Tulane University ethnomusicologist Matt Sakakeeny researched his book Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans (Duke University Press) during a time frame that straddled Hurricane Katrina, but his focus is about brass band music and culture in general, and it happened to be an interesting and revealing period regarding musicians, their livelihoods and contributions to New Orleans' heavily promoted cultural economy. Brass bands including the Soul Rebels and Hot 8 ascended to the top of the scene, and Rebirth raised its national profile with a Grammy Award.
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 are about specific second-line parades and jazz funerals. Sakakeeny marched in the funeral for longtime Olympia Brass Band leader Harold "Duke" Dejan while Sakakeeny was working for the radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny also attended notable second-line parades following Hurricane Katrina. He insightfully breaks down aspects of brass band music, but much of his early focus is on how bandleaders manage their groups. It's a complicated juggling act involving finding gigs and managing a large and fluid band membership.
The book also delves into the economic sides of the business and how many musicians squeak by while trying to earn a living — in some cases while coping with 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 wages stayed consistent pre- and post-Katrina, but the cost of living rose substantially. As exciting as the allure of playing music can be for young musicians, it doesn't offer great financial security.
"The TBC Brass Band has been No. 1 band at the parades this year," Sakakeeny says. "They came out of (George Washington) Carver (High School) and the band director Wilbert Rawlins. ... 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."
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 delves into cultural theory. Sakakeeny offers close accounts of parades and the inner workings of the bands. He observes how the city celebrates its culture and especially its musicians, but the book also exposes the way many musicians survive on the same income 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's cultural richness. Sakakeeny reads from the book and Rebirth performs at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Garden District Book Shop. — WILL COVIELLO