The Hot 8 Brass Band is celebrating their 15th anniversary with a show tonight at the Howlin Wolf which will be recorded with a live audience for their upcoming CD to be released early next year. Known for such popular cuts as ‘Rock With The Hot 8’, ‘Fine Tuner’, and ‘Miss My Homies’, The Hot 8 is a favorite on the second line scene and one of the most beloved brass bands in music today. That the band has managed to remain a force on the music scene however is a testament to their well-earned legendary status. For in addition to putting out some of the most popular songs in brass band music, they’re also known for suffering numerous tragedies on a scale of near epic proportion. In the 15 years since the band has been together, three members of the band were murdered, another felled at a young age by a heart attack, a fifth lost his legs in a car accident, and all lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina.
Hot 8 snare drummer Dinneral Shavers survived the storm and returned to New Orleans to launch the first marching band ever at Rabouin High School only to be shot and killed that same year by teenagers from another school who were targeting his stepson. Shavers’ murder, along with that of filmmaker Helen Hill, catalyzed one of the largest citizen’s protests in the history of New Orleans in response to the city’s soaring murder rate. Prior to Shavers’ death, the band lost Jacob Johnson who was found shot execution style in his home at the age of 17, Demond Dorsey who was found dead on his kitchen floor from an apparent heart attack, and Joseph ‘Shotgun Joe’ Williams who was killed two months after Dorsey’s death by the NOPD in broad daylight in front of several witnesses. Hot 8’s band leader Bennie Pete arrived on the scene to find his trombone player riddled with bullet holes, his arms hanging outside the truck in an apparent attempt to show the officers who fired on him that he had no weapon. Outraged eyewitnesses denounced the NOPD’s version of the incident saying that Williams had surrendered when they fired on him. The controversial killing of the musician by the police was a turning point that almost cost the band its leader.
“After Joe died, I wanted to quit”, recalls Bennie Pete. “I was sick of the city, mad and tired of everything goes on in the city. But the guys (in the band) didn’t see it like that. We were trying to fight against the police department, get some justice for Joe and expose the police. This had happened to a lot of people here and they came out for the Hot 8 brass band, giving us support on the front line, rallies and marches. Plus, we had so many things going on, trying to get the album finished. I didn’t wanna leave the guys stranded so I had to find the energy to do it.”
Looking back at the deaths of several bandmates over the past 15 years, Pete adds, “Well I never thought we’d grow old together like (Treme Brass Band) Uncle Benny and them. But I didn’t think the guys that started with us wouldn’t be here either... Time waits for no one. You gotta cherish the moments you have together. ”
Founded in 1995 by natives sons Bennie ‘Big Bennie’ Pete, Jerome ‘Wolf’ Jones and Harry ‘Swamp Thang’ Cook, the Hot 8 began playing together while students in high school, performing in New Orleans clubs, bars, and eventually becoming one of the most popular bands on the second line parade scene. ‘Big Bennie’, a 6'6" tuba player, is a well loved, soft-spoken gentle giant of a guy renown in the community for his humbleness, patience and generosity. Like most musicians, he and his bandmates hustled side jobs for years to make a living while building up their band’s profile. But five years ago, an incident happened on the job that persuaded the band leader to take a leap of faith and try his hand at making a living solely from his music.
“I was working at Loyola and I had been trying to get off to perform at the school. I was excited. I’d been working there three years and all these other bands were hired to play there - Rebirth, the Soul Rebels. So the Hot 8 was gonna get our chance. But (My boss) didn’t wanna let me perform. I asked if I could take my lunch break and do it then and he said no. He usually got off at five but he stayed till nine that night to make sure I didn’t leave. At that point I decided, ‘What you gonna do? You gonna work for people that don’t care about you or you gonna pursue music?’ Once I saw they were trying to stop me and were not with me, I had to make a choice. I resigned. And six months later the storm hit.”
