Tuba Skinny, shown here performing in the French Quarter, will play at the Latchis on Aug. 31.
Derek Bridges/Creative Commons license
Tuba Skinny, shown here performing in the French Quarter, will play at the Latchis on Aug. 31.

‘Traditional jazz at its best is played live, and it’s social, and there’s dancing’

Tuba Skinny brings its New Orleans band to the Latchis on Aug. 31

BRATTLEBORO — Tuba Skinny brings its world-renowned traditional New Orleans jazz to the Latchis Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 31st at 7 p.m.

"Tuba Skinny came to our attention through a super fan who encouraged us to book them," says Jon Potter, executive director of Latchis Arts, in an email to The Commons. "Since then, I've become absolutely hooked on their music. It's fun, very tuneful, and very rhythmic. They get your toes tapping."

Potter described Tuba Skinny as "some of the premier players of this style of music in the world today."

"And I love their story: young players who got their start playing on the streets of New Orleans, often bicycling to their gigs," he adds.

In 2009, Tuba Skinny began as a street band in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The group has grown in popularity, assisted by more than 500 videos available on YouTube that have collectively garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Its musicians have become known as world-class interpreters of traditional jazz of the 1920s and 1930s. Their repertoire includes jug band music, spirituals, country blues, string band music, ragtime, and New Orleans R&B.

In the last 14 years, the band has released 12 albums and has toured the U.S. and around the globe.

Tuba Skinny includes five of the original band members, and all eight musicians live in and around New Orleans: Craig Flory on clarinet, Shaye Cohn on cornet, Barnabus Jones on trombone, Erika Lewis on vocals and bass drum, Max Bien Kahn on resonator guitar and tenor banjo, Greg Sherman on vocals and guitar, Todd Burdick on sousaphone, and Robin Rapuzzi on washboard.

The Commons reached Tuba Skinny's washboard player Robin Rapuzzi, 35, of New Orleans on tour in Maine recently to talk with him about the origins of the band, the allure of Jazz music, and what it takes to be a washboard player. Here's an excerpt of their conversation.

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Victoria Chertok: Where did the name "Tuba Skinny" come from?

Robin Rapuzzi: It started as a nickname for our tuba player, Todd Burdick, who is very skinny. (Todd doesn't play tuba anymore; he plays sousaphone.)

Basically, when our band would busk, we would ride our bikes to Royal Street and we would do that so often, the locals would yell out, "Tuba Skinny." They were referencing Tuba Fats [Anthony Lacen], a great performer and beloved tuba player in New Orleans who fought for street performing back in the 1990s.

V.C.: I heard that you play almost every Saturday night at a traditional club in the French Quarter where French President [Emmanuel] Macron visited on a recent trip to New Orleans.

R.R.: We play weekly, and it's a free show. It is outside of the French Quarter in the Marigny neighborhood. It feels like home to us, because we've been playing there over a decade. We also play regularly at local yearly festivals such as New Orleans Jazz [and Heritage] Fest[ival] and French Quarter Fest.

V.C.: Is Tuba Skinny still busking on the streets in the French Quarter?

R.R.: Not as often as we used to, because the main street in the French Quarter had not been available to buskers recently. But the pedestrian mall at Royal [Street] in the French Quarter has just been reinstated. It took a lot of hard work going to lots of city council meetings trying to teach the city about the history of the pedestrian mall.

V.C.: Where did the term "busking" come from?

R.R.: In medieval times, street poets and street singers would hold baskets while they sang. Once they made enough money at the top of the basket, they would pull a little string and then the money would go to the bottom of the basket and the top half would be empty again. So it might have come from the word "basket." Today, it means musicians on the street, as well as jugglers and magicians.

V.C.: Your first album of all-original tunes Magnolia Stroll was recorded live during the pandemic. What was that like?

R.R.: It was very special for the group, since five of us had been writing original tunes for years, but we didn't really have songs that had a variety of tempos yet. We needed a balance of tempos, since we care about variety, and our fans are mostly dancers. We finally did it!

We recorded at the Tigermen Den in New Orleans during the pandemic, so we had to keep doors and windows open while we were recording. People would stand outside and listen and they would leave us tips.

V.C.: What keeps you and your band members inspired after 14 years of touring?

