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