Hurricane Katrina displaced the entire band, all of them bouncing back and forth for weeks through various cities in the south. Bennie Pete pulled the members back together and band began visiting evacuee shelters and trailer parks, performing for their displaced and homesick New Orleans fans in an attempt to raise their spirits. These free impromptu performances for their evacuated audience attracted nationwide attention and the Hot 8 went on to be featured on CNN, Nightline, and in both Spike Lee’s post-Katrina documentaries “When the Levees Broke” and “If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise”.
But even after surviving the biggest catastrophe in the nation’s history, misfortune was not finished wrecking havoc on the band. While watching TV in an airport bar during a layover, Hot 8 trumpeter Terrell ‘Burger’ Batiste saw his mother and sister being interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, telling the reporter that his grandmother, whom the family had been searching for since the storm hit and with whom Batiste was very close to, had been found dead. Several months later, while still evacuated in Atlanta, Batiste was involved in a near fatal car accident that severed both his legs.
(excerpted from previous article) Pete recalls the band's first visit to see their bandmate after the accident. "The first question Burger asked was if he was still in the band. At first I was like 'man you tripping. I wouldn't even be worrying about no band if I was you', I was thinking in my mind. Then I had to realize, really all of us, that was our dream - to be in a band and really succeed as a band. I said, 'Long as you can play, you're in the band'.
" During his hospitalization, the band made sure to keep Batiste in the loop. During gigs, they'd call him and lay the phone on the stage so he could hear the entire show. Pete says, "He'd be like, "tell the trumpets 'this' and 'that'!" making orders. Sometimes he'd just go to sleep on the phone while we were playing the gig."
Today Batiste is back in full effect mode with the Hot 8, even playing second line parades with the help of friends who push his wheelchair. He also plays gigs on the side, along with Hot 8 snare drummer Sammy Cyrus, with the To Be Continued Brass Band. In fact, Batiste and Cyrus had just begun playing with TBC on Bourbon and Canal when the younger band’s saxophonist Brandon Franklin was murdered on Mother’s Day, a premature death of a young cherished community leader that eerily mirrored in many ways that of Dinneral Shavers. Two months later while still grieving the loss of their friend and bandmate, TBC was served a notice by the NOPD enforcing an outdated noise ordinance and threatening to shut down the French Quarter gateway performances the band had become renown for over the last seven years. The shared experience of surviving tragedy, being targets of the police, musicianship and performing together has produced a close mentor-like relationship between The Hot 8 and TBC. In fact, the two bands swap musicians and instruments at gigs with such regularity, folks in the brass band and second line community jokingly refer to both bands as ‘TB8’. Or as Edward ‘Juicy’ Jackson, a formal member of both bands, puts it: ‘Continue To Be Hot’.
Mentoring younger brass bands is something Pete says has been a goal of The Hot 8 for some time now. He calls working with TBC “a challenge....but its one we want and its coming around. They need support and security. All their peers are going to jail or on drugs and all they wanna do is play music. And (with the NOPD enforcing the city ordinance) they’re being discouraged.” Pete believes its up to older musicians like members of the Hot 8 to teach the younger ones how to make a living doing what they love.
“Its a long shot when you say you wanna be a musician. Its always a delicate balance between hustling for money and staying true to your career path. I learned the importance of using time wisely. When you’re starting, you faced with how you’re gonna use your time and how you gonna earn money. You need to find that balance at making money and taking steps toward what you wanna do. Its about how strong your will is to make it happen and you gotta balance all that stuff.”
Another goal the Hot 8 is currently working on is their long awaited second album. Though still negotiating with their record label, Pete vows the band will have it out in the early part of next year “even if we have to put it out ourselves.” The second project is said to be significantly different than the first. “One, you can hear the growth in our playing,” says Pete. “And the messages in music have changed. Before it was about fun and come jam with us. Now songs are about what we’ve been through and the loss expressed. The pain and suffering is put into music.”
That pain and suffering that once caused Pete to consider leaving the band has taught him to appreciate his band's struggles. “Sometimes when you go through things, it can have you down and you can feel disgusted. But if you stick with it, what had you down will be funny to you one day. In the beginning we got eight, nine dollars a gig. Now we’re traveling internationally. For us to be doing that, yeah... that kinda makes me proud.”
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