New Orleans Brass Band The Hot 8 Came To London

Hot 8 London New Orleans

This week the Hot 8, one of New Orleans’ best brass bands played at London’s Roundhouse. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see them, though I dearly wish I had done.

Me and the Hot 8 go way back – well, until 2013 when I saw them at Satchmo Summerfest. Coming on stage on a clouded, stifling Sunday afternoon, they immediately lifted the energy levels of the crowd by about a I-don’t-know-what-a-plex and, for me, were the best performance of the festival.

I later read more about them, in particular in the really excellent book Roll With It: Brass Bands In The Streets Of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (who I also saw speak at that same festival). In it, I learnt about the band’s beginnings in 1994 (they were originally called the Looney Tunes Brass Band), their involvement with much success in the musical and material politics of playing brass band music in New Orleans, and the tragedies the band has endured. Three of its members – trumpeter Jacob Johnson, trombone player Joseph Williams and drummer Dinerral Shavers – have died of gunshot wounds. Terrell Batiste, another trumpeter, lost both his legs after being hit by a car.

Overall, the band’s sad but inspiring story seems to sum up the whole bittersweet history of brass bands in New Orleans. “There is much to celebrate here in the way that these young men use tradition to provide people with a sense of community through music, their success in reconfiguring tradition to resonate with contemporary experience, and their ability to accumulate status and earn a living by playing music in diverse contexts,” writes Sakaheeny. “But there is also much to condemn in the way they remain vulnerable to various forms of risk.”

This duality seems to me to be there in my two favourites of their songs, both from their first album Rock With The Hot 8. In one, “What’s My Name?”, we hear an upbeat, very confident announcement of the band’s name and its musical identity. The other, a tender yet insistent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, is a sad but hopeful love song, tinged with both with the sadnesses of Gaye’s life and death and those of the band. Like all great songs, both are specific to a tradition and the individual lives of particular musicians, yet also might say something to people everywhere.

Which brings me back to Hot 8’s recent London gig. I couldn’t see them here because it was totally sold out. I’ve written before about London’s love of, and affinity with, New Orleans’ brass bands, and the Hot 8 seems to be no exception. “Y’all raised da roof #london What a night!!!”, the band tweeted afterwards. I wish I’d been there.

(A final note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the Easter holidays for the next couple of weeks. If it’s something you celebrate: Happy Easter! Hope everyone has a few weeks, whatever you’re doing.)

Image: The Hot 8 Brass Band

What Transport Says About Politics in New Orleans And London

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This week I’ve been listening to a radio adaption of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. It has been thought-provoking in many ways, but one quote in particular has stayed in my head. “If you want to find out what this nation is like, you have to ride the rails,” says one character, as runaway slave Cora prepares to begin her journey on the “underground railroad”, which Whitehead has reimagined as an actual railway line.

The radio also prompted to think about links between transport and politics, this time in a New Orleans context specifically, when I heard Leah Chase interviewed on the Food Programme. The famous cook spoke not only about her family’s world-renowned restaurant Dooky Chase, but also about its role in the civil rights movement. Its bowls of gumbo and fried chicken fuelled some of those taking part in the “Freedom Rides” of the early 60s.

New Orleans’ connections with the politics of transport go back even further than this. Homer Plessy, the man at the centre of the Plessy v. Ferguson case that failed to overturn streetcar segregation, came from New Orleans’ Treme neighbourhood.

Treme is also renowned as the birthplace of jazz, which reminded me of a minor political episode in the history of public transport in London. A few years ago, I read in London daily newspaper the Evening Standard that then-mayor Boris Johnson had cancelled a jazz workshop arranged for employees of the city’s bus and train body Transport for London, “just as we have got rid of many other pointless excrescences in the public sector”, he said.

Improvise, the arts organisation that would have run the workshop, would rebuff this description of their work. “Our novel inspiration is the premise that, if we understand more about how jazz musicians communicate, innovate, manage risks, work together, create and sustain change, support and lead one another, then there are valuable lessons for us all as individuals, teams and organisations”, a spokeperson said at the time

To some – Johnson evidently – jazz is just background noise. But, writes Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States, “jazz, however joyful, portended rebellion”. Transport is also too often regarded as just a city’s background noise, as an unremarkable means to an end. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore either.

