"Did we just make that up?" asks Harry "Swamp Thang" Cook at the end of "On the Spot," the title track of the Hot 8 Brass Band's new album.
Cook, the band's bass drummer, fakes his question. The band hadn't just made that tune up: They were in a recording studio, re-creating a real on-the-spot moment of street-corner invention that had come during a Sunday second-line parade. Twenty years after two young bands, the Looney Tunes and the High Steppers, merged to form the Hot 8, these musicians remain heroes of New Orleans streets, still proving their ingenuity and staying power on those Sunday parades by leading finely attired Social Aid & Pleasure club members and followers for four hours at a stretch.
"The energy was so high that day that instead of feeling tired we were inspired," Bennie Pete, the group's sousaphonist and leader, remembered of the parade that gave rise to "On the Spot," speaking from his New Orleans East home. "Our ideas come from these streets and these people."
Roughly a century since jazz took shape, more than a decade after New Orleans was submerged by floodwaters, and in a moment of swift gentrification there, it's appropriate to wonder what will become of the city's sounds — which always amounted to more than music — and how they resonate at home and in the wider world.
The Hot 8 will provide some answers — parade-worthy tradition infused with funk, jazz, and hip-hop — when the group performs at Webster Hall's Marlin Room on April 19. A quite different response will come at the Bowery Ballroom on April 24, when Trombone Shorty leads his Orleans Avenue band. Yet Trombone Shorty, who earned his nickname in New Orleans's Tremé neighborhood, shares the same roots. As a toddler, Troy Andrews would march down his street, beating cardboard boxes with tree branches or blowing into plastic soda bottles in mock second-line parades. By age five, he was playing trombone in real parades. During one, his older brother James, a trumpeter sixteen years his senior and often referred to as "Satchmo of the Ghetto," shouted out the nickname. It stuck.
That moniker aside, Andrews, now 31, is tall, and he opens his forthcoming Blue Note Records debut, Parking Lot Symphony, with a gleaming solo on trumpet, which is among the half-dozen instruments he plays on the recording (he sings confidently on nearly every song, too). That opening track and a closing one are dirges, the slow-crawls endemic to New Orleans jazz funerals. In between, nearly all the music broadens what Andrews, early in his career, dubbed "supafunkrock," less in stylistic description than evasion of categories. "My music bleeds out in lots of directions," Andrews said from his home in New Orleans's 7th Ward. "We've toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, we've opened for country bands and rappers. That affects you, but growing up in New Orleans exposed me at a very young age to musicians who never developed barriers. My city made me this way."
Ever since that city was nearly unmade by the floods that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, it's been hard to overstate the primacy of musicians like Andrews and the Hot 8's members.
Seventeen days past that 2005 disaster, Troy and James Andrews were in the French Quarter's Jackson Square, in the glow of generator-powered lights — brought in to play an NBC broadcast. Legend has it that when jazz pioneer and cornetist Buddy Bolden used to blow his horn, more than a hundred years ago, the sound echoed across the Mississippi River. "I thought about that," Troy told me a decade ago. "I blew my horn, and it bounced right back to me. It was a terrifying sound. The city was empty. I asked James if this was really it, and he told me, 'We'll build this all back note by note.' "
In the wake of those floods, the Hot 8 were famously caught by CNN in an uplifting performance at a Baton Rouge evacuee shelter. As Bennie Pete told me in 2007, "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 when we kicked it, people began to smile and cry and dance. It was a healing thing. They all got it — the relief workers, the MPs, everyone."
Remarkably, but for some locals, New Orleans did not exactly welcome its music back. In 2007, for instance, police busted up a memorial procession for a beloved tuba player in Tremé, around the corner from Andrews's childhood home, and ignited a fight over who owns the streets. Such narratives unfolded despite the city's pervasive use of these traditions to rekindle a tourism business that, by 2016, welcomed more than 10 million annual visitors, breaking a pre-Katrina record.
On the phone recently, Andrews recalled hearing about that 2007 episode while on tour. "To me, that was more frightening than being in that empty city. That's a different kind of emptiness, because this culture fills our lives and our souls."
A few years ago, New Orleans culture-bearers and their fans were up in arms over a proposed sound ordinance that threatened the street-corner spontaneity that gives rise to, say, the Hot 8's title track. Right now, one cause for concern is the city's recently proposed $40 million security plan. A statement from the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, a nonprofit advocacy group, noted that "many locations studied to create the plan, including Times Square, Beale Street [in Memphis] and London's Soho, are widely seen as culturally 'sanitized' and 'homogenized,' packaged for easy and unchallenging consumption by visitors."
Andrews finds the tourists now riding Segways through his old Tremé neighborhood disorienting, he said. "But my heart warmed the other night when I sat on the front porch in my old neighborhood and a brass band came down the street. We may have to fight for all this, but it's not going away."
"Early on, we could just blow our horns and thrill people," the Hot 8's Pete told me. "But now it's about much more. It's about demanding respect and having input in our society." He thinks his community has been largely left out of a citywide plan that owes mightily to its indigenous culture. "We're baking it," he said. "We got all the recipes. Why don't we get a better piece of the pie?"
Wednesday, April 19th, 2017The Hot 8 Brass Band @ The Marlin Room at Webster Hall