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Craig "sparky" Klein lights up for the town

 By Geraldine Wycoff

Craig Klein just might have been the most heard and visible musician on the scene during this last year. The trombonist and vocalist stood in the spotlight at The Broadside with his fellow members of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers when the band won a Grammy award for its 2020 release, Atmosphere, in the Best Regional Roots Music Album category. He and the very hip and funky, street beat band has also entertained their live music-deprived fans with outdoor shows around town. An artist who adamantly declares, “I don't want to be put in a box,” also released a New Orleans traditional jazz album, Talkative Horns – Musical Conversation on Lucien Barbarin, in honor of his fellow trombonist and friend, the great Lucien Barbarin who passed away in 2020.

Klein's rousing horn has helped keep folks' blues away in recent months as he blew and sang with the Storyville Stompers, a band he's been playing with for 40 years, as well as the New Orleans Jazz Vipers outside of d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street. The rock 'n funk, trombone-laden group, Bonerama, which was co-founded by Klein and Mark Mullins in 1988 and was often on the road, has only performed three times since the pandemic though the future is looking brighter. And though Preservation Hall, where Klein performs regularly, has been shuttered, he has gotten together with the guys for a recording session. The trombonist was also spotted on the streets when he was among some 40 musicians honoring trumpeter Terry Gibson with a jazz funeral.

Considering all of this action and his overall optimistic demeanor, it's not surprising that as a young man during his early years with the Storyville Stompers, he was dubbed Sparky by several teenage girls in a band called The Puppies. The apt nickname stuck throughout the decades.

By adapting his approach on the trombone and being hip to particular styles and repertoires, Klein has been able to fit in with the many groups with which he performs. There is, however, always one constant in Klein's playing. “I try to bring my energy – the Craig Klein energy,” he says with a laugh. “The real deal is that all of this music is African American. Like Nicholas Payton says, it's Black American Music. I feel lucky to be in and around it, to be in the middle of it all and be accepted and love this whole world of music that we have in New Orleans. We have something seriously special here.”

“I like doing everything,” Klein says while conceding that his heart remains in the traditional jazz style that marked his beginnings in music. He admires modern jazz trombonists like J. J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller though he says the closest he got playing the style was while he blowing and recording with New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones. “He mixed modern jazz with traditional jazz,” says Klein particularly remembering playing the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street” with Leroy at Donna's Bar & Grill at the warmly enthusiastic insistence of the much loved chief and co-owner, Charlie Sims. “There's also not much work for modern jazz musicians,” Klein acknowledges. “To me the holy trinity of New Orleans trombone is Walden “Frog” Joseph, Jim Robinson, Louis Nelson.”

Like so many other musicians in New Orleans, throughout Louisiana and elsewhere, Klein boasts his introduction to music to his kin. His uncle, trombonist Jerry Dallman, gave his nephew his first trombone when he was in the third grade. “Jerry was only seven years older than me so he was more like a brother,” Klein says. “Hearing him was a real big thing. There are certain musicians you just automatically lock in with and Lucien was another as well with the guys from Bonerama.”

You could say Klein has been married to the 'bone since the fourth grade and credits his music teacher Jay Haydel at East Jefferson High School, where he played in the concert, marching and jazz big band, as being a great motivator. “That pulled more out of me.”

“The real thing that turned my eye was when Jerry said to me, 'Hey there's this group I'm in called the Pair O' Dice Tumblers. Come with us this Sunday.' After that my whole world changed. I said, 'Whoa, people really do this? Marching through the streets playing brass band music?' The Tumblers were fun. I made every “tumble” I could.” According to Klein, it wasn't long before the Tumblers added more “real” musicians and evolved into the Storyville Stompers and started getting gigs at events like parties and conventions. “We modeled ourselves after Olympia Brass Band. They were our mentors. Trumpeter Milton Batiste produced the first Storyville Stompers album in 1986. He saw were trying to be as authentic as possible. That was an honor.”

Acknowledging New Orleans Brass Band Culture


One of Klein's first utterances when it was announced that the Nightcrawlers had won a Grammy was acknowledging those musicians and bands that came before and created the brass band culture.

“When Rebirth won a Grammy nine years ago, I felt like it was a win for all of us,” he says. “So it was a win for the New Orleans brass band community and hopefully will raise it up and show that this music is as worthy as any other style of music. It can stand up to anything else. It was only the second time a brass band ever won a Grammy,” he states incredulously while mentioning giants like the Olympia and the Dirty Dozen brass bands. “There wasn't a category for it.”