“Listen,” wrote New Orleans music magazine OffBeat about jazz musician Fats Waller. “You can hear [him] everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There is something about his rhythms and melodies that are in the way people walk and horns riff and cars drive and streetcars squeal and cutlery clanks and cast-iron pots simmer.”

In London too – and other places– there are pings from trains and streetcars, a bass note thrum from buses and ferries, and the sound of the movement of many people in different directions. It is the sound, impossible to silence, of transport, the human need for freedom, and the pleasure we take in it.

Image: Terekhova

The Liberty Bells Of London And New Orleans And Why They’re Important

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I have always liked the sound of bells. Peals, or “methods” as they are sometimes known to campanologists, seem to possess something essentially English, though bells are heard all over the world. Meanwhile their tight-held almost-balance of pattern and anarchy reminds me of the jazz music that I love.

Bells are also a resonate symbol of democracy, in both the US and the UK. In London our Houses of Parliament has a 13.5-tonne heavyweight, Big Ben. On the other side of the Atlantic Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell has become one of the best-known emblems of the principles of freedom and equality at the heart of the American political tradition.

These bells also represent the links between the British and American nations and their democracies, not least because both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made by the nearly 450-year-old east London workshop that is now the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

America also has other less well-known liberty bells in other parts of the nation, however, and of course has not always had harmonious relations with the UK. The Kaskaskia Bell, also known as the “Liberty Bell of the West”, arrived in New Orleans in 1743 as a gift from the French king Louis XV and was then was taken upriver to Kaskaskia, located in what was Upper Louisiana and is now southern Illinois. While the bell began its history as a curio of the colonial age, it started a new life with a new nation when it was rung to celebrate the liberation of Kaskaskia from the British on 4 July 1778.

These days, however, liberty bells everywhere seem fragile and quiet. The Kaskaskia Bell now lives in relative obscurity and is rarely rung. The Liberty Bell and Big Ben are both cracked, and the latter will be silenced for maintenance of its tower’s clock for a few months sometime in the coming years. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s building is to be sold, with the business facing an uncertain future.

The Philadelphia Liberty Bell is inscribed with a powerful Biblical inscription: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”, and it is hard to avoid seeing these falls in fortunes of bells and limitations on their ability to speak to us to us as a symbol of the damaging blows freedom and equality have endured in the UK and the US over the past year.

Big Ben’s crack gives it a “less-than-perfect” but also “distinctive” tone, says the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Writing about the Liberty Bell in her history of Independence National Historical Park, US academic Constance M. Greiff asks if the fact that it is “irreparably damaged” is part of its “almost mystical appeal”. She adds: “Like our democracy it is fragile and imperfect, but it has weathered threats, and it has endured.” It is very tempting at this point to think of those famous words from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, who died last month: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

At this dark time of year in particular, bells are traditionally rung to symbolise festivities and new beginnings (which I will use as an opportunity to say that my blog will take a vacation for the next couple of weeks). Let’s hope that these things bring refreshed voices and renewed hopes.

Image: Shinya Suzuki

Nightlife’s Slow Death In London And New Orleans

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This weekend I went to a gig at the George Tavern in Stepney (pictured), not too far from where I live. This pub has a long history – it’s mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare and claims that at least some of its brickwork is 700 years old. In the latter years of its long history, it’s become well-known as a music and culture venue, largely because of the work of artist landlady Pauline Forster who bought the pub as a derelict building in 2002.

A few years ago the George Tavern faced closure as a developer’s plans to build a block of flats near to the site would affect its ability to host live music nights, one of its most important sources of income. The George Tavern was saved, thanks in part to a high-profile campaign and the backing of a number of celebrity supporters, from Amy Winehouse to Justin Timberlake.

However, the venue is once again under threat. Plans have been proposed to replace nearby studios with, once again, a residential building. “[The George Tavern] is a vital community asset and must be protected at all costs,” said the George Tavern’s management in the text of a letter they recommended fans of the venue send to the borough council. “Experience across London has shown that introducing residential uses in close proximity to noise sources inevitably leads to complaints of noise nuisance which can result in curbs on the established activities at the site and ultimately closure.”

