Friday, May 19, 2006

The Hot 8: Part 1

If you happen to have read the essay that this site spun off from, you may recall that my interest in "St. James Infirmary" can be traced to the time I heard The Hot 8 perform it, in 1998. We saw the group by chance, because we were visiting New Orleans and had ended up at a bar called Donna's; The Hot 8 was playing that night.

Later, when we moved to New Orleans, I kept track of The Hot 8, which was among the half-dozen or so top brass bands in the city. These are bands that play "on the street," meaning in parades, as well as in clubs. I think it's safe to say that then and now, the biggest group in this uniquely New Orleans category, is the Rebirth Brass Band. The Dirty Dozen, a more famous band that came out of this scene, no longer counts, because they stopped playing in the streets long ago. Anyway, while my interest in The Hot 8 was personal, they are also an interesting example of a genre that dates back probably 100 years or more, and yet has remained quite current in New Orleans. The Hot 8 even appeared in a Master P video.

At some point our friend Cynthia mentioned that she'd heard about a Hot 8 documentary. It took me a long time to actually get around to looking into this, but recently I did, and it's true. The 30-minute film was released in 2003, by Noisemaker Films, and you can see a trailer for it here. (Click through to "Films," and it's the top choice; it's called The Hot 8.) "The film explores the future of the jazz community in pre-Katrina Nola and reveals the deep rift between generations young and old," the site says.

The film isn't commercially available, but, figuring I had nothing to lose, I emailed Noisemaker Films and asked if there was any way to buy a DVD. Promptly, I got a very nice response from the producer, Luis Macias, who said he'd send me one, and all I had to do for payment was tell him what I thought.

New Orleans always photographs well, in my opinion. But The Hot 8 looks particularly fabulous. It's shot in black and white, and the cinematography is gorgeous. It's clearly a very heartfelt project, and among other things there's some great performance footage of the band. For personal reasons again, I was pleased that much of that material was actually filmed at Donna's. I was even more pleased to hear a bit of "St. James Infirmary" pop up in the film, even though it was sort of in the background toward the end, not a featured performance. The Hot 8 has been screened at some 24 film festivals, and has won six best-short-documentary awards -- and a nice writeup in the Times-Picayune -- along the way.

The film is narrated by the director, who I gather is from Chicago. I know from personal experience that New Orleanians are rarely impressed with the observations of outsiders, and the film doesn't do itself any favors by having this opening line, spoken by the director: "I never liked New Orleans." What he seems to mean is that he doesn't like Bourbon Street and the tourist-heavy French Quarter, and that's why the film's narration champions Treme. That's all good, but of course, Donna's isn't in Treme; it's in the Quarter. And it's often full of tourists.

As the quote from the site indicates, the film is built around the idea of tension between generations of musicians. Of course my personal view on this matter is that it's much more interesting that young musicians like those in The Hot 8 are involved so deeply in traditional music at all; there's just no other place where that happens like it happens in New Orleans. It's interesting to hear what the old-school trad guys think about these young musicians, but it would also be interesting, to me at least, to hear what Master P thinks. But as I say, it's a very heartfelt film, they did an admirable job -- I can't fault somebody for not delivering on my personal vision of why the Hot 8 is interesting.

I'll have more to say about The Hot 8 in a follow-up post, maybe next week. For now, I thank Mr. Macias for sharing the film, congratulate him and his colleagues on what they've done, and wish them luck in the various projects that Noisemaker has in the works (a couple of which involve New Orleans, and are worth checking out on their site.)

I also suggest that you might want to visit The Hot 8 site. The band is still going, and released its first CD in 2005. On the site there are several MP3 downloads available -- I recommend "Rock With The Hot 8," and "Skeet Skeet" as nice representations of how the group has married traditional sensibilities to the more modern, funky brass approach that animates the second-lines and the clubs today.

Finally, for those in the NYC area: Be advised that The Hot 8 perform in Central Park on August 12.

Update: Proceed to Part 2.