Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans

Overview


Roll With It is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of musicians in the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands of New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. Some achieve a degree of social mobility while many more encounter aggressive policing, exploitative ...
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Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans

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Overview


Roll With It is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of musicians in the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands of New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. Some achieve a degree of social mobility while many more encounter aggressive policing, exploitative economies, and a political infrastructure that creates insecurities in healthcare, housing, education, and criminal justice. The gripping narrative moves with the band members from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A new essential in the post-Katrina history of New Orleans, Roll With It is, perhaps, the most astute and clear-headed assessment of how the musical essence of New Orleans is ingrained in the personal and political lives of those who live in that extraordinary city. The brass-band culture detailed lovingly here by Matt Sakakeeny is no mere entertainment to those who understand it, nor is it there as tourist-bait or as a museum piece of quaint tradition. This is New Orleans itself, arguing for itself, and using culture as language and currency. To the extent thus far possible, what has saved New Orleans–more than government fiat, or grand economic imperatives, or any hint of functional leaderships–is in the street, damn near every Sunday afternoon."—David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire and Treme

"Matt Sakakeeny tells the story of a vibrant, living culture in prose so vivid and moving, it is matched only by the music about which he writes. His illuminating examination of the contemporary New Orleans brass band culture reveals what it means to create great art, to continually mold and revise a tradition, and to try to make a living under an often dehumanizing racial regime—a complex urban world where making music can be a matter of life and death. Roll With It not only opens our ears to the music and its urban echoes, but it opens our eyes, enabling us to finally see the people who make the second line move."—Robin Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Offbeat - Geraldine Wyckoff

Roll With It, which includes striking black-and-white illustrations by New Orleans artist Willie Birch, is at once celebratory and saddening: a book of personal stories and a highly researched academic work.”
All About Jazz - Florence Wetzel

“Fascinating. . . . The musicians' personal stories are interwoven with historical information, academic reflection, and personal experience, combining to form a highly original work that creates a vivid portrait both of this musical format and the noble but beleaguered city of New Orleans.” 
Times-Picayune - Alison Fensterstock

“A notable work in that it’s the first critical project to chronicle New Orleans’ bombastic contemporary brass-band scene, the generation of musicians that grew up with century-old hymns in one ear and hip-hop in the other; also, and importantly, it’s a keen, social-justice-minded examination of the turbulent mix of race, economics, culture and tradition in which brass band culture is located.”
Gambit - Will Coviello

“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 look street-level look at the bands that so often are used to represent and symbolize the city.”
Where Y'at? - Samuel Nelson

"Roll With It is informative on many levels, detailing song structures, jazz history, neighborhood developments, and weaving information together through anecdote and research. It also poses a bigger question: If our city has economically benefitted from selling culture as a post-Katrina resource, are musicians getting what they deserve? Roll With It explores the answer.”
Ned Sublett

“Damn, now that’s musicology. . . . Among the book’s other accomplishments, it’s a model of how to write an academic text that can engage a real-world reader."
David Simon

"A new essential in the post-Katrina history of New Orleans, Roll With It is, perhaps, the most astute and clear-headed assessment of how the musical essence of New Orleans is ingrained in the personal and political lives of those who live in that extraordinary city. The brass-band culture detailed lovingly here by Matt Sakakeeny is no mere entertainment to those who understand it, nor is it there as tourist-bait or as a museum piece of quaint tradition. This is New Orleans itself, arguing for itself, and using culture as language and currency. To the extent thus far possible, what has saved New Orleans–more than government fiat, or grand economic imperatives, or any hint of functional leaderships–is in the street, damn near every Sunday afternoon."
Robin Kelley

"Matt Sakakeeny tells the story of a vibrant, living culture in prose so vivid and moving, it is matched only by the music about which he writes. His illuminating examination of the contemporary New Orleans brass band culture reveals what it means to create great art, to continually mold and revise a tradition, and to try to make a living under an often dehumanizing racial regime—a complex urban world where making music can be a matter of life and death. Roll With It not only opens our ears to the music and its urban echoes, but it opens our eyes, enabling us to finally see the people who make the second line move."
New Orleans Magazine - Jason Berry

"Sakakeeny’s approach to the tensions between continuity in change in Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans, searches past academic theories, tapping many interviews and his own experiences with musicians. . . . Roll With It deserves a wide readership in the post-Katrina boom."
 
