpet work.  “Shake It And Break It” begins with some call-and-response shouts from the band members and it too lopes into that familiar Dixieland beat. The old folk tune “Lilly Of The Valley” has some sweet clarinet and “Leave Me Savior Me” is the requisite mournful dirge.

I’m not sure how New Orleans Street Parade fared when it came out in the late 1960s, because it seems to have been made solely for a European audience. The Dejan’s Original Olympia Brass Band played a lot at Preservation Hall in its heyday, and the band continued well into the 1990s.  Dejan himself had a stroke in 1991 and although he couldn’t play sax any more he still led the band and occasionally sang; he died in 2002.  You can see the band in the 1973 James Bond flick Live And Let Die, playing a funeral march in New Orleans.

MP3: “We Shall Walk Through The Streets To The City”

MP3: “Shake It And Break It”

MP3: “Olympia Special”

MP3: “Lilly Of The Valley”

MP3: “Leave Me Savior Me”

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