by Red Cotton
This is the second installment in a series on New Orleans brass band leaders.
In 1991, St. Mary’s Academy’s band teacher Jeffrey Herbert pulled 16 young girls together to form a band. Named ‘The Pinettes’ after ‘The Pinstripes Brass Band’ for whom Herbert was a member, the band is still in existence today and widely recognized as the world’s first all women’s brass band. In that beginning class was a high school sophomore by the name of Christie Jourdain who started as an alternate snare drummer. Almost twenty years later, Jourdain is not only the band’s sole original member but is now the leader of The Pinettes Brass Band.
Born and raised in New Orleans East, Jourdain says that music has always been her passion and she was attracted to drums early in life. “I was raised on MTV and I was looking at Prince and his drummer had these flat drums - I was a tomboy, I always wanted a drum set. Then he introduced us to Sheila E. and that was it for me.” Desirous of a career in music and believing she’d have a better chance at playing drums in the band if she went to an all girls school, Jourdain chose to attend St. Mary’s College Prep Academy rather than one of the local co-ed high schools. In retrospect, that decision seems to be born of destiny.
Reflecting on the unique challenges that come from being in the only women’s group in a male-dominated music scene, Jourdain shares, “Growing up, there weren’t many women leading bands or playing drums. Back then, besides (Sheila E.), the Go Go’s and the Bangles were they only female bands out there.’ The Pinettes forged into the brass band scene, receiving what Jourdain characterizes as a “mostly lukewarm reception” by the other brass band which are nearly 100% all male ensembles. “At first...they would applaud us and tell us we were ‘cute’. Now they see we’re serious, now they look at us like we’re competition. Its hard and discouraging but we keep doing it. Besides my band director Mr. Herbert, it’s been hard to depend on men for support.”
There are, however, a few accomplished male mentors apart from the band’s founder who have taken an interest in helping The Pinettes develop their craft. “The first person who took me, sat me down and said ‘This is how its gonna work’ was (Rebirth Brass Band’s) Phil Frazier. He believed in us, has been helping us out since early 2000. To this day, if I call and ask him he’s there for us.” She also counts Trombone Shorty, Derrick Tabb, and Bo ‘Gerard’ Dollis as mentors. “We go way back with (Bo). We shared the same manager for a time. We all separated from that management but he told us ‘I won’t forget about y’all.’ And he didn’t. We open a lot for him at his shows.”
Jourdain’s installation as the band’s leader came at a turning point when The Pinettes broke apart immediately after the storm. Hurricane Katrina scattered the band members to six different cities and Jourdain, who was displaced in Houston, worried about the band’s survival. “The band leader at that time was Sherry Pannell who played trumpet. She told us that her new job and new responsibilities meant she wouldn’t be able to continue with the band.‘ At first, Jourdain resigned herself to the band folding up shop for good. But her bandmate encouraged her to press on. "(Pinettes sousaphonist) Janine was like, ‘We haven’t tried to run a band before. Lets just do it!’ And I didn’t want to see it die off so I came back every weekend or so for gigs. We drove back to take gigs that we didn’t even make money on just to keep the band going.”
In the aftermath of the storm, the band’s saxophone player also quit leaving Jourdain and the remaining few members to set about rebuilding their band. “We had to go find females to play with us. You know how hard it is - to find a mother, a wife to come and play with us?” Today’s reconstructed band consists of seven members: Jourdain on snare, Janine "Tuba Shorty" Waters on tuba, Cassandra French on bass drum, Dionne Harrison on trombone, Nicole Elwood on trombone, Careese McGee on trumpet, and Natasha "Saxy Lady" Harris on saxophone.
Although all the members are responsible for outreach, Jourdain gets most of the gigs for the band. At least for now, she says, they’re burned out from dealing with band managers. “We tried several managers but they all came with different demands: no drinking, no smoking; 18 page contracts with high amounts; trying to run our personal business...” Work isn’t as consistent as they’d like, but the band continues to book gigs in well-established venues and high profile festivals. For several years, they had a regular gig at the now defunct ‘Donna’s’ on Rampart. They appear annually at the French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, and local radio station 102.9’s ‘Old School In the Park’ events in Armstrong Park. This year has brought new opportunities for The Pinettes including regular appearance at parties sponsored by the 2010 Witch Doctor for the Zulu Club Anthony Fields and subbing for The Hot 8 Brass Band at their weekly Wolf Den shows when the latter band is on the road. Currently, The Pinettes perform at The Bar 12 on Fulton most Thursdays nights.
Despite the band’s continuous struggles to break stereo-types and build a large following the likes of some of their male peer brass bands, Jourdain remains optimistic about the future and fulfilled by her work with The Pinettes. “If you love your job, you don’t wanna quit and I love what i do. You can have a bad day but when its time to play, its fun. And I love playing music. I just love playing my drum.”
You can check out The Pinettes Brass Band tonight and the 1st and 3rd Thursdays in November at The 12 Bar On Fulton 608 Fulton St. Admission is free, two sets starting at 9pm until around midnight - or later.
You can check out more Red Cotton videos on my youtube channel and you can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org