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Reinvigorating New Orleans with the Hot 8 Brass Band

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 Hot 8 Brass Band plays Joe's Pub November 24 (joespub.com), and participates in the Lincoln Center Tree Lighting Ceremony November 26.

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