For Tulsa, the summer of 2021 has been all about the horns. Seemingly overnight, the King Cabbage Brass Band is all over the city’s stages, providing a New Orleans-plus-Justin-Timberlake soundtrack that’s melting minds, lifting spirits and meeting our collective pandemic need to simultaneously thrash, bounce, holler and cry. In reality, many of the group’s members have been playing together for a decade or more. It’s no accident that they’re all tuned in as deep as it gets to the heartbeat of Tulsa.
King Cabbage Brass Band is led by Greg “Dr. Kraut” Fallis on trombone, with Bishop “Miami” Marsh and "Dr. Dave 'Freaklips'” Johnson, trumpet; Matthew Leland, trombone; Andy “Macho Man Randy Cabbage” McCormick, saxophone; Jordan Hehl, bass; and Nicholas “Cookies” Foster, drums. Those without nicknames were still workshopping theirs as of this writing or are honestly too legendary to need one. (Fun facts: Marsh is left-handed, Fallis has two cats named Curtis and Peanut Butter, Leland—a founding Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey member—is "the heart and soul of the band" according to his bandmates, and Johnson allegedly has four left toes.)
Fallis, Marsh, Hehl and Foster spoke with Root in the “backyard” of Bar 473 in Kendall Whittier, where KCBB shares a bill with Nightingale ("one of the most sensitive, thoughtful, tasteful bands in Tulsa," says Fallis) on September 18. They'll perform the following day as the Tvlse Jazz Pirates, an homage to a real 1920s band of (almost) the same name, at an Owen Park event presented by the Center for Public Secrets.
Root: Tulsa loves a supergroup. What does working in a big ensemble like this bring to you as musicians?
Marsh: It’s brilliant to see what Tulsa’s been doing in these last five or ten years. Everybody in this band plays really actively in a bunch of different projects. That's what makes Tulsa so unique: you’ve got a lot of different musicians where the required skill set is to know about a lot of different types of music. You really don't see that a whole lot in other places. I could play strictly jazz or strictly punk rock gigs if I went to a place like New York City and make plenty of income just from that. But here, if I'm really trying to get the most benefits out of what I do playing trumpet, I have to have a knowledge I bring to the music that I play. In New Orleans brass band music, the trumpet has a lot of leadership qualities. But I also have to know how to follow the pack with someone like Dave Johnson, so that if his high notes are a little bit quieter in one spot, that means I need to pull back so he can come out.
Fallis: I write a lot of the charts, but musically, everybody kind of brings their own thing. But we do have a job to do. You know what I mean? There's a very specific thing that everybody has to do as far as the horn players. And then whenever we solo, then you get to hear everybody's individuality. There's just no weak links in this band, which I love. As far as Nicholas and Jordan, they have much more freedom to come up with a new style or a new feel for things. I don't really give them as much direction. They have this whole second line thing that they've developed and it's just really cool. I'm so grateful because they make it work. They just do a superb job.
Hehl, Marsh, Foster, Fallis: making some noise for the 918
Root: How did the idea for this project come together? And how did you come to the conclusion that Tulsa needed this?
Fallis: I've been in other similar groups. In Memphis I was in one called Mighty Souls, which is a traditional brass band. There was another group that I loved dearly, Lucky Seven Brass Band, which does the complete opposite: it has electric bass, a drum set instead of a tuba. We're all excited to take those two concepts and put them together. Everything we do has that Rebirth Brass Band, New Orleans brass band foundation. And then we can take that and apply it to Whitney Houston, Justin Timberlake, whatever we're doing, which people love. We didn’t come up with it; the Whitney Houston arrangement we do is from Kinfolk Brass Band, for instance. We’re trying to carry on the tradition.
Hehl: Greg's from here originally. He played in a handful of bands here before moving and got a feel for the scene and what was here then. When he went to Memphis and played with the bands he played with, he was like, oh, this isn't happening in Tulsa, you know, where all my friends are and there are fire musicians. There's brass bands in Utah. There's brass bands in Sacramento. But it's not a thing here. So we needed it.
Fallis: And the response so far definitely just shows that instantly. We've all played in a bunch of different bands and easily this one gets the crowd more whipped up than any I've played with, by a long shot. It was like right out the gate everyone told us, yes, this is what we want. It's the thing you needed that you didn't know you needed.
Root: What was it like playing Cry Baby Hill as your first gig?
Foster: The band played Cry Baby Hill on June 13, 2021. And we had our first rehearsal on June 2. I remember after the first couple of rehearsals being like, well, that was really fun and really productive! This is going to be really fun for us. And then to get on stage and see people just losing their minds … I was losing my mind.
Fallis: When we played “Casanova” on the break, there was this one guy in yellow, he's literally going like this, I swear to God. [Insane dancing.] I just laugh every time I watch the clip. "Casanova" is an ’80s song by LeVert. We play an arrangement of it by Rebirth Brass Band. And people just go nutty for it. It just has an energy and a happiness that—for me personally—nothing else, no other kind of music does that.
Hehl: We do all the pop stuff and the more traditional stuff and mixing those in a set is almost like—I don't want to say “tricking,” but it's like slipping that stuff in between the pop stuff, where people are already amped and receptive. I've got friends that are like, what was that song? I’m like, oh, it's this Rebirth song. And now they're listening to Rebirth on their own, which is awesome. And you can definitely tell like the people in the audience who have been to New Orleans. For a lot of people who love New Orleans, they go down there regularly and they're used to seeing brass bands and they love that culture. You see them when they hear a song that's a Rebirth tune or something like that and they're like, yeah! Getting that live—you can't get that in Tulsa. You have to go somewhere else. You have to go there. We're taking some of that very location-specific music and being like, now it's here.