 
 
 
Clarion-Ledger - Scott Barretta

“In addition to chronicling groups including the Rebirth Brass Brand, Sakakeeny provides a revealing look at the daily lives of musicians. . . . Detailed profiles of individual musicians make for a captivating narrative, and the book is beautifully illustrated with artwork by New Orleans native Willie Birch.”
Jazz Perspectives - John Paul Meyers

Roll With It adds a contemporary perspective to studies of New Orleans culture and music. What emerges from Sakakeeny’s book is a portrait of a city that, with all its challenges, still manages to support a vibrant musical culture.”
 
Library Journal
11/01/2013
New Orleans brass bands help define the city's character—exuberant, communal, and thoroughly musical—but the musicians who play in them suffer the same marginalization as other black men. Ethnomusicologist Sakakeeny explores their dual roles as celebrated cultural icons and men at the mercy of a society stacked against them.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-01
A scholarly account of the rites, rituals and traditions of the famed brass bands of New Orleans. In his debut book, ethnomusicologist and journalist Sakakeeny (Music/Tulane Univ.) delves into the subculture of brass bands in New Orleans. By focusing on three bands--Rebirth, Soul Rebels and Hot 8--the author attempts to elucidate the ways in which music influences the larger community. "The experiences of New Orleans musicians like those in the Hot 8 Brass Band say something about the vitality of local black culture," he writes, adding that for a significant portion of the population, music creates an important "sense of community." Yet as Sakakeeny makes clear, the story of the city's brass bands is far more complex than music alone. Beyond its entertainment value, music serves as the "site where competing social, political, and economic vectors intersect." In many ways, these vectors serve as a microcosm for the problems within the city at large. While many of these musicians have achieved global recognition, in New Orleans, their talent is often overlooked. As a result, they fall victim to poverty, unemployment and dependency issues, the latter of which "eventually take all but the sturdiest musicians out of the game." Yet in a city notorious for its murder and incarceration rates, Sakakeeny uncovers a silver lining as well: "young people respond to their circumstances by picking up an instrument." Though the author does a fine job of highlighting the many positives music brings to the city, his work is no lighthearted romp. As he makes clear, beneath the blaring of the horns remains the familiar hum of problems that have long plagued the city. An occasionally dry but competently told tale of a celebrated musical tradition whose story is rarely told.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822355670
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/8/2013
  • Series: Refiguring American Music Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 790,761
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos. Willie Birch is an international artist who lives in New Orleans, where he was born in 1942. Birch received his BA from Southern University New Orleans in 1969 and his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 1973. He is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the State of Louisiana Governor's award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His works are part of the permanent collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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Read an Excerpt

ROLL WITH IT

Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans


By MATT SAKAKEENY

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5567-0



CHAPTER 1

ONWARD AND UPWARD


EPISODE 1.1: A Funeral Fit for a Duke

Harold "Duke" Dejan was born in New Orleans's historic Tremé neighborhood in 1909, just after the dawn of jazz. His first music lesson was with his neighbor Albert Nicholas, the great clarinetist among the first generation of jazz musicians, and his first job was at the College Inn on Rampart Street, next door to Tom Anderson's saloon, where Nicholas and Louis Armstrong played together. It was the early 1920s, jazz was becoming an international phenomenon, and both Armstrong and Nicholas would leave for Chicago to launch careers as ambassadors of black music to the world. Dejan meanwhile would go on to cultivate a thoroughly local musical ensemble and gain a relative degree of notoriety as the founder of the city's most prominent group in the 1960s and 1970s, Dejan's Olympia Brass Band.

As young men, each of these musicians solidified his status in the community by performing in musical funerals and parades, cultural displays that occupied public space with the sights, sounds, and physical presence of people subject to segregationist laws intended to limit their movements. "I really felt that I was somebody," Armstrong wrote in his autobiography. "When I played with the Tuxedo Brass Band I just felt as proud as though I had been hired by John Philip Sousa or Arthur Pryor."

Over the course of the twentieth century, the brass band parade became recognized not only as a proud communal tradition among black New Orleanians but also as a traveling symbol of their rich heritage for a global audience of admirers. By the end of Dejan's life, in a radically different era defined by the events of September 11, the cultural capital of the brass band tradition had given him a degree of social mobility that, while nothing in comparison to Armstrong's, allowed him to travel the world, be recognized as a local celebrity, purchase his own home, and tool about in a Lincoln Continental with the personalized license plate "Duke D."