What they’re referring to is how noise restrictions and development pressures are now having an effect on iconic music and clubbing businesses in many parts of the city. In recent years London has seen the closure of a significant number of iconic venues, in part because of these kinds of factors. These include legendary Soho venue Madame JoJos’s, nightclub Cable located under the arches of London Bridge station, and Dalston club and historic centre for black music Four Aces.

In Hackney, the part of London where I live and where Four Aces and many other closed venues were located, the closure of and restrictions on nightlife businesses is such a keenly-felt issue that a campaign has been set up to oppose this. Fittingly, it was launched last year with a party that attracted over 600 people. One closing East End venue even held a New Orleans-style jazz funeral.

Nightlife in New Orleans could be slowly and picturesquely dying too. This city as well has seen many beloved places to listen to music, dance and socialise close and, despite the differences between the two cities, they are doing so for the same reasons that they are in London. And as in London feelings have coalesced into campaigns similar to the London ones both to keep individual venues open and on behalf of the city’s music scene as a whole – MACCNO deserves a special mention here.

When thinking all this, it is important to remember, however, that the places we live in have always changed. Venues of all kinds have always closed and been replaced by new ones, and it’s especially in the nature of the bars and club world for this to happen, where being new can be a significant selling point,

But it does feel like something different is happening now. The centres of our cities are becoming hollowed out by gentrification, as living somewhere urban is becoming more fashionable for the affluent middle-aged than the suburbs. People are living in areas once rich with nightlife who think they want to be somewhere lively but who actually don’t, so end up loudly complaining about bars or clubs. Meanwhile, in part because it’s now harder for them to live in city centres and in part because of other economic and social pressures on them, young people are going out less.

So while we should all campaign about individual venues in our neighbourhoods that we care about and our cities’ nightlife as a whole, we should also think about how the ways in which people, money, music and noise are ebbing and flowing across our cities are part of a bigger social picture too.

Image: Ewan Munro

WWOZ: The Most Magical Radio Station

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I love radio. When I was growing up, it was rare for a Saturday lunchtime not to be accompanied by Any Questions or for a teatime to go by without my mum wanting to listen to The Archers. Radio Days has always been one of my family’s favourite films and my sister is a now a star of the late night airwaves in Melbourne, Australia. And I think radio’s companionable but not intrusive presence has got me through some of the hardest times in my life.

One of my favourite radio stations is WWOZ which, in case you don’t know, is New Orleans’ community-orientated, listener-supported and volunteer-programmed radio station, supported by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation.

On my trip to the city last month, from which I promised more reports in my last post, I was privileged to be able to visit WWOZ’s studios. And this week, WWOZ and what it means are particularly in my thoughts as they’re undertaking one of their twice-annual fundraising drives. So right now seems as good a time as any to write a little about why I love this station so much.

Like me, WWOZ was born in 1980. It’s a small point in the grand scheme of things, but always makes me feel a sense of kinship with the station. It was founded by Jerry and Walter Brock, two musical brothers with huge record collections and its name is a reference to the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” of the famous book and film, specifically the film’s line, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, meaning that attention should be paid primarily to the programme content rather than the personalities of their presenters. However, I have to say that WWOZ’s cast of characters, who bring a range of different talents to the fore – as music experts, as raconteurs, sometimes simply as friendly voices – is one of my very favourite things about it.

The station lived out its early childhood in a series of borrowed rooms and backstreet bars, on occasion lowering a microphone through the floor to catch a live performance. In 1985, it moved to Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighbourhood and after Katrina found a new home in the French Market, in an office building right in the centre of town, thought its dedication to showcasing the personal musical passions of its hosts, upcoming artists and live performance remains in place to this day.

This French Market base is where I was kindly invited to on a Sunday night by the wonderful jazz musician Kathleen Lee, who hosts her weekly “Swing Session” show then and who I was first lucky enough to meet during my visit to Satchmo SummerFest last year.

