Tulane University ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny is emphatic that his book Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans (Duke University Press) is not a post Hurricane Katrina book. His primary research straddles the storm and the levee failures, and it’s a very interesting window for the brass bands he focuses on, including the Rebirth Brass Band and Hot 8 Brass Bands.
"The Hot 8 and the Soul Rebels — they were struggling for local gigs live everyone else when I first started hanging out with them,” Sakakeeny said in an interview. “They were first starting to get calls to tour the U.S., Europe and Asia. So the book chronicles their assent. Rebirth was already at that stage, but they’ve since grown bigger and won a Grammy.”
The Rebirth Brass Band will perform at two upcoming book release events. There’s a release party from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday at Sweet Lorraine’s, and Sakakeeny’s band Los Po-Boy-Citos also will perform. Sakakeeny will read from the book and the Rebirth will perform at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Garden District Book Shop.
Roll With It is one of very few books exclusively about New Orleans brass bands, and it’s the first with a contemporary focus. The early chapters focus on specific second-line parades and jazz funerals. Sakakeeny marched in the funeral for legendary Olympia Brass Band leader Harold “Duke” Dejan while he was working for the radio program American Routes. He also attended notable second-line parades following Hurricane Katrina, and the book addresses the deaths of musicians including Dinerral Shavers, who played for the Hot 8.
There is a condensed history of brass band music in New Orleans that reaches back to Dejan’s early career. And Sakakeeny insightfully breaks down aspects of brass band music, but much of his early focus is on how bandleaders manage their bands. It’s a complicated juggling act involving finding gigs and managing a large but often changing group of musicians. Sakakeeny traces various musicians as they worked with different bands and established themselves. Local brass band fans will appreciate the detail and his account of the fluid nature of the bands.
The book also delves into the economic side of the business and how many musicians squeak by while trying to earn a living — in some cases while coping with or family issues and personal problems such as substance abuse. A Sweet Home New Orleans study estimated the average annual earnings of local musicians as $17,800 per year. Sakakeeny notes that the wages stayed consistent pre- and post-Katrina, but the cost of living rose substantially. Much of the middle portion of the book looks at musicians’ lives when they are not performing. And it touches on local hot button topics like how much musicians get paid to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“All the musicians acknowledge that Jazz Fest brings all kinds of money and exposure into their lives,” Sakakeeny says. “The benefit from Jazz Fest is not just the check you get for playing on stage for an hour. There’s exposure to all the people in town who are going to gigs that night. Rebirth’s best night at the Maple Leaf is that week. But they make two to four times more (regularly) playing that club than at Jazz Fest.”
Bandleader Philip Frazier talks about the festival, and he was able to get increased pay from the festival for the Rebirth Brass Band.
For young bands, it’s not an easy world to negotiate on any front.
"The TBC Brass Band has been the No. 1 band at the parades this year,” Sakakeeny says. “They came out of (George Washington) Carver (High School) and band director Wilbert Rawlins. They played for tips in the French Quarter. They’re coming out of high school and thinking, 'What am I going to do next?' Some of them might go to college on a music scholarship, but the No. 1 thing New Orleans offers is work in the service industry to people who want to stay in their hometown. Music seems to have potential for a career, but the reality is that it doesn’t provide a steady paycheck; most of the money in the tourism industry doesn’t trickle down to them. There are no (employment) benefits associated with a career as a musician.”
Roll With It is published by an academic press, and it has useful footnotes and a bibliography, but it’s accessible, even if it occasionally references anthropological literature and slips into theoretical terms or analysis. Sakakeeny offers detailed accounts of parades and the inner workings of the bands. The book offers a full picture of their lives and how the city’s cultural economy works on the factory end. Sakakeeny observes the way the city celebrates its culture and especially its musicians, but the book also exposes the way many of them survive on the same earnings as low-rung service industry workers. It’s an engaging street-level look at the bands that so often are used to represent and symbolize the city.