Marsh: I don't know if it’s necessarily worth mentioning, but this reminds me a lot of other things in history too. Like how, when people used to go hear the jazz great Charlie Parker, they would hear him in the dance hall. They wouldn’t hear him at a club all the time. And so we’re seeing this mix and change of the guard: going and sitting and listening versus getting up and partying. Is it party music? Is it societal listening music? This band has elements of both. I feel like it leans more on the side of the party and getting up and dancing. But you're still kind of like Trojan-Horsing these different ideas.
Fallis: Especially with Bishop in all his solos, you know? I mean, they sound great, but he's also laying a lot of heavy shit in there. Like it's on “SexyBack” or something. Or Nicholas is doing free jazz stuff in the middle of Justin Timberlake. Trojan-Horsing it. That's a badass way to put it, man.
Root: I wonder if this all hit such a chord here too precisely because this is not just party music. It’s music that you often encounter when people are going through some shit and they're trying to get to the other side of it. I think it hits at a deeper place in people because of that.
Fallis: I agree. We'll also go into a bar and play hymns like “Jesus on the Mainline” and “I'll Fly Away.” I play that stuff from a place of faith and it means something to me, and I hope that comes across. Then there’s other stuff people connect with. When you play “Do Whatchu Wanna,” and people get that feeling of being in New Orleans, it's just a different vibe. It's a different look on their face. It's a different dance that they do. We can bring a lot of different vibes. This is not jazz, to me. This is New Orleans music, which is a collection of hymns, the influence of West African drumming, French operatic vibrato, Buddy Bolden, and a lot of things that are just starkly themselves.
KCBB wails on Cry Baby Hill, June 2021
Foster: We usually finish with a Rage Against the Machine medley, because it's the most intense, loud, brash, in your face thing. And we did that last night [at Mercury Lounge] and they were like “More!” and we were like, where are we going to go after that? And then we played “Do Whatchu Wanna” which is like this like slow, groovy, New Orleans thing. And everyone was so down. No one left. I wasn't nervous about it, but I was like, oh, this'll be interesting. But everyone was totally like, yeah, this is the new place where we are, and they were still feeling it.
Hehl: Matt Leland had a good point, that we have to give the audience more credit for following us to those places. There's a definite fear as a band about losing momentum. I think past a certain point, people are bought in to us as musicians and to the band. And a lot of times they're really more down than you might think to take it somewhere else. We probably could have gone to “I’ll Fly Away”! More people sing along on that one than almost every other song we do, including Whitney Houston and Beyonce. The ultimate pop is gospel music. That's been around for a hundred years.
Foster: It's deep! Especially if you think about where people have sung that song, and recontextualizing it in a place of fun.
Hehl: It’s like having church in Mercury Lounge.
Foster: There’s gospel in all the music, even if it's not overt. Maybe that's why it connects to people more than traditional jazz. The harmony might be a little simpler in some ways, but it's more familiar to people. That's a big draw for people, being able to sing along.
Fallis: And I think you can include whatever language you want to. Bishop will play a lot of Charlie Parker ideas and people go nutty for Bishop's playing. We'll play “Do Whatchu Wanna” and you'll be just going off and people follow you there too. It’s like, whatever you're playing, really feeling that and trying to say something real. It's cool to see people connect to that. And then whenever it’s Bishop playing some crazy harmony over something and people have no idea why it makes them feel so good….
Marsh: I feel like when anybody plays from any sort of harmonics, that's kind of personal. Like with church hymns, certain similar progressions that were in your church music, or anything more traditional or close to our hearts that strikes a chord. With something I choose to do—that specific diminished or whatever—how we connect with that sound is almost different for everyone. Like “When the Saints Go Marching In”—everybody’s sung that song a couple dozen times, so everybody has their own interpersonal connection.
Supergroup inspo: the Tulsa Jazz Pirates, 1922
Root: You're talking about the music of communal experiences. Being in church together, being at a family picnic together, all the songs you sing together as a family, at a funeral. Music that comes to you through those connections lives deep in your brain.
Hehl: One of the things I think that's the most powerful about the band is, like, it's five horns facing directly toward the audience. It's like a choir, compared to every other band where people are striking strings and stuff like that. There's something about everybody’s sound coming out of their own air and being sustained together. Especially with five horns up front, they're all equal. They're all these single-note instruments that all have to be doing this thing together for it to have the same effect, you know? And then like Greg was saying, you get a little bit of everyone's personality through the solos. And we actually are, all seven of us in the band, “singing,” in whatever singing voices we all have. The communal aspect is definitely felt instantly just because that's the format of the band.
Fallis: The communal aspect is number one. This band is not about me or Jordan's feelings or Nicholas's feelings. In my opinion, this band is about a shared communal experience, which I call having fun. I don't ever want it to be about my feelings. I try not to think about any personal thing or women or money or work or any of that onstage. Whatever's going on, I try to think about these guys and the people that are in the crowd that are coming out to support it. And we've seen some of the same faces, every single show. We've seen Nathan Wright [from Count Tutu] and Alyssa Brown, every single show. Josh Westbrook is at every single show. That's the most important thing, you know. The scene is so supportive. We could easily be seen as a competitor, but these folks are out there just lifting us up.
Root: There's been no tentativeness at all with you guys. You’re just immediately out there playing everywhere.
Fallis: It seems that way, but it's been a lot of cold emails, hassling people for weeks trying to convince them that this is a good band, that they're going to have a good night at the bar. And that makes sense. It's what we should have to do. We're here for the work as well as the fun. So now we've got a busy fall. We're going to keep trying to keep climbing.
If you go
King Cabbage Brass Band with Nightingale
September 18, 2021 at 9pm
KCBB as the Tvlse Jazz Pirates
"People's Picnic: A Demonstration Demanding Discussion"
September 19, 2021 at 4pm