New Orleans musician finds niche in instrument repair

The Grammy Award-winning trombonist Stafford Agee is moonlighting as an instrument repairman -- working out of his sweltering garage to make sure New Orleans-area high schoolers have working horns.

Kai Ryssdal: Lord knows New Orleans has been through enough in the seven years since Hurricane Katrina hit. The city's always had its spirit, though. And music -- the brass band, specifically-- is a huge part of that.

Woe be to those, however, whose instruments need repair. Because believe it or not, New Orleans doesn't have a whole lot of people who fix broken horns, as Keith O'Brien reports.


Keith O'Brien: On a recent afternoon at Edna Karr High School, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, students were getting tuned up on their baritones and trumpets. The horns today were working, for the most part. But the instruments at Edna Karr, and other public high schools in New Orleans, are often old, dented, and used, says Edna Karr’s band director, Christopher Herrerro.

Christopher Herrerro: Last year we had instances where instruments just fell apart. Baritone horns would just break in half just because of use. And we had to piece them together with duct tape until we had a repair man to fix them, which is unfortunate.

Especially unfortunate because, in New Orleans, repair men, almost inexplicably, are hard to find. Or at least they were until recently. Stafford Agee is best known as the trombonist for the Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band. But six months ago, he picked up a different instrument: a soddering torch. And some other tools as well.

Stafford Agee: I have trumpet bell mandrels. Trombone and baritone bell mandrels. My vise -- that’s a handy tool, my vise here.

With his new company, Rebirth Instrument Repair, Agee has launched the classic side project, in some respects. By night, he’s on stage. By day, he’s in his garage with that soddering torch and vise. Agee says there’s a need for the work.

Agee: It’s not that hard to mess up a trombone, to dent a trombone slide, when you’re in marching band. You might just accidentally hit another trombone and now you got a dent in your slide.

But in other ways it’s extraordinary. To have your horn fixed by Stafford Agee of the Rebirth Brass Band would like having your guitar tuned by Eric Clapton -- at least to a New Orleans kid. Of course, it’s hard to picture Clapton working in his garage, sweating in the 100-degree heat, and fussing over an old trombone.

Agee: It’s just rough. See, like, right now, it’s stuck in second position. That means it has a dent in the slide. In a couple places.

In the last six months, Agee has picked up contracts at several local high schools. He repairs up to three dozen instruments a week, charging around $35 for regular maintenance on a horn. But he’s flexible because he knows what a working instrument means to a young musician.

Agee: When the horn is working properly, it makes them want to play the horn. It gives them a little bit more motivation. If they gotta play on a broke horn, they’re not gonna give you a 100 percent.

Back at Edna Karr High School, Christopher Herrero agrees.

Herrero (in a class): All right. Horns up! Concert F and hold it. One, two, ready, play, and …

Last year, 16-year-old Phillip Thomas was one of the unlucky kids in Herrero’s band. He was forced to play on a mouthpiece affixed to his baritone with duct tape -- no small challenge.

Phillip Thomas: It was very, very hard. Because it would keep slipping out. And when it would slip out, you would have to stop playing to put it back in. And you have to catch right back on to what everybody else was doing -- it was very, very difficult.

But Agee recently fixed Thomas’ baritone. It’s still chipped and weathered; the horn is easily older than the teenaged musician playing it. But for the moment, anyway, it’s sounding pretty good.

In New Orleans, I’m Keith O’Brien for Marketplace.

About the author

Keith O'Brien is a reporter in New Orleans.

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