A week after he passed away at the age of ninety-three on the Saturday afternoon of July 13, 2002, Harold Dejan was memorialized with a traditional jazz funeral befitting a musician of his age and stature, attended by thousands and accompanied by media coverage from the Times-Picayune newspaper and all the local network television stations. The artist Willie Birch was there, "looking for imagery," as he later put it, and he created a piece in honor of Dejan titled In the Sweet Bye and Bye that graces the cover of this book. The full scope of the prestige accorded to the brass band parade and to Dejan himself is also indicated by my presence at his funeral. At the time, I was a radio producer assigned the task of recording the procession for broadcast on the public radio program American Routes. Alongside the host, Nick Spitzer, I marched with my microphone on a boom pole and my headphones atop my head in what I perceived as another day at the office.

The event begins with Dejan's casket carried out of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home and placed in a horse-drawn carriage, followed in precise order by those who make up the first line: parade marshals wearing black suits and hats and carrying feathered fans with pictures of Dejan in the center; funeral directors clearing a path for the cortege to pass through ("Open up, please, off to the side, please"); Dejan's pastor; his family; and the Olympia band playing the slow dirge "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

The first line turns onto Claiborne Avenue, the main thoroughfare cutting through the Tremé neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter in the Downtown district. The second line of black and white New Orleanians, tourists, reporters, and photographers falls in behind and alongside the mourners. We march beside the concrete decks of Interstate 10 that tower over the street. As vehicles zing by overhead, the procession moves slowly and solemnly for several blocks, the band gradually ratcheting up the tempo with the traditional Baptist spirituals "Bye and Bye" and "I'll Fly Away," each faster than the one before. Thirty musicians march in honor of their former bandleader, wearing the traditional uniform of "black and whites": short-sleeve white work shirt, black pants and shoes, and a visored cap bearing the band's name in gold lettering. The back row of bass drum, snare drum, and tuba provides rhythmic and harmonic consistency, while the trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and saxophones in the front line play the melody and improvise simultaneously, creating a thick contrapuntal texture that has been a hallmark of New Orleans brass band music for over a century.

At first recognition of the melody, we clap along to the beat. Some have brought their own cowbells and tambourines. The rhythm ripples through concentric circles of bodies. More and more sway to the strike of the bass drum in a freestyle choreography of communal motion. I take off my headphones to find that I too am swaying. Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, a respected musical elder performing in the funeral of his former bandleader, leads the crowd in the refrain. In unison we sing:

I'll fly away, oh Glory, I'll fly away When I die, Hallelujah bye and bye, I'll fly away


The cemetery is several miles away, so the funeral organizers decide to "cut the body loose" at the intersection of Claiborne and Esplanade Avenues and then proceed to the cemetery by car. As we near the overpass, the band switches to "Lord, Lord, Lord" at a fast march tempo and the dancers move with more force, undaunted by the heat of the midday summer sun. When we make the turn under massive decks of the interstate, police sirens melt into the soundscape of instruments and singing. The band plays the most recognizable musical phrase in the brass band repertoire, known as the "Joe Avery riff," a four-note trumpet call from the 1950s standard "Joe Avery's Blues." After each statement by the trumpets—"DA-DA-DAAA-DA!"—the crowd punctuates the riff by yelling "HEY!" Call-and-response phrasing, what the musicologist Samuel Floyd calls "the master trope" of black music, highlights the lack of separation between audience and performer. "Joe Avery" is a gesture of inclusion, because if you do not yell "HEY" along with the musicians and everyone else, you are not participating.

The trumpet calls and we respond; "Joe Avery" comes only when the musicians want to intensify their dialogue with the second liners. The participatory nature of the second line multiplies its affective power as first and second lines commingle, the sound emanating from all of us. The brass band organizes the extramusical sounds and accounts for the environmental effects in order to provide sonic structure, continuity, and coherence. The musicians set the pace so that under the overpass, when our bodies are closest together, we share a responsibility to move in sync, to land our feet on the ground when the beat hits or risk disrupting the flow. The earth shakes with the collective thud of feet and bass drums. The music is based on improvisation, intended to produce unrestrained emotions, and yet the formula for this degree of participation is necessarily controlled and even somewhat rigid in its adherence to certain tempos and repertoires and, in a particularly iconic practice, the summoning of a minute musical phrase. Participation is generated by musicians who initiate chants, call-and-response textures, collective improvisations, and polyrhythmic grooves at specific tempos, while the rest of us determine our degree of involvement based on our proximity to the band.

