The Village Voice
November 13, 2007
By Larry Blumenfeld
The white sneaker on the left foot of Bennie Pete, tuba player and leader of the Hot 8 Brass Band, carries an inscription: "Brooklyn in Da House." Spike Lee scrawled it, less an autograph than a thank-you note for the band's indelible presence in his HBO documentary When the Levees Broke.
A four-hour film about a city in ruins isn't the typical vehicle to national exposure for a deserving band. Nor are prime-time crime shows and CNN disaster reports. But many Americans first experienced the gritty glory of this New Orleans band when, following the late 2006 murder of its snare drummer Dinerral Shavers, the Hot 8's story got major play during an episode of CBS's 48 Hours Mystery. And yes, these were the same guys who, weeks after Katrina, were caught by CNN anchorwoman Rusty Dornin in uplifting performance at a Baton Rouge evacuee shelter.
The danger and dislocation you've heard about in the streets of New Orleans is real. Yet so is the devastating beauty you don't hear about as much. The former is a crucible in which the Hot 8 has been forged; the latter, a transcendent truth to which it contributes mightily. At second-line parades, brass bands play and supporters follow along, dancing and clapping out rhythms: Held nearly every weekend from September through June, these were always powerful expressions of community, but since Katrina, they express an even deeper message.
Pete, a mountain of a man, has a soft, somewhat high voice that belies both his size and the rippling intensity of his tuba playing. "I wasn't thinking about music or the band or nothing like that when we first met up again in Baton Rouge," he said in front of the Sound Café, a New Orleans coffee shop that has become a center for both music and activism. "I thought about survival, about my mom and dad. But it was beautiful. We just showed up, started blowing. And people began to smile and cry and dance: That's my band! It was a healing thing."
"I remember that the news crews didn't understand why we'd bring a band in here," added Lee Arnold, a band admirer who, since the storm, has grown into the Hot 8's aggressively creative manager. "Some of the Red Cross people were like, 'These people are so sad, they don't need this now.' They thought it was silly or even wrong."
But, Pete explains, "When we kicked it, they all got it—the relief workers, the MPs, everyone. The TV stations showed up. They wanted to know who we were. And the phone hasn't stopped ringing since." For a dozen years now, ever since two young bands, the Looney Tunes and the High Steppers, merged, the Hot 8 has been called with increasing frequency in its hometown for second-lines, house parties, and club gigs. They've inherited a powerful tradition, and some say it's their turn to rule the streets.
A subtly significant rivalry between New Orleans brass bands plays out mostly through second-lines: Whoever moves the dancers best assumes victory. Phil Frazier, tuba player and leader of the popular Rebirth Brass Band, recalls one parade in particular. "The Hot 8 was playing so hot, coming up from behind us, that we actually marched to the side, let them through," he says. "Bennie was trying to duck down, but I said, 'You can't hide, we know you're coming on. They're dancing for you today.' "
Folks likely won't be shimmying and fancy-dancing around the fountain in Lincoln Center's plaza when the Hot 8 plays Monday during the annual holiday-tree lighting: It's Manhattan. Still, placing the Hot 8 alongside Met Opera singers and New York City Ballet dancers acknowledges second-line brass-band music to be among the essential cultural riches we need to hold dear in this moment of thanks. Were Joe's Pub to clear out the tables for the band's Saturday-night set, it might replicate the gorgeous tumult that ensues on Sundays at the Chocolate Bar in New Orleans. In any case, this weekend will mark two years since the Hot 8 participated in a far different public celebration of gratitude.
"Those first few parades after the storm, the Hot 8 carried us," says filmmaker and New Orleans native Royce Osborn. "They literally lifted the city on their big, brawny shoulders and carried us through the street, insisting that the shit was going to get better."