“I'm almost embarrassed,” Klein says of receiving the award when talking to some of the musicians like sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis from the Dozen. “Y'all should have a Grammy before us – you're the guys that opened this door up.”

Lucien in the Sky


While the Nighcrawlers' Atmosphere and Klein's own, recent release, Talkative Horns certainly offer different vibes particularly rhythmically, the trombonist, rightfully views them as kissing cousins “I put the traditional brass bands and traditional jazz bands together,” he offers.

Originally, the traditional project was going to be the coming together of Klein's and Lucien Barbarin's trombones on a gospel record. They met to discuss it and did some practicing at Lucien's house. The next time Klein saw Lucien, however, Barbarin said the record would have to be put on hold as he wasn't feeling “too good.”

After it became apparent that due to Barbarin's failing health the album they planned would never come into fruition, Klein was stumped as how to push forward on the concept. Though he considered other trombonists for the project he knew it would “just never be the same.” One day, he heard an album called Chatter Jazz – Talkative Horns by cornetist Rex Steward and trombonist Dickey Wells. “It definitely reminded me of Lucien,” Klein recalls. “It was almost like Lucien was talking to me saying, 'This is the direction to go. Do the record like this.'” The result was Talkative Horns – Musical Conversations on Lucien Barbarin,

The first call was to trumpeter Kevin Louis, who blows cornet and sings on the album and had played with Lucien at Preservation Hall and at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Klein then enlisted his fellow members of the New Orleans Jazz Vipers including guitarist Molly Reeves, bassist Mitchell Player and pianist Steve Detroy. Naturally, Jerry Barbarin Anderson was recruited for this album that is a tribute to his uncle Lucien, who was also a cousin of guitarist/banjoist/vocalist, the late Danny Barker. Barker's influence on Lucien was particularly evident not only musically but in their skill at and joy of being entertainers.

Incidentally, an illustration, drawn by pianist Tom McDermott, of Lucien with his hand to his ear listening to Danny by his side is found on the Nightcrawlers' album that also includes other images of New Orleans legendary musical “angels” we have lost.

Each carefully chosen tune on the album and how it's performed references Lucien. It opens with “Lucien's Blues” that was written by Barbarin and pianist Henri Chaix, a French born, Swiss citizen who brought Lucien to Europe. The swinging number reflects the concept of the album's sub-title, “Musical Conversations,” with back and forth exchanges between Klein's trombone and Louis' cornet. Notably, both brass instruments are being played with mutes as they are on all but one of the eight cuts. The exception is the song “Tomb Tune.”

“That's another nod to Lucien,” Klein explains. “When you went to see Lucien play somewhere, the plunger and pixie mute were always sitting next to him. He always used them – it was a part of his voice, an extension of him.” The album also includes two Klein originals, “Lucien in the Sky (With Angels),” that begins as a dirge and moves into a sweet waltz time, as well as “If I Could Hug You,” that features Anderson's snappy drums and starts swinging with just the two horns before the rest of the band jumps in.

Years ago, Klein also co-wrote the aforementioned “Tomb Tune,” with the great Wardell Quezergue and Jimmy Carpenter that was commissioned by Diane Ireland for the funeral of New Orleans drumming great Bernard “Bunchie” Johnson who, as a musician, was given special permission to be entombed in the Barbarin family's tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1. “Wardell oversaw the project and the arrangements,” Klein explains. The dirge appears on both the Nightcrawlers' album and Klein's tribute to Lucien and perhaps surprisingly are presented very similarly. Both start with the drums with the biggest difference being the presence of the Jason Mingledorff's clarinet in the Nightcrawlers' version.

Because Lucien's desire had been to record a gospel album, the inclusion of the classic “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was a natural choice. It stands apart as Louis, Klein, the pair who arranged the song, plus Steve Detroy blend their soulful voices with Louis also giving a shout out to Lucien. Several of what can be considered Lucien's signature, fine versions of “Girl of My Dreams” and “Rocking Chair” are found in the mix.