I once asked a photographer how to avoid disrupting the parade while taking pictures; his suggestion was to distance myself from the dancers surrounding the band and roam along the perimeter. "The energy radiates from the center, from the sousaphone," he told me, his metaphor underscoring the fundamental role of the band as the energy that fuels movement. Gerald Platenburg, a second line dancer, described the "bass horn" as "the quarterback of a second line." The desire to take a photo, converse with a friend, or fully participate in the parade poses the problem of where to situate yourself—among those in the first line, in the more sparsely populated area behind them, or along the sidewalks—and the bell of the sousaphone is literally at the center of the decision-making process.

"DA-DA-DAAA-DA!" "HEY!"

The band plays their final chord, and the merriment continues a cappella for several minutes. When the collective excitement dissipates, the hearse leads the cortege to the burial site and the second line disperses. "There was something special about Mr. Dejan, boy," Willie Birch later recalled of the funeral. "It felt so peaceful, man, it felt so spiritual."


EPISODE 1.2: An Eventful History

In the first years of the twentieth century, when Harold Dejan was born, the New Orleans brass band was not perceived as a tradition of distinction and a career as a brass band musician was not equated with prestige. Up until that time there had been little to differentiate bands in New Orleans from those throughout the United States, initially brought by European militaries and Christian missionaries and then popularized by the bandmasters Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa. In antebellum New Orleans, bands of Europeans and Americans were a routine presence at every major holiday, funeral, or commemoration, and after the Civil War bands made up of people of color became a sizable presence as well. Reports suggest that these ensembles, though ethnically and racially distinct, were otherwise roughly comparable: the musicians all wore Prussian-style military uniforms, marched in closed formations, and performed stock arrangements of the latest marches, European dances, and popular songs. The black bands would not have identified themselves as such, for they were made up predominantly of Creoles with mixed European and African ancestry who were generally musically literate and otherwise fluent in Eurocentric methods, and who adopted names (the Excelsior, the Imperial, the Superior) that captured some of the grandeur previously reserved for the white bands.

Harold Dejan's parents were Creoles who grew up in the Downtown district that included the French Quarter, Marigny, and Tremé neighborhoods, where Italian, Spanish, and especially French were spoken, across from the Uptown district on the other side of Canal Street, where English-speaking Anglo-Protestants and black Americans were concentrated. While Dejan does not appear to have come from a particularly musical family, he grew up around dynasties such as the Barbarins and their patriarch, Isidore Barbarin, a cornetist with the Onward Brass Band and father of four professional brass band musicians (Paul, Louis, Lucien, and William) and grandfather to guitarist Danny Barker, born in the French Quarter in the same year as Dejan.

Between the time when Isidore was indoctrinated into brass bands in the late 1800s and Harold Dejan and Danny Barker first picked up instruments in the 1910s, radical social, political, and musical changes had transformed their lives and livelihoods. In 1892 Homer Plessy, a Creole New Orleanian, was arrested for sitting in the white car of a segregated train, leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision that institutionalized segregation, stripped blacks of their rights, and had the local consequence of legally classifying Creoles and black Americans together. From a strictly musical perspective, the subsequent interactions—sometimes contested—between black American, Creole, and European immigrant musicians caused an efflorescence akin to a chemical reaction brought about by the synthesis of multiple elements: jazz. From a broader perspective, the public performance of social dance music within a hierarchical order that imposed humility and deference was an act of political significance. Dancing to "goodtime music," in the words of the cultural critic Albert Murray, "is the direct opposite of resignation, retreat, or defeat," nowhere more evident than in the jazz funerals and second line parades that literally marched across the segregated spaces of New Orleans.

Funerals and parades led by bands of all races and ethnicities serve the essential function of regulating the movement of crowds, of "keeping together in time" as wind bands have done since Crusaders first encountered Saracen armies seven centuries ago. But as Rob Boonzajer Flaes writes in Brass Unbound: Secret Children of the Colonial Brass Band, community brass bands never lost their association with "the brightly polished expression of a Western sense of beauty and order, the resounding proof of Western military, religious, and cultural superiority." By leading processionals in the same streets where lynchings and race riots occurred, bands made up of black musicians turned this association on its head. The musicologist Thomas Brothers writes in his book Louis Armstrong's New Orleans that the second line parade, as a "public display of African American vernacular culture," was implicitly a "symbolic act of resistance to Jim Crow." As laws and codes sought to segregate public accommodations into black and white spaces, parades defied segregation in their volume and plenitude.

