The Extra Crispy Brass Band has a sound that is distinctly Dixie, finding inspiration from the “second line” traditional style of New Orleans jazz.
“The first line was the funeral procession and the second line refers to the up-tempo brass band and dancers following behind,” says Kevin Christensen, who plays the snare drum in the band.
“And it’s a peculiar and awesome dance style, totally freestyle,” adds Greg Cramer, who plays trombone.
Cramer came up with the idea of forming the band when he returned to Milwaukee after living in New Orleans for six years.
“In New Orleans you can see a brass band play every night of the week, and I really missed that vibe,” Cramer says. He was drawn in particular to a New Orleans music club, the Maple Leaf Bar, where a band named Rebirth Brass Band holds a residency on Tuesday nights.
“I used to wait tables next door to the Maple Leaf,” Cramer recalls. “The entire staff would get off every Tuesday night and we’d all go to see Rebirth, which was the best thing in the world, according to me.”
Back in Milwaukee, Cramer, now working as a music teacher, decided to pick up a trombone and learn how to play it—with forming his own brass band in mind. He was more used to playing guitar but quickly got into the swing of things on the horn, so he started recruiting band mates.
The assembled seven-piece lineup includes Troy Leisemann on tenor sax, Brendan Hogan on trumpet and trombone, Kevin Klemme on trumpet and vocals, Jordan Kamps on bass drum and Dave Cusma honking away on tuba.
With the band ready, Cramer wanted to start a residency similar to what he had seen in New Orleans at the Maple Leaf. They soon found a home at the Uptowner, where they perform lengthy sets the first and third Thursday of each month. The band has attracted a devoted following, and sometimes their hot jazz sound pulls people in off the street.
“We not only draw a local crowd, but have great support from local jazz musicians. It’s a good mix,” Cusma says. The most exciting audience members to watch are the band’s swing-dancing fans. They sometimes offer free dance-step lessons before the show and then perform some ballroom-sized moves in the Uptowner’s modest space.
Most of the band’s numbers are old jazz and blues standards like “Li’l Liza Jane,” “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The band puts a brassy spin on a lot of the songs they cover and are slowly debuting some of their own material. With Milwaukee’s festival season starting up, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to show off outside of the Uptowner, too. They’ll be at Bastille Days this year, leading multiple parades and doing a stage show. They’ll also be performing at the Undead Music Festival, a jazz fest that spans several cities worldwide. The Milwaukee show will be at the Jazz Gallery on May 11.
For further inspiration, Cramer and other band members are taking a short spring vacation to New Orleans.
“I’m just going to ride my bike around, look at the gorgeous architecture on my way to go drink beer, eat great food and listen to awesome music, which is the life down there,” Cramer says.
But can the Extra Crispy Brass Band hope to recreate such a New Orleans atmosphere in Milwaukee?
“We try to approximate it, but we do our own thing based off of what they do,” Cramer says. “We’re doing the 900-miles-north-of-it version.”
The Extra Crispy Brass Band plays the Uptowner on Thursday, April 19, at 8:30 p.m.