New Orleans Nightcrawlers trombonist Craig Klein was in a Rouses grocery store when trumpeter Kevin Clark called with big news: Their brass band’s 2020 album “Atmosphere” had been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Klein was so excited that he “wanted to leave my basket of groceries and run out of there.”
Instead, he approached a store employee who was stocking shelves. “I said, ‘You want to hear some really good news? My band just got nominated for a Grammy.’ I had to tell somebody.”
The nomination is the first for Klein who, at age 60, has logged four decades in the trenches of the local music scene. He first picked up the trombone in fourth grade. By 1981, he had co-founded the traditional brass band the Storyville Stompers.
He went on to spend several years in fellow New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr.’s big band. He and fellow Connick trombonist Mark Mullins launched the trombone-powered rock band Bonerama.
In 1994, Klein co-founded the New Orleans Nightcrawlers to play ambitious arrangements of mostly original brass band compositions. The Nightcrawlers’ discography includes a couple of national releases on Rounder Records.
“Atmosphere,” the band’s first album in 11 years, was released independently. The influence of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the patriarchs of contemporary New Orleans brass band music, looms large in the crisp musicianship, sophisticated arrangements and spirited execution throughout.
“Atmosphere” is nominated for a Grammy as “best regional roots music album,” a catch-all category created in 2012 to consolidate several specialized genres. “Regional roots music” nominees usually include a Hawaiian act, a Native American act, and a Cajun or zydeco act — all genres that previously had their own Grammy category.
An assortment of New Orleans artists, including the Rebirth Brass Band, keyboardist Jon Cleary — both of whom won — and the Mardi Gras Indian band Cha Wa have also slipped in.
This year’s regional roots nominees are a Hawaiian artist, a Native American act and three south Louisiana bands: the Nightcrawlers, father and son duo Cameron Dupuy and the Cajun Troubadours, and Cajun/folk trio Sweet Cecilia.
Overall, the 2021 Grammy Awards feature a bumper crop of New Orleans and Louisiana nominees. By one count, 22 acts with ties to the city or state are nominated, compared to 16 this past year.
They include trumpeter Christian Scott, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader and Kenner native Jon Batiste, and PJ Morton, the Maroon 5 keyboardist and son of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church patriarch Paul S. Morton.
Other New Orleans-born nominees include Connick, rapper and St. Augustine High School graduate Jay Electronica and R&B singers Luke James and Ledisi.
Many of them long ago left their hometown for personal or professional reasons; their ties to the local community of musicians is tangential at best.
So it’s especially gratifying when local musicians who are still truly local — before the pandemic, Klein played as many as 30 gigs a month — receive national recognition.
“When Rebirth was nominated, we were so delighted for all of us,” Klein said. “It was another feather in all of our caps. They won for all of us. That’s what we want to do.”
Winners will be announced Jan. 31 on the Grammy website and during a prime-time telecast on CBS. Due to COVID-19 precautions, nominees won’t be able to attend in person.
Klein would have loved to go. He’s only been to the Grammy ceremony once, in 1991, when he performed with Connick’s band.
Instead, he’ll watch the upcoming ceremony from afar, hoping for a win. The 11,000 voting members of the Recording Academy are only allowed to cast votes in 15 genre-specific Grammy categories, plus the top four general categories; most voters focus on high-profile names. So even a handful of votes can determine winners in contests further down the ballot.
Much to his regret, Klein let his Recording Academy membership lapse. If he and his fellow Nightcrawlers were all active members, “that would have been nine more votes.”
In the wake of their nomination, Klein reached out to previous winner Cleary. He advised Klein to “work the phones” and drum up support for their nominated album. To that end, the Nightcrawlers hired a Los Angeles-based publicist to promote “Atmosphere” to Recording Academy members.
Klein hopes the band can also count on spiritual support. The cover of “Atmosphere” features a heavenly host of departed New Orleans musicians — trombonist Lucien Barbarin, jazz guitarist Danny Barker, Nightcrawlers saxophonist Eric Traub, singer Leigh “Lil Queenie” Harris and legends Fats Domino, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint — smiling down on the Nightcrawlers.
“I feel like all of them are putting in a word for us,” Klein said. “Lucien is campaigning with the angels for us.”
Though Klein would love to win — the golden Gramophone “is already sitting on my mantle in my brain” — the nomination itself has already paid dividends, including an order for more CDs from the Louisiana Music Factory.
“It’s only been a few days, but there’s definitely a buzz going on. We’re feeling that for sure.”
And whenever live music returns, the Nightcrawlers can bill themselves as a “Grammy-nominated” — or possibly “Grammy-winning” — band.
“It’s helpful in getting more attention. It’s fun. We’re all so thrilled about it. It’s a silver lining in all this craziness of 2020.
“For another brass band to be in this position is wonderful for all of us. It brings attention to the whole brass band scene, which I love.”