The ways that the music oriented black New Orleanians toward one another connected the black brass band parade of the post-Reconstruction period not only to European-derived marching bands but also to another, entirely different antebellum musical event. Until the 1840s slaves were permitted to congregate and sell goods on Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, a grassy expanse on the perimeter of the French Quarter, where they also sang and danced in the form of a ring shout.

In an essay linking the slave dances in Congo Square to the development of brass band parades, Samuel Floyd locates "all of the defining elements of black music" in the ring shout, including "call-and-response devices; additive rhythms and polyrhythms; ... timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; ... and the metronomic foundational pulse that underlies all Afro-American music." The most detailed account of Congo Square, from an 1819 journal entry by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, makes reference to several of these characteristics. The many drummers, whose sound Latrobe compared to "horses trampling on a wooden floor," were likely creating the complex polyrhythms that characterize ritual drumming in West Africa and the Americas. While one group of women was "respond[ing] to the Song of their leader" in call-and-response fashion, others were "walk[ing], by way of dancing, round the music in the Center," creating what Floyd would recognize as "an activity in which music and dance commingled, merged, and fused to become a single distinctive cultural ritual." The historian Michael Gomez writes that the ring shout helped to strengthen communication among slaves, "[bringing] them together, transcending cultural barriers and hastening the creation of a pan-African cultural mix with numerous points of intersection."

In historical relation to the black brass band parades of freemen and their descendants, the ring shout is the foundational ritual of community recognition and value through participatory music making in what the historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall refers to as "the most African city in the United States." It would be crude and essentialist to draw a direct link from the music at Harold Dejan's jazz funeral back to ring shout dances at Congo Square, and it would be equally problematic to ignore the ongoing persistence and dynamic vitality of outdoor festival traditions among black New Orleanians subject to varying forms of bondage. In the time of Jim Crow rule, Isidore Barbarin witnessed Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz musicians transform the brass band through improvisation, syncopation, and the addition of repertoire including ragtime, blues, and spirituals; Harold Dejan updated the Olympia with rhythm and blues music that was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement; and the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands brought the music into dialogue with funk and hip-hop as the hopes attached to the movement receded in the last quarter of the twentieth century. These musicians and their contemporaries maintained the participatory, inclusive character of brass band music not through preservation but through recalibration, retuning tradition to be consonant with the experiences of younger generations.

Dejan was an agent in mobilizing musical traditions, racial identities, and social locations from the Jazz Age up through the birth of the hip-hop generation. He was partly responsible for the prestige that the New Orleans brass band accumulated over the course of his lifetime. In turn, his own status as a cultural practitioner was enhanced both in terms of economic capital and what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified as symbolic capital, such as cultural capital and social capital, which bestows status on individuals within a group. This broad understanding of value as the accrual of material and immaterial wealth, accumulating like puddles of water on uneven pavement, reappears throughout this book in stories of the haves, the have-nots, and the in-betweens. The noble Duke's jazz funeral, like his flashy yet respectable Lincoln Continental, was a sign of individual and collective wealth: a memorial for a prominent community member honored with a spectacular funeral procession and a reaffirmation of a tradition that was now known around the globe. A durable tradition, the brass band is by no means static; it has been continually redirected by powerful innovators who have deployed specific yet adaptable musical practices in public events situated within shifting political infrastructures. Along the way, musicians have enhanced the prestige of the brass band tradition and the music, in turn, has bestowed social and economic capital upon them.
(Continues...)


Excerpted from ROLL WITH IT by MATT SAKAKEENY. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Artwork vii

Prologue. Crossing the Threshold ix

Introduction. Forward Motion 1

1. Onward and Upward 13

2. Constraints 69

3. Progressions 109

4. Voices 143

Conclusion. Engagements 179

Afterword. Image and Music in the Art of Willie Burch / Willie Burch and Matt Sakakeeny 187

Acknowledgments 195

Appendix. List of Interviews and Public Events 199

Notes 201

Bibliography 213

Index 227

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