From the streets of New Orleans
Tuba Skinny takes its show back on the road
Who: Tuba Skinny
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience at the Wheeler Opera House
When: Sunday, June 27, 6 & 9 p.m.
How much: $45
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Who: Tuba Skinny
Where: “Reflections: A Tribute to Essential Workers” at the Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, June 27, 2 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: Registration required at aspenmusicfestival.com; the event will also include the American Brass Quintet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico and remarks by Gov. Jared Polis
Tuba Skinny found its throwback sound busking on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where this loose collective started playing old-time jazz and ragtime and blues in 2009.
Its members had poured into the city from around the U.S. Percussionist Robin Rapuzzi and a few others were from Upstate New York. They weren’t coming out of formal jazz training, but instead from the fringes and the counterculture, finding surprising inspiration in grimy washboard percussion and brass music from the 1920s and ’30s.
“There was a thing going on with our generation of young punk rockers at that point,” Rapuzzi said recently from home in New Orleans. “We wanted to travel. Some of us were traveling by freight train or hitchhiking around. We wanted to see the world and live free.”
They supported themselves as street musicians. On the street scenes, Rapuzzi recalled, they met folk musicians and learned bits of Eastern European traditions, old-time jazz and fiddle tunes. Those experiences led them to explore music history and world traditions and, naturally, led them to the birthplace of jazz and the cradle of American music: New Orleans.
There they evolved into a jazz group who incorporated all the bits they’d picked up from other forms. The anything goes instrumentation fit their free spirit.
“I liked jazz because it was so punchy,” he said. “Older jazz reminded me of punk rock because it was kind of ragged.”
They named themselves in tribute to the late great Tuba Fats, who was a fixture on Jackson Square for more than four decades and died in 2004. Rapuzzi recalled that in the early days of the band, before it had a name, someone on the street in the Quarter teased their tuba player, asking, “What are you, ‘Tuba Skinny?’” And the name stuck.
Members have kept many side projects going — the Loose Marbles Jazz Band among them — but as Tuba Skinny they got traction as both a local attraction and touring group almost immediately. After the 2009 French Quarter Fest, they booked a few European festivals and soon landed invites to Aspen and elsewhere.
Tuba Skinny was something of a Jazz Aspen Snowmass discovery. The 2010 June festival was the first American festival that the group played outside of New Orleans.
They return to play the June Experience this weekend, when their sets include two shows at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday night and the tribute show for local essential workers at the Benedict Music Tent that afternoon.
This run of Colorado shows by a seven-piece version of Tuba Skinny, with multiple sets in Aspen and Paonia, is the group’s first tour since the pandemic struck.
“It’s kind of jarring,” Rapuzzi said of heading back on the road and seeing the band’s schedule fill up again with New Orleans club gigs.
After supporting themselves as musicians, the pandemic forced band members to find other ways to make ends meet as live music was shut down everywhere. The group’s banjo player and guitarist left the group for a full-time carpentry job. Rapuzzi has been blacksmithing to pay his bills.
“We all basically reorganized our lives,” Rapuzzi said. “But now that music is becoming possible to play again, we have to make decisions like ‘Do we want to go back to being music-focused?’”
They’re still mulling that big question. The first creative pursuits to fall off have been some of their smaller side projects, Rapuzzi noted, like just-for-fun neighborhood bands around the city. They may limit the number of tours they do and the number of regular club shows they book in New Orleans, Rapuzzi said, keeping time open for the other vocations and avocations members discovered during the pandemic.
They started playing outdoor shows as New Orleans slowly began reopening this spring, mostly on Frenchmen Street outside of the d.b.a. music club and in the open-air pop-up venue in the alleyway across the street with a capacity of 85.
“What Tuba Skinnny cares a lot about is playing on the street,” Rapuzzi said. “Any time we get to play outside it brings us closer to what we appreciate because that’s where we started.”
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Yefim Bronfman coaxed an ear-caressing range of tone from the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the Benedict Music Tent on Tuesday evening.