The Hot 8 earned a reputation around New Orleans for the latest wrinkles within contemporary brass-band style: a liberal blend of jazz, r&b, and hip-hop elements. But in Katrina's wake, the group, like the city, has focused anew on its deepest cultural roots. In the months following the floods, through an organization called Finding Our Folk, the band began outreach tours alongside the Black Men of Labor, staunch traditionalists within the Social Aid & Pleasure Club ranks. Fred Johnson, a founding club member, encouraged the band to learn the older repertoire, drawing a line of continuity from raucous contemporary second-lines to slave-era African dances in the city's Congo Square and Reconstruction-era black benevolent societies.
"A wake-up call," Hot 8 trumpeter Raymond Williams called it. Soon the band sought out musical elders like Dr. Michael White, a clarinetist steeped in the tradition of brass-band players clad in white shirts, ties, and black-banded caps, playing hymns, marches, and early jazz tunes, always with three-trumpet harmonies. Through a mixture of rehearsals, performances, and discussions, White shared musical elements as well as history and values. Pete spoke of gaining "answers to questions I'd never asked before."
One question the band, like the city, repeatedly asks these days is simply, "Why?" The Hot 8 has known more than its share of unnecessary tragedy during its dozen years of existence. In 1996, trumpeter Jacob Johnson was found shot execution-style in his home. In 2004, trombonist Joe Williams was shot dead by police under controversial circumstances. In the spring of 2006, trumpeter Terrell Batiste lost his legs in a horrific roadside accident after relocating to Atlanta. And last December, snare-drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot dead in his car, apparently by someone trying to kill his stepson.
When Silence Is Violence, a citizen-action group, organized a march on City Hall to protest a lack of police protection, there was Bennie Pete, helping hold up a massive banner. Meanwhile, the very cultural traditions that have buoyed New Orleans life are now under considerable siege. After the city tripled the fees for second-line parades, a consortium of Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs took the matter to federal court. Last month, police arrested two brass-band musicians for parading without a permit during a funeral procession, setting off new controversy over a time-honored tradition.
"We rose out of water and debris to lead the way back to the life that we love," said Pete at a recent public forum on such matters. "It's not just a party, it's our life. We can sugarcoat it all kinds of ways, but the city looks at us as uncivilized. And that's why they try to confine us."
The band will soon create a follow-up to its self-produced debut studio album, Rock with the Hot 8; they're also featured on the forthcoming Blind Boys of Alabama album. (Two other releases were drawn from Hot 8 shows at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.) But the band's real power and presence can't be measured or captured on disc. "To me, they represent the true rebirth of New Orleans," says trumpeter Shamarr Allen, a former member who still often plays with the band. "As the city is rebuilding, as we speak, the band is rebuilding. The two are like one."
In October, a shooting along the route of a second-line parade caused the procession to divert from its intended course. The Hot 8 had been mining an up-tempo groove. But Pete signaled his players to change things up, out of respect for the seriousness of the situation and as a way to employ knowledge he'd gained of late. His choice? "We Shall Overcome."
The New York Times
"In New Orleans, Bands Struggle to Regain Footing"
February 20, 2007
By Jon Pareles
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 19 — When the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina took place last year, New Orleanians felt something vital was missing: the strutting steps and triumphal horns of the city’s proud, immensely competitive high school bands marching between the floats.
The reason was obvious: Nearly all the city’s schools were still shut, and most of the students had been evacuated. This year fewer than a third of the public schools in New Orleans have reopened — many more are due this fall — and much of the city’s old population remains dispersed. But some of the top high school bands are back: a rare, heartening sign not only for the parades but also for the long-term vitality of New Orleans culture.
“Music is New Orleans, and marching bands are part of every phase of our city’s life,” said Allen T. Woods, the principal of Frederick A. Douglass High School in the hard-hit Ninth Ward. His school’s band was booked for two parades in this Mardi Gras season, which began on Feb. 10. The members are wearing matching warm-up suits, since band uniforms are still on order. But they are marching.
New Orleans has always been a city of parades, from Mardi Gras to jazz funerals. When jazz began, it commandeered the trumpets and drums of military bands, and the swagger and swing of brass bands have been among the city’s great musical resources ever since.