Klein first me Lucien around 1982 when the latter was playing with trumpeter Leroy Jones and bassist Walter Payton in a restaurant on Decatur Street. “They were easy to be friends with,” he remembers. The two trombonists' lives seem to have weaved around each other. For two years they performed together at the InterContintel Hotel's Sunday jazz brunch with Lucien on tuba and Craig on trombone. It was Barbarin who was responsible for Klein's first overseas trip when he hired him for a gig in Venezuela. “I seem to always follow in Lucien's footsteps,” says Klein who subbed for the trombonist at both Preservation Hall and Palm Court. “Lucien really got me hooked up with Harry {pianist/vocalist Harry Connick Jr.),” says Klein who played with the bandleader from 1990 until 2006 when he and fellow trombonist Mark Mullins formed Bonerama. Recommended for the job with Connick by Barbarin, Klein vividly recalls his audition that was done by phone with Harry and bassist Ben Wolfe on the other end. Much to Craig's amazement, Harry said, 'Okay, you've got the gig.' “Lucien opened so many doors for me.”

Notably, like Barbarin, Klein also plays sousaphone and is heard on the big horn on his 2004 release Trombonisms.“It opened up my ears to other things on the trombone. I learned how to groove on that. It's a fun instrument to play.”

Through his long career, Klein, 60, has enjoyed a slew of memorable moments such performing with Harry Connick Jr.'s Big Band at London's Royal Albert Hall and traveling to Europe with trumpet great Wallace Davenport. “Every time I play Preservation Hall is a memorable performance just because of the love and history there,” says Klein, who as a teenager would listen to the music “pouring out” of the iconic club and finally began going in to further study the music. “I always wanted to play there and I did sit in and now I'm a part of the team.”

On a much lighter and quite different note, Klein vividly recalls when the Nightcrawlers played one early Decadence Party that was held in the Bywater. “We were all in costume – I like to costume – and Matt {sousaphonist Matt Perrine} had on a red thong with a bomber leather jacket. Everything was cool because he was standing in the back row playing. When it came time for a tuba solo, he stepped into the front row and there we are looking at his hairy ass in a thong with a leather jacket on. We still laugh at that.”

Visibility Beyond the Bandstand


Craig Klein's name, which often brings the response, “Oh, he's such a nice guy!” became more widely known beyond the bandstand when he and his friends Sheik, Bill and Dennis evolved into the Arabi Wrecking Krewe. It was November 2005 following Hurricane Katrina that the guys came to his home in Arabi to help clean up his house. They figured it could be repaired and thought that maybe they could help gut the houses of other musicians. They collectively said, “Let's see what we can do.” “It started with just the four of us and just grew,” says Klein who, traveling in from Baton Rouge, was personally involved with 75 of the some 125 houses of primarily musicians and their families that the Krewe would gut. “We figured if you get the music back, the people will follow like the Pied Piper. It opened my eyes up to activism and how we can make a difference by helping other people.”

Klein has discovered that the stress he was under post-Katrina could have led in part to a neurological disorder called focal dystonia that he's been quietly dealing with since that period. The condition effected his embouchure, creating a muscular distortion that made it very difficult for him to play. Presently, he's found help through Skype meetings with trombonist and founder of the Musician's Wellness of North America Jan Kagrice formerly of North Texas State University. Klein says he knows he's moving in the right direction through her consultations, playing less and becoming healthier during the pandemic.

“Playing less” is, of course, relative to the pre-pandemic era when touring with Bonerama was in the mix and there were more regular club dates. The down time did allow the what could be considered the all-star members of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, who were individually involved in other musical pursuits, to practice and thus record and release Atmosphere in 2020.

“We've played more together than we have in four or five years,” says Klein who notes that usually the 'Crawlers would annually just perform at Jazz Fest, the French Quarter Festival and a maybe a gig or two. The band, that boasts the driving rhythm section of snare drummer Kerry “Fatman” Hunter teamed with bass drummer Caytanio Hingle of the renowned New Birth Brass Band, busy and talented sousaphonist Matt Perrine, and tenor saxophonist Brent Rose, who wrote the killer cut “Fatman” among others talented contributors, intends to put another album out later this year.

Forevermore, the words “Grammy-winning” will preface the name of Craig Klein as it does with most musicians and bands who have received the award. The trombonist's reaction? “It gives me a tingle,” says Klein then laughs when he relates that fellow Grammy winner Fatman said the description gives him 'a chill feel.'”

As Grammy-winning Craig Klein has sincerely expressed, it's a win he's glad to share with the New Orleans brass band community that made it all possible.


Craig Klein in the International Trombone Association Journal


The New Orleans Nightcrawlers, with co-founder and trombonist Craig Klein, celebrated their first Grammy win this year for their 2020 album Atmosphere. Klein has bee na staple in the New Orleans brass scene for decades. He first picked up the trombone as a young child and continued on to co-found the Storyville Stompers. he spent many years performing with harry Connick Jr.'s big band as well as creating the trombone rock band Bonerama. Atmosphere is the New Orleans Nightcrawlers' first album in eleven years. 

