Bennie Pete, the co-founder and sousaphone player of the Hot 8 Brass Band, died early Monday at New Orleans East Hospital of complications from the inflammatory condition sarcoidosis and COVID-19, his wife confirmed. He was 45.
The soft-spoken Pete, a gentle giant of a man, was a tireless advocate for New Orleans culture in general and brass band music specifically. He and his bandmates in the Grammy-nominated Hot 8 traveled the world even as they remained fixtures at local parades, funerals and clubs.
“As musicians, our job is not only to supply entertainment, but to create moments in time and life, memorable moments, and good moments,” Pete said in 2017.
The Hot 8’s history stretches back more than 25 years to Alcee Fortier Senior High School, where several members first met. Pete brokered a merger of two Fortier-associated brass bands, the Looney Tunes and the High Steppers, to forge the Hot 8.
They cut their teeth playing for tips on Bourbon Street and in Jackson Square, coalescing as a decidedly contemporary brass band, part of a lineage that included the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands.
With Pete’s sousaphone anchoring grooves that were both rhythmic and melodic, the band reinvented funk, R&B, rap and pop songs as brassy workouts that kept crowds in motion throughout hours-long social aid and pleasure club parades.
The band’s catalog includes “The Life and Times Of….the Hot 8 Brass Band,” which received a 2013 Grammy nomination as best regional roots music album. The Hot 8 has also collaborated with Lauryn Hill, Mos Def and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The musicians and/or their music have appeared in Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” and “The Creek Don’t Rise,” as well as HBO’s “Treme.”
Along the way the Hot 8 has endured a litany of sorrow. In 1996, 17-year-old trumpet player Jacob Johnson was killed in a home invasion. In the summer of 2004, trombonist Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams died during an encounter with police. That same year, fellow trombonist Demond Dorsey died of a heart attack at age 28.
Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, trumpeter Terrell “Burger” Batiste lost his legs in a car accident. In late 2006, snare drummer Dinerral Shavers, a much-loved music educator, was struck and killed by a bullet meant for someone else.
Pete refused to let the tragic history define his band. In 2017, he described the inspiration behind the Hot 8’s then-new album, “On the Spot.”
“What we was mainly trying to do was put some new music out without the foundation of the music being inspired by the trials and tribulations we went through,” Pete said. “It’s basically showing that we’re still here, and we’ve been through a lot. We want to be happy for the things we’re successful at doing.”
But he recognized that the Hot 8 could not completely put their tragic history behind them.
“We’re going to still be affected by it,” he said in 2017. “In life, we’re going to have something that will always affect us. Something will always try to stop us from achieving our goals and accomplishing greater goals.
“But I don’t want to carry and drag those tragedies around in a bag, ready to pull it out for anybody. I don’t want the Hot 8 to just go down as that band. It’s about new music, new members, new goals.”
Pete himself dealt with many serious health challenges over the years. After returning from a grueling month-long tour in June 2014 that visited Russia, Morocco and several European countries, he suffered a seizure. The band canceled the rest of its touring itinerary that summer to give him time to recover.
In 2015, he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an incurable condition in which inflammatory cells attack organs throughout the body.
In 2018, not long after learning he and his wife, Lemeka Pete, were expecting twins, he underwent surgery for advanced prostate cancer.
Because of his health, Pete hadn’t performed with the Hot 8 on a regular basis since before the coronavirus pandemic. He wasn’t onstage when the band resumed its weekly Sunday evening show at the Howlin’ Wolf this spring.
Lameka Pete said her husband fainted at home on Aug. 18. At the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19. She and the couple’s four youngest children, including their 2-year-old twin boys, also tested positive.
Hurricane Ida was not a jazz fan.
Bennie Pete had been reluctant to get the COVID vaccination because of his underlying health conditions, his wife said. He had finally decided to get the shot, but came down with COVID before he was able to.
By then, his sarcoidosis had gotten more aggressive. During the past year, he lost 100 pounds. He suffered from increasingly severe seizures and hallucinations, Lameka Pete said, and his heart capacity dropped to 20%.
The sarcoidosis “was eating away at his main organs,” she said. “Once we all got COVID, it finished off what the sarcoidosis started. Bennie had been through a lot.”
His passing sent shock waves through the brass band community and beyond.
“I’m just kind of numb,” said Howie Kaplan, the owner of the Howlin’ Wolf. “It’s really, really sad.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include two step-daughters, LaShae Joseph and Laila Trask; and three sons, Bennie Pete III and Brannon and Brennon Pete.
Funeral arrangements are pending.