The high school bands have long been the incubator for New Orleans music, and the training ground for generations of musicians. In this city’s wonderfully insular culture, band instruments like trombone and sousaphone are as ubiquitous as guitars and synthesizers elsewhere. Before Katrina, it wasn’t unusual to hear young brass players jamming on New Orleans street corners, and those musicians’ first instruments might well have come from high school stockpiles. Through the years, school music programs have put horns, clarinets and drums into the hands of students who would never have played them otherwise, and high school connections have jumpstarted important New Orleans groups like the Rebirth Brass Band.
Brass bands repay the help. Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer of the Hot 8 Brass Band, was hired to organize a marching band at L. E. Rabouin High School, and his fellow Hot 8 members dropped in to help teach. But Mr. Shavers was shot dead on Dec. 28 in one of a series of murders that led to a large anticrime rally at City Hall on Jan. 11. The Rabouin High School Band marched in this year’s Mardi Gras parades.
“These bands play as important a role in the perpetuation of New Orleans music culture as anything,” said Bill Taylor, executive director of the Tipitina’s Foundation, which has turned the long-running uptown club Tipitina’s into a nonprofit organization that provides instruments and other help for musicians. Since New Orleans schools had long since cut back on music education, the foundation started donating instruments to them in 2002. In 2006 it gave away $500,000 worth of instruments. “This is about keeping New Orleans New Orleans,” Mr. Taylor said.
And in New Orleans, unlike many other places, band membership means prestige in high school. “High school bands in New Orleans are as important as football is in Texas,” said Virgil Tiller, the band director at St. Augustine High School, whose Purple Knights, better known as the Marching 100, have been the city’s most celebrated high school band.
St. Augustine is a historically black school, and its band integrated 20th-century Mardi Gras parades when they were invited in 1967 to appear with the Rex Organization, the top Mardi Gras krewe. Spectators spat on them and threw bricks and urine-filled condoms, Edward Hampton, the band’s founding director, recalled, but the students refused to brawl and just kept marching. Since then, bands from black high schools have become mainstays of Mardi Gras. Band programs are paid about $1,500 a parade.
Montreal A. Givens, 17, a trombonist who is a drum major in the Marching 100, lives alone in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency so that he can finish out his senior year with the band. He’s also an honors student. His father, Lumar LeBlanc, leads a brass band, the Soul Rebels, that was formed by New Orleans high school bandmates; Mr. LeBlanc still resides in Houston.
“I came back here for the music,” Mr. Givens said in the school’s band room as the Marching 100 assembled for a parade. “I took a hard hit, but I couldn’t stop my life because of the hurricane.”
Before Katrina, the Marching 100 actually had 150 to 170 members, including baton twirlers and a color guard. Now it has about 90. The flood completely destroyed what had been a newly built band room and all the school’s instruments and uniforms. At last year’s Mardi Gras parade, some members of St. Augustine’s Marching 100 were part of a small but determined high school band, the MAX band, that merged the returned students from three private schools: St. Augustine, St. Mary’s Academy and Xavier University Preparatory School.
“We proved we could do something positive in such devastated surroundings,” said Lester Wilson of Xavier, who led the MAX band.
This year, as St. Augustine marched in the Krewe d’Etat parade, there were shouts and applause as its purple and gold uniforms came into view. “This band is the city’s band,” Mr. Tiller said. “When we march, it’s amazing to me how many people say: ‘Thank you for coming back. If St. Aug’s is back, the city is coming back.’ ”
Educators say that band membership, like other extracurricular activities, helps to keep students from dropping out. Practicing an instrument, particularly for the chance at the status of leading a section in a beloved high school band, builds discipline. So do regular rehearsals — the St. Augustine band works five days a week, summers included — and memorizing the formations and instrument-swinging choreography used by New Orleans high school bands.
But music has not been a priority for New Orleans schools struggling to reconstruct buildings and entire academic programs. Paul Batiste, the band director of the Sophie B. Wright Charter School, had his band practicing on what he could afford from his own pocket — just the mouthpieces for trumpets and clarinets — until instruments were provided by private groups, including the Tipitina’s Foundation and Mr. Holland’s Opus. FEMA has also supplied instruments to some schools, among them Douglass High School in the Ninth Ward.