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Craig Klein releases tribute to Lucien Barbarin, 'Talkative Horns'

By: Will Coviello


The cover of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers’ Grammy-winning 2020 album “Atmosphere” features the nine band members in silhouette under a starscape, with a handful of New Orleans musicians depicted with angels' wings. There’s Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Danny Barker. There’s also Lucien Barbarin, a longtime friend and mentor to Nightcrawlers cofounder Craig Klein.

“Lucien was a dear friend,” Klein says. “He was easy to play with. He was one of the funkiest and most soulful of trombone players. That’s why Harry Connick featured him on every show.”

Barbarin had hired Klein to play in one of his bands in the late 1980s and was instrumental in getting him an audition for Harry Connick Jr.’s big band — and the two trombonists became roommates while the band was on tour.

Early last year, Klein and Barbarin were planning to record a gospel album together. They had chosen songs, picked a band and were rehearsing, but Barbarin became ill. He died in late January from cancer.

Klein decided to record a tribute to Barbarin called “Talkative Horns,” which he released in April. It features “Lucien’s Blues,” co-written by Barbarin, and a couple songs that they had chosen for the gospel album.

“Talkative Horns” is a title inspired by a similar album, “Chatter Jazz,” recorded by trombonist Dicky Wells and trumpeter Rex Stewart in 1959. Klein thought the record sounded like a musical conversation, and he approached trumpeter Kevin Louis about recording the tribute with him as if they were talking to Lucien. Louis had played with Barbarin at Preservation Hall and the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Stewart and Wells use a lot of plungers and mutes on “Chatter Jazz,” and since Barbarin often did as well, Klein and Louis use them frequently on “Talkative Horns.”

Klein also enlisted Barbarin’s nephew, Jerry Barbarin Anderson, the drummer for Kermit Ruffins’ band. The rhythm section is comprised of pianist Steve Detroy, guitarist Molly Reeves and bassist Mitchell Player, who play in the New Orleans Jazz Vipers with Klein.

The album opens with “Lucien’s Blues,” and then Louis takes the lead singing on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which starts as a dirge but changes to a more joyous tone as the band members harmonize and invoke Barbarin in the lyrics.

The album includes a couple of Barbarin’s favorite songs, rendered as instrumental pieces. He often performed and sang on the early jazz tune “Girl of My Dreams” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.”

The album also includes “Tomb Tune,” a dirge composed by Klein, Jimmy Carpenter and Wardell Quezergue for Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson’s funeral. (It also was recorded by the Nightcrawlers for “Atmosphere.”) Klein also composed "Lucien in the Sky (with Angels)."

The record closes with the group’s take on “What a Wonderful World,” which has a lively, Caribbean feel.

Since the Nightcrawlers won the Best Regional Roots Music Album Grammy in March, the band has been using pandemic downtime to rehearse, write new music and perform.

The Nightcrawlers took a distinctly relaxed approach to recording “Atmosphere.” Klein cooked food to bring to rehearsals and studio sessions, and instead of knocking the album out all at once, the band spread recording over three months. The relaxed feel comes through on the album, despite its sophisticated arrangements. Klein then took that same approach to recording “Talkative Horns.”

Spurred by the award, the Nightcrawlers have been busy writing new material and may have an album ready to go by October, which in this altered year is festival time, with French Quarter Festival and Jazz Fest on the calendar.

“Talkative Horns” is available on Klein’s website and at the Louisiana Music Factory. Klein hopes to have an album release show as pandemic conditions improve.

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Interview with Tipitina's TV ON THE "ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT BROADCAST"

Craig Klein is a born and raised New Orleans artist and musician whose craft is the direct product of the undeniable and immersive culture that can only come from the Big Easy. In this episode, we discuss the long road to winning a GRAMMY, the natural evolution and many projects of working NOLA musicians, auditioning for and performing with Harry Connick, Jr., and much, much more.

The Alright, Alright Broadcast is a one-on-one interview program featuring artists, musicians, performers, producers, promoters, venue owners, on-air personalities, production, crew members, and more of the individuals that make our culture and entertainment so uniquely captivating.

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"Talkative horns, mutes and friendship"

 This week, Craig Klein joins me on the show virtually from New Orleans to talk about his new sweet record made in homage to his friend, fellow trombonist Lucien Barbarin who died of cancer early last year. In the spirit of his record Talkative Horns – A Musical Conversation with Lucien Barbarin, the show also features other songs with muted horns and trombones.

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