Little else expresses the joys, pains, rhythms, passion and compassion of New Orleans life like a brass band in the street. In New Orleans, brass band culture is both a constant and a fluid thing.
OK, maybe the artwork of Willie Birch—who was born and raised in New Orleans and whose work resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, among other places—captures the spirit of New Orleans life with equal force and beauty, including Birch’s indelible images of brass band musicians in action.
“Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans,” a book by Matt Sakakeeny, who is an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, a journalist and a musician, benefits from both Sakakeeny’s deeply embedded documentation of the lives and times of brass band musicians (from the Rebirth, Hot 8, and others bands) and Birch’s uniquely evocative art. Together, Sakakeeny and Birch reveal the political and social contexts of brass band music, which, while always entertaining, forms both in-the-moment activism and commentary. The book is an artful telling of cultural history illustrated by important artifacts of that cultural history. Sakakeeny’s book benefits from the rich scholarly perspective of a seasoned ethnomusicologist but its greatest resonance is the truth in the streets, unfiltered. Birch’s work, like the music of the brass bands documented here, erases lines between folk and high art by sheer power of expression and seriousness of purpose.
The above cover features Birch’s “In the Sweet Bye and Bye (Mr. Dejan’s Funeral),” from 2002, depicting the jazz funeral for Harold “Duke” Dejan, best known as leader of the Olympia Brass Band. (Copyright Willie Birch, used with permission of Duke University Press.) For more of Birch’s art and an excerpt from the book, scroll down.
For those In New York, Sakakeeny will offer insights in person, free of charge, at a Book Talk sponsored by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Details here, and below:
Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans
A book talk by Matt Sakakeeny
Wednesday April 9, 8pm
716 Hamilton Hall (near 116th & Amsterdam)
Sponsored by the Columbia Center for Jazz Studies
Because of a thriving brass band tradition, young black Americans continue to perform, listen, and dance to jazz in New Orleans today. Brass band musicians 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. In Roll With It, author Matt Sakakeeny follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 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.
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.