Southeastern alum and New Orleans jazz musician Craig Klein is making his mark on the city’s brass band tradition and earning recognition for it, including by taking home the music industry’s top honor.
Craig Klein embodies the spirit of New Orleans music—a unique mash-up of skill, soul, creativity, and endurance that draws from diverse influences. A class of ’84 marketing major who also played at Southeastern throughout his college career, he has combined the knowledge obtained from this degree with his talent and passion for jazz to achieve a highly successful and storied career as a professional musician. His most recent album with his band New Orleans Nightcrawlers helped solidify his place in the national spotlight, earning a Grammy.
A born musician, Craig grew up in New Orleans and embraced the area’s thriving arts scene from the time he was a small child. His uncle Gerry Dallmann, whom Craig always looked up to, was a professional trombonist. By third grade, Craig had begun following in his footsteps—taking up the trombone himself. Throughout his teenage years, he immersed himself in a world of improvisation, rhythm and swing, instruments, harmony, and form, often within the walls of Preservation Hall.
With the goal of being a professional musician but also enticed by the career opportunities of marketing, Craig began Southeastern in 1980. He was personally recruited by then Director of Bands Ron Nethercutt. Along with the personal faculty connection, Craig chose the University for its excellent music program and performance opportunities combined with an ability to achieve a solid foundation in marketing. The school’s convenient proximity to New Orleans’ rich music scene further enhanced the draw.
“[My time at Southeastern] kept me reading music. It really was a pivotal part of helping me to stay in music and keep my flow going because it provided me with the opportunity to continue playing,” Craig said.
Along with playing in several bands on and off campus while a student, Craig served as a member of Delta Tau Delta and as a KSLU DJ, helping implement a jazz program for the station. “When I started at KSLU there was no jazz program, so I went to the director and asked to start a jazz hour—or three hours. Because such a program didn’t yet exist, I started with Southern rock—which I knew nothing about—while we worked on creating the jazz program. Man, I love KSLU. You can bet every time I am driving down I-55 that I am tuning in!” Craig said.
In his free time, Craig often visited New Orleans, where he began discovering and falling in love with the brass band scene. His uncle Jerry, who had initially sparked his passion for music, convinced him to join his brass band The Paradise Tumblers. Enjoying his time with this band and ready for an additional avenue for creating and performing, Craig started The Storyville Stompers. This traditional brass band remains together to this day, performing over 6,000 times and secondlining in the streets of New Orleans for 40 years and counting.
By the time Craig earned his Southeastern degree in 1984, he had already begun making a name for himself. He performed regularly with his bands, while also using his marketing skills to sell real estate. Then in 1990 he was hired as trombonist for Harry Connick Jr. He soon embarked on an international tour, playing alongside the legendary musician for several years.
While Craig enjoyed performing with Harry and felt honored at the opportunity, the bug to channel his creative energy into projects of his own began chasing him. After leaving Harry’s band, Craig returned home to New Orleans and began implementing these new projects: Bonerama, The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, and a little side project called New Orleans Nightcrawlers.
Fellow current members of the Nightcrawlers are Matt Perrine, Kevin Clark, Barney Floyd, Jason Mingledorff, Brent Rose, Cayetano Hingle, Kerry Hunter, and Miles Lyons—the latter of whom also attended Southeastern before earning his own renown as a professional musician.
“The Nightcrawlers started as a side project because all nine people in this band are first-call players; it was almost impossible to book gigs for the Nightcrawlers because of our schedules. One person may be on tour here and another on tour there. So sometimes we would only play twice a year at French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest, and that would be it all year long. When the pandemic suddenly hit, it cleared up space in everybody’s schedule. Then we received the [Grammy] nomination, and it blew it up,” explained Craig.
Because of the acclaim received, the once side project has now become each member of the band’s main focus.
Craig and the Nightcrawlers’ response to the pandemic and cancellations—and desire to still bring new music to people—is part of what helped them earn the nomination.
“We recorded this record in 2019 in three different sessions,” he said. “The idea was to put this record out for French Quarter Fest and roll with it. We liked it and knew it was a good one. When French Quarter Fest was canceled, everyone else was holding their records so they could use them for tour. But we decided to go ahead and put ours out so people could hear it.”
After hearing the record, titled Atmosphere, a local record producer and Recording Academy member submitted the Nightcrawlers for consideration for Best Regional Roots album for the 2020 Grammys. Craig commented how, after remaining dedicated to his calling for decades, he will never forget the moment he learned his passion project was nominated for the biggest honor in the American music industry.
“I’m in the grocery store shopping, buying some food. The next thing I know I’m getting messages saying we are nominated! My phone was blowing up, and I was so excited in the store that I wanted to tell someone in person, so I walked up to one of the guys stocking shelves and tapped him on the shoulder. I said ‘Hey man, can I share something with you?’ And from there, it just started unfolding,” Craig said.
The marketing savvy he obtained during his time at Southeastern and put into practice throughout his career to promote himself and his bands was utilized to help secure the win.
“There are only 10,000 people who can vote, and of the 80 categories, there are a limited number they can actually vote in. But they can choose where they want to vote,” Craig explained of the process. “For the category we were in, Best Regional Roots Album, we felt the need to really get the word out. We hired a publicist and began working the phones.”
On the night of the Grammys, the Nightcrawlers hosted a joint watch party with Cameron Dupuy and the Cajun Troubadours, a fellow New Orleans band nominated in the same category. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they were unable to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles, but still made the most of it at home in New Orleans—where it all began. Sitting on stage with their families behind them, the Nightcrawlers received word they had won Best Regional Roots Album for the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards.
With natural talent, well-refined skills, and an unbreakable passion for creating and performing music, Craig may one day have another Grammy to add to his shelf. The Nightcrawlers have been hard at work on a new album, which is expected to drop before the end of the year.
But despite the national acclaim, Craig remains humble, crediting Southeastern for helping him get to where he
“Without Southeastern, we may not have had this opportunity,” he said. “Big thanks to Southeastern and the
experience it gave me; it allowed me to play and learn and become a better musician.”
By Allen Cutrer and Sheri Gibson