R.R.: Well, simply put, we all love to travel! Within jazz music, one is always improvising, so it's always new, and that is very engaging. Traditional jazz at its best is played live, and it's social and there's dancing. The dancing really inspires us!

V.C.: Tell me more about the different musical genres you perform.

R.R.: We explore other genres like jug band or country blues, delta blues. It's soulful, simple, with easy-to-learn chord progressions, written by original artists back in the day, really unique numbers we wanted to tackle. We also play string band music as a jazz band. In a sense, traditional jazz can also be interpreted as a form of folk music.

V.C.: Which instruments did you play growing up? How did you start playing the washboard?

R.R.: I grew up in Lake Forest Park, Washington. When I was 9 years old, my dad turned me on to guitar as well as drums. I learned basic chords and rhythm. In high school I got into folk music and punk rock.

At 18 years, I was at a folk festival in Seattle, which made me want to learn a new instrument. Someone handed me a washboard, and it seemed to work.

I hit the road and moved to New Orleans and moved into an artist studio in the French Quarter with eight people who were in a jug band. The week I moved in, the washboard player was sick, and I said, "Oh, I have a little experience with that." The reason I took over from the washboard player was so that I could pay rent.

I kept with it, and I was making some money on the street - and ever since then I've been studying the washboard by listening to old recordings of 78 records. I was able to research on YouTube and checked out a few groups, and I'd imitate sounds until I found my own voice.

The original recording that inspired me was Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red playing the song "Step It Up and Go."

The washboard was made popular by vaudeville and the medicine show performers, as well as traveling novelty jazz bands.

V.C.: How do you actually play the washboard?

R.R.: I use thumb and two fingers on each hand, and I wear sewing thimbles on each of them. Those are the strongest fingers, so I thought I might as well use them. I teach this style to several washboard students every month when I'm back in New Orleans.

V.C.: Who were some of your early music influences?

R.R.: My early influences were Woody Guthrie, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Barenaked Ladies. Then, in middle school and high school, I listened to punk rock and metal.

One of my favorite composers is Louis Moreau Gottschalk, from the city of New Orleans. He was inspired by Afro Latin rhythms and combined them with European classical music. The slaves were playing banjos and hand drums in Congo Square.

V.C.: Tell me about the Glo Worm Trio.

R.R.: I've been obsessed with classical music and Italian mandolin music for the last seven years. I run an Italian string band called the Glo Worm Trio. We play very early dance music from Italy called ballo liscio, which includes waltzes, mazurkas, polkas, and tarantellas.

V.C.: You consider Tuba Skinny a real "dance band."

R.R.: One hundred percent, it's dance music. Jazz was born with swing dancing. People always like to dance, and it's social dance music. It is community dancing; you can dance by yourself or with someone you don't know.

We want to get rid of stereotype that you can only dance if it's with a partner. When we see people dancing, it inspires us and we play better.

V.C.: Despite a lack of interest in social media and limited release of your music online, you've amassed a devoted digital following. Why haven't you promoted your music?

R.R.: We never had the intention to promote ourselves that much until recently. It always came from fans filming us and putting it on the internet, and we've been so lucky.

We would love to give our music away, so we put our older albums on Spotify, and we have dedicated fans that download our music from Bandcamp, or they go to Louisiana Music Factory to buy our CDs.

V.C.: Lastly, I heard you had a funny story at the Telluride Jazz Festival. Tell me more....

R.R.: We've been touring a lot this summer all over the U.S.A., and we played at the Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado last week. It was at 10,000 feet up with thin air, and it was hard to breathe.

When we went to the greenroom, they had a sort of oxygen machine because some musicians might need oxygen. A few people tried to use it but we couldn't figure [it out]. I told the crowd, "I'm feeling it! We've come from under the sea in New Orleans to 10,000 feet above sea level - this is so different!"

V.C.: Any closing thoughts?

R.R.: I love this band so much. We're really like a family. We've been through so much great hardships and great celebrations, all over the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and I look forward to another 10 years of travel with these great friends.

And please dance at the Latchis Theatre! It means so much to the band.

* * *

Tuba Skinny brings its world-renowned traditional New Orleans jazz to the Latchis Theatre, 50 Main St., Brattleboro on Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m.

Tickets ($25 for general admission and $42 for premium seating) are available at latchis.com.

For more information, contact Jon Potter at [email protected], or call 802-254-1109.

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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