Bennie Pete, the sousaphone player and co-founder of the Hot 8 Brass Band. (Courtesy Photo)

By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.

As if the disastrous effects of Hurricane Ida weren’t enough for Louisiana, another tragedy came to the state:  Bennie Pete, the  sousaphone player and co-founder of the Hot 8 Brass Band died on September 6, 2021 at the age of 45.  He was a big man, who played a large brass wind instrument. He will be remembered for his love of New Orleans culture and his undying love of brass band music. 

But he had health challenges including COVID 19 and before that a 2015 diagnosis of sarcoidosis, an incurable growth of inflammatory cells in various organs of the body such as lungs, lymph nodes, the eyes and the skin. He was operated on for advanced prostate cancer in 2018.  

In addition to his personal issues he suffered the loss of band members over the years: one band member was killed during a 1996 home invasion, another died during a police engagement and third died of a heart attack both incidents in 2004. 

Bennie Pete first jammed with the Hot 8 Brass Band members back in their high school days 25 years ago at Alcee Fortier Senior High School in Uptown New Orleans.  It was Pete who combined two bands, the Looney Tunes and the High Steppers to make the Hot 8.  

They played for tips on Bourbon Street early on held together by Pete’s sousaphone playing and easy personality.  They got better known and became better musicians.  Some say the group reinvented funk music.  Eventually, the Hot 8 Brass Band played with Lauryn Hill (solo singing ‘Killing Me Softly’ and earlier the lead singer of Fugees), Mos Def and the Blind Boys of Alabama.  The band’s music has appeared in Spike Lee’s film, “When the Levees Broke” and in HBO’s post Katrina New Orleans series ‘Treme’.   The band was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for best regional roots music album.

Bennie Pete’s choice of instruments must have said something about him.  The sousaphone is a huge brass instrument reminiscent of the tuba.  It is an expensive with sale prices as high as $7-8,000 new and as low on E-Bay as $930-3,500 pre-owned (used that is). But being the gentle giant everyone knew him to be, he walked softly but carried a big brass horn.  

Through tragedies from hurricanes to the loss through death of several band members over the years, Pete was known to keep moving forward.  In 2017 at the release of Hot 8’s new album, “On the Pot,” Pete said, “We want to be happy for the things we are successful at doing.” “We are trying to put new music out without the foundation of the music being inspired by the trials and tribulations we went through.”

So, to the readers who may not have heard of Bennie Pete or the Hot 8 Brass Band, check out their award nominated album, “The Life and Times of the Hot 8 Brass Band.  The group has carried on without him since COVID struck him and the members of his family.  Bennie Pete was be missed by music lovers everywhere and his highest tribute will be “and the band played on.”

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