The Brass Room: A Monday Night Neighborhood Jam
1301 Surrey Avenue
Monday, November 13, 2017
“That’s the President of the United States and the First Lady of the Brass Room.”
So says Gloria LeBlanc Wheeler, proprietor of The Brass Room in Lafayette, LA, as I point to the two portraits hanging prominently on the wall. I don’t know who was the boss inside the White House but I damn well know who calls the shots here.
Thirty seconds after I entered the door and navigated to the back of the room, a man whose biceps strain the sleeves of his T-shirt holds out his hand.
“I’m Alex Montgomery, how you doing?”
“Paul Tamburello from Boston. My friends call me PT,” says I.
“This band is old school,” Alex says, “ you’ll see.”
Actually, I can hear it as I’m trying to listen to him over the decibels the band is cranking out.
When’s the last time I walked into a bar in Boston and been greeted like that by a perfect stranger?
My usual haunts in Lafayette are dance halls and bars where I know the bands, people by face if not by name and know the territory. The Brass Rail is far from that territory. There’s not much open on this stretch of Surrey Street far from downtown Lafayette. I was the only guy my color in the place and not many patrons blinked an eye.
Several men nod a hello as they walk past my chair at the far end of the colorfully decorated room and just in front of a tiny window revealing a small kitchen.
I’m an outsider, a northerner, a visitor here, have no close black friends. My life experience may be a world apart from Alex’s or Gloria’s. But I feel welcome.
An old school front line saxophone, trombone, trumpet, keyboard, backed up by drums is playing a catalog of hits from the 70s and 80s. The guitar player and lead singer directs the show with buoyant enthusiasm. Covers of Smokey Robinson and James Brown and others of the era come one after the other. My guess is that most of the men in the band play here after they finish their day jobs. They’re not professionals but they’re certainly having fun.
Despite the fabulous dance beat, I’m surprised the dance floor is empty. Two women at a table in front are busting moves as they sit in their chairs waving arms and wiggling their behinds in unison with the music.
The two dozen tables are filled with couples, singles sit at the ten stools at the bar. The men are dressed casually, the women in slacks and carefully chosen tops have put more effort into it.
“Hope you’re hungry, food’s coming out later,” says Gloria as I order a Bud Light.
The Brass Room has a lively vibe, feels like a Monday night hangout and destination. Men arrive and give hearty sometimes elaborate handshakes and bro hugs with their friends and hugs to the women they know.
The Brass Room won’t be found on the Trip Advisor list of must see locales. But it’s as integral a part of Lafayette music and culture as any of them. I never would have found it at all had I not met Chester Chevalier and his wife Mary the night before at Mr. Rodney Bernard’s 80th birthday party in Scott, LA.
Chester had just played with one of the bands, his commanding guitar getting my attention.
I introduce myself, he confirms that he plays at The Brass Room Monday nights, his wife Mary wife encourages me to head over there and here I am.
“Chester isn’t here because his wife has to get up at 5 AM tomorrow, to help with a food drive at El Sido (another neighborhood bar on the other side of Lafayette),” says Gloria. No matter. I’m getting a feel for Lafayette nightlife I’ve never seen before.
Lo and behold at 10 PM, three women emerge from the tiny kitchen with a cart filled with bowls of gumbo. Another custom as it turns out in neighborhood places like this.
A sixty something woman from Opelousas is introduced and sings and shimmies, covering “Don’t Mess With My Man”, “Boney Maroney” and a few other oldies.
As the night progresses more guitar, bass, accordion and even a washboard player show up. Some of them well known professionals. There are about 20 people present when I arrive and by the time I left twice that many have dropped in to what appears to be a weekly event that’s circled in their calendar.
Music switches genres as an energetic fellow bounds up to the stage around 10:30. Laurie Sigu and the Creole Stompers have arrived. And my goodness, there’s Lee Alan Zeno playing bass in the back row. Does that man ever sleep or take a day off?
“Meowww!” I hear the woman shout from the kitchen when the zydeco band is announced.
“What’s that mean?” says I.
“It means ‘I like it’” exclaims Betty LeBlanc, Gloria’s sister.
A few minutes later there she is playing a frattoir (rub board) with a big meow grin on her face and a few minutes after that we’re dancing together. Live music has a way of lifting our spirits and lowering the cultural walls between us, even if for a few hours.
One last vignette.
“May I sit here?” A young fellow asks about the empty seat at the deuce I sitting at.
“Ronald Paul,” he says and shakes my hand.
“Paul Tamburello,” says I.
“Thank you for introducing yourself. It doesn’t happen like this in my hometown Boston. Its a really friendly gesture, several men who’ve never seen me before have done the same thing,” says I as I get up to leave.
“That’s what we do,” he says. “My friends call me RP.”
I grin. “My friends call me PT.”
After a bunch of days in Lafayette, I usually leave for home on Monday morning. Next time, I’d like to return to the Brass Room, say hello to the First Lady and Ronald and maybe even see Chester Chevalier. Even better, I’ll try to take a page out of the Lafayette playbook and introduce myself first.
The band covers pop music from the 70s and 80s...
presided over by proprietor Gloria LeBlanc Wheeler...
with help tonight from her sister Betty
who helps serve the tasty gumbo rolled out around 10 PM...
and plays the rub board for a tune by Laurie Sigu and The Creole Stompers.
Photos by Paul A.Tamburello, Jr.