There were other guests there, far more knowledgeable about New Orleans music than me, and most importantly for late February in Louisiana, a real carnival spirit between friends old and new – sorry for all the chattering, Kathleen! After having been a fan of the station for so long, finally getting to go up into the building, walk through the corridors, and then even take a seat in the studio that I’ve heard so many great broadcasts from really felt like going into Oz and pulling aside that magical green curtain, except that everything was just as magical behind it.

But as wonderful as my visit was, what I really love about WWOZ is the way it makes me feel like I’m in New Orleans when I’m not there. For me, WWOZ always conjures up moods, conversations, places, people from the city while leaving a part of my mind free to pull aside its own curtain and see what’s behind it. This is radio’s magic, and it’s not done better anywhere than at WWOZ.

Bold As Brass

Earlier this month, I read a great bookRoll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans by Tulane professor and musician Matt Sakakeeny. It’s an analysis, one of the first, of the work and lives of the musicians who play in the new generation of hip hop-influenced New Orleans brass bands. Sakakeeny mainly writes about musicians in the Hot 8, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth, many of whom he has close personal relationships with.

There are many things I really like about this book. But what I want to draw attention to here is the way in which Sakakeeny emphasises the relationship of culture and its political and economic contexts, a relationship I’m very interested in. He highlights how the creation of New Orleans’ distinctive and beloved brass band music today has always been enmeshed in complicated social and financial structures.

For example, Sakakeeny rightly recognises the jazz funeral as the musical heart of the New Orleans brass band tradition, but points out that these events are also an important source of income for brass band musicians.

He goes on to examine at length how their participation in these funerals, particularly in the tragically not unusual experience of where they’re for colleagues, relatives and friends, can be a source of musical inspiration and hence financial profit and are a part of a wider artistic engagement characteristic of New Orleans brass band musicians with the poverty, violence and injustice that are often presences in their lives.

We do have a brass band tradition in the UK, but it’s different to that of New Orleans and, certainly in the case of London, not on the same scale. However, as with the musical culture Sakakeeny has studied, there is a significant political and economic dimension to the work of brass bands here.

There’s historically been a strong connection in the UK between brass band music and working class life, particularly in the case of colliery bands. This connection was very effectively examined in 1996 British film Brassed Off, which tells the interlinked stories of the closure of a Yorkshire village’s coal mine and the fortunes of the community’s colliery band.

London has no collieries but does, you might be surprised to hear, have a colliery band. Named after the area where I live, Hackney Colliery Band is made up of classically-trained musicians who would be quick to admit that, while most of them are based in Hackney or nearby, they do not have local connections equivalent to the community roots the members of New Orleans brass bands or British colliery bands tend to have.

Rather they aim to represent in their work a mixture of some of the very diverse musical influences found in Hackney, including jazz, rock, African music, Balkan music, hip hop and a vibrant club scene. “We try to imagine,” said Hackney Colliery Band trumpeter Steve Pretty when I spoke to him earlier this year, “that there was a colliery band [in Hackney] – there’s this whole tradition of colliery bands being the hub of the community, reflecting the musical tastes of that community.”

They’ve also drawn musically on the rich worldwide brass band tradition, including New Orleans brass bands, and embraced the tradition’s commitment to social engagement. For example, parading, that powerful use of performance as a political act so often engaged in by brass bands, is an element of their onstage (or should that be off-and-around-stage?) presence.

Taking things one step further, the band are currently working with young brass players in a project set up in conjunction with the Roundhouse performance venue in Camden, a borough adjacent to Hackney in north London with a similar mix of privilege and deprivation.

To give a third example, the band have named their latest album Common Decency which, Steve told me, “came out of the fact that I wrote a tune when I was quite annoyed with people not behaving properly and it’s gratifying that it’s now the guiding philosophy of the band.”

You could read Steve’s statement as an understated, and thus characteristically British, expression of a laudable commitment to social justice that’s shared by many brass band musicians. Sadly, social justice is something that’s sorely needed in London, across the UK, and in New Orleans. And the part that brass bands and other producers and guardians of culture can play in bringing it about should never be taken for granted or forgotten.

Meet Me In New Orleans (Kind of…)

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A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.

Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.

I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.

The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.

Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.

We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.

That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.