Brass bands lead an academic through N.O. race, class, politics

Tulane associate professor Matt Sakakeeny’s first experience with a brass band was like that of almost anyone who moves to New Orleans from out of town.

In the late 1990s, the Rebirth Brass Band played a college bar, where he saw a level of dancing and singing that he was unused to, particularly when the band played its version of the R&B hit “Casanova.”

“Everybody was falling out,” Sakakeeny said. “I said to myself, ‘There’s something going on here.’ ”

Sakakeeny has spent much of his time since exploring brass bands, first as a music fan and producer for the radio show “American Routes,” then as a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University, where he wrote his dissertation on them.

He revised that dissertation into the book “Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans.” The book is out now, and he will celebrate its publication Friday night at Sweet Lorraine’s with music by the Hot 8 Brass Band and his own Latin boogaloo band, Los Po-Boy-Citos.

On Tuesday, he will read from the book at Garden District Books, where the Rebirth Brass Band will join him and perform.

“Roll With It” uses the experiences of brass bands as a way of illuminating race, culture and class tensions in New Orleans. Sakakeeny doesn’t shy away from some complicated relationships, including Jazz Fest’s efforts to market the festival as a celebration of New Orleans culture while paying the musicians who make specifically New Orleans music less than many visiting artists.

Sakakeeny thinks the book took on a sharper tone than he might have otherwise adopted because of Hurricane Katrina, which politicized him.

“I was always interested in what it means for black Americans to gather in a public space and party,” he said. “There’s a political dimension to that, particularly during the time of Jim Crow and segregation, but even in 2013.”

At the same time, the book is very much about people. Sakakeeny focuses on the Rebirth Brass Band, the Hot 8, and the Soul Rebels, largely because of the place they occupied in the brass band scene at the time he was writing.

“If the book had been written two or three years later, it might have been completely different,” he said. “The Stooges and TBC Brass Band would have had much bigger roles.”

The Hot 8 gives the book its emotional center as their story deals explicitly with violence and loss, with two band members dying as a result of shootings.

“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and in retrospect it’s the thing I’m most proud of writing,” Sakakeeny said. “I really thought twice about the fact that a reader might not make it to page 200, put the book down, and miss the exclamation point at the end of the book. And that’s the Hot 8.”

He had a lengthy, emotional interview with Hot 8 tuba player Bennie Pete after drummer Dinerral Shavers was shot and killed in December 2006, but he couldn’t bring himself to include the devastating story in his dissertation. For the book, he felt like he had to return to the conversation. “Whatever I’m experiencing is nothing compared to what they’re experiencing,” Sakakeeny said.

Sakakeeny followed many of the second lines that the bands played, and at them he saw artist Willie Birch. Birch is an acclaimed visual artist, and in the early 2000s he got a grant from the Jazz and Heritage Foundation to depict New Orleans’ second line culture. Sakakeeny asked him to read the manuscript and consider collaborating with him on the book. Birch did, and his first suggestion was that Sakakeeny write himself into it.

“I told him the missing part of the manuscript was, why would a white American choose to write about brass band music, especially from the perspective that he wrote from, considering he’s not from New Orleans,” Birch said.

In a dialogue between Birch and Sakakeeny at the end of “Roll With It,” Birch says, “I believe in the personal voice. It’s about adding your own stamp to your art form based on your time and place on Earth.” But he also considers it a matter of fairness. “As black people, we’re tired of folks (being) anonymous,” Birch said. “How can you speak to a people and you don’t look them in the face? That’s not fair.”

Those elements make “Roll With It” less theoretical and more personal than many books published by academic presses, but for Sakakeeny, that’s a plus.

“There is an audience for this music from all different walks of life, and I wanted to make sure that they could pick up my book and read it,” he said.