Like other New Orleans institutions resurrected since Katrina, the high school bands are stretched thin. They have fewer members than they did before the storm, often operating at half their old numbers. They also use more fledgling instrumentalists to fill the ranks.
“It doesn’t sound like it did before,” said Shantell Franklin, 17, who plays baritone horn in the band from Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East. Instruments to replace those ruined by rust and mold arrived at her school only a month ago. “We’ve got a lot of beginners in the band,” Ms. Franklin said. “They’re dedicated and they want to play, but they just can’t get the notes out right.”
Yet even at less than full strength, New Orleans high school bands are still producing musicians to continue the city’s musical legacy. Joshua Phipps, who plays F horn in the marching band of McDonogh 35 High School and saxophone in the concert band, was a beginner two years ago. His English teacher suggested he join the band at Walter L. Cohen High School, now closed; after Katrina, he enrolled in McDonogh 35, whose band has a citywide reputation.
Mr. Phipps had been thinking about basketball, but the band changed his life, he said. “At my first band practice, I just fell in love with the sound,” he said. “I practiced a whole lot, every day, and it was like a hidden talent I didn’t know I had.”
Like many a high school band member before him, he also has gigs of his own. Mr. Phipps is in a brass band called the Truth, which plays for parties and processions, along with a weekly downtown club date. He plans to study music in college.
“I want to be a band teacher,” he said. Then he picked up his horn and joined McDonogh 35’s ranks for a Mardi Gras parade.
New Orleans’ Own Hot 8 Brass Band doesn’t need a set list. It doesn’t need a planned script. And it doesn’t need a rehearsed program.
That’s just the way the band likes it.
“That’s what unique about us – we don’t plan our set lists ahead of time. When we get to a venue, we feel and breathe the vibe of it,” says band leader Bennie Pete. “We feel and breathe the vibe of the people. It’s all how about how they’re feeling and how we’re feeling. And we play off that.”
The Hot 8 marched its way to Storer Auditorium at Onondaga Community College on Thursday, March 25. Band members kicked off the night with a meet and greet, complete with a Q&A session and demonstration, at 4 p.m. They then took to the stage and performed at 7 p.m.
What did audiences get? A mix of funk, jazz, big band, hip hop, rhythm, and blues with a big kick of Louisiana culture.
“Our music reaches everyone. Young and old people alike can enjoy our shows,” Pete says. “We play classics for the older crowd as well was more contemporary music for the young ones.”
The band’s roots run thick in the tradition of friends, family and fun. Some members of the Hot 8 grew up playing together, forming the group in the early 90s to keep their music alive after high school. Since then, the band has earned a reputation for being one of the most dynamic and animated groups coming out of Louisiana.
At the core of the band’s foundation is the New Orleans street parade culture. They’re known for playing all day in the hot streets of Louisiana and then hopping to clubs to jam throughout the night.
“We’ve been exposed to street music since an early age. We could hear it coming on down while at the grocery store or in our own neighborhood. It’s second nature to us,” Pete says. “We want to bring that sort of energy and intensity to venues outside of Louisiana.”
The band plays in the traditional Second Line street parades hosted in New Orleans. It’s played in a number of national and international venues. And it’s brought music to evacuee shelters, temporary trailer parks and other communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
“Our goal is to bring the experience of New Orleans wherever we go, to keep it in people’s minds and prayers,” Pete says. “Playing at those evacuation shelters showed us how valuable and powerful music can be. It helps people do away with their sorrows, to have fun and let go.”
The Hot 8 became known nationwide shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. It’s been featured on CNN, Nightline and in the New York Times. Members also made an appearance in Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”
They’re dedicated to bringing music to all New Orleans natives through programs including the Finding Our Folk Tour and Save Our Brass project. The band’s philosophy toward social outreach is the same as when it takes to the stage: bring people happiness.
“Our performances are about giving people joy to bring home that they may need themselves,” Pete says. “We talk and mingle with the audience – try to get them out of their seats. We want to get people moving, get people dancing.”