Editor’s Note: The Habitat for Humanity Romp, originally scheduled in May, was bumped because of rain. It will take place on Saturday, June 8, at Palmer Park, corner of Carrollton and Claiborne avenues. A new addition is a community mural, to be painted by those in attendance following the sketch above. So in addition to water-gun war, you can also wield your own spray paint can. In anticipation, we are reposting this interview with Hot 8 Brass Band’s Terrell Batiste, who will be performing at the event.
Terrell Batiste has never been one to think small.
He proves it daily when he wheels smoothly around his new Habitat for Humanity house near Musician’s Village, which has been outfitted for a double amputee. And he’ll prove it anew when he blows his trumpet with the Hot 8 Brass Band at Saturday’s Habitat for Humanity Romp in Palmer Park.
That persistent spirit first earned results in 11th grade. Batiste had been a band buff from the time he was a child growing up in the Lafitte housing project in New Orleans. But his life changed on the day he went to a second line with a friend and heard, for the first time, the Hot 8 Brass Band.
“I went and fell in love,” says Batiste. “I’d grown up with Rebirth, New Birth was down the street. But they had a different sound. Hot 8 had a lot of funk. I wanted to be in that band.”
So Batiste followed the Hot 8, showing up any Sunday the band second lined, and working an introduction with a band member through a friend in New Birth.
“I’d bug him every day, asking if I could play with Hot 8. He said, well, we need a trumpet player.”
Batiste didn’t play the trumpet; he played the euphonium in the Kennedy High School band. But he taught himself the new horn, getting his neighbor down the street, Trombone Shorty, to show him some moves, and signing on to play trumpet in the school’s concert band.
He practiced hours every day, badgered the Hot 8 to let him sit in on rehearsals, and eventually earned his way into gigs.
“I’d show up and play, no pay, and they’d say, man you gotta practice. It was like one long audition. And one night, at the Blue Nile, I just blanked out and felt the music, releasing everything into that horn. And they said, you been practicing, haven’t you?”
That was in 2002, and Batiste has been a full-fledged member of the Hot 8 ever since, traveling twice around the world with a group whose upbeat sound band leader Bennie Pete calls “life music.”
But having to think large wasn’t over for Batiste.
When Hurricane Katrine hit, he evacuated to Baton Rouge, and then Atlanta. His grandmother refused to go, staying behind at Lafitte. And at some point during the storm she disappeared. The family searched frantically for her for eight months, enlisting every resource, including major media, to try to find out what had happened to her.
“I was on my way to Michigan with the band one morning, and at the airport one of the guys said, let’s stop for a drink,” Batiste recalls. “I said, it’s 8 in the morning. And he said, I think you’re going to need it. And I look up at the TV in the bar, and there’s my mother on Anderson Cooper.”
They had finally found Batiste’s grandmother’s body in the city morgue, identifiable only by the earrings the family had given her.
Two weeks later, strength was needed again. Batiste had a blowout while driving on an Atlanta freeway, got out to check the damage, and was hit by a car.
“That bright light is real,” he says ruefully. “I saw my grandmother. Then I woke up on the ground and used my hands to try to get up. I couldn’t move. I looked to my left and saw one of my legs in the left lane, and I looked to the right and saw the other leg hanging to my body by a bit of skin. When I woke up in the hospital later, I thought I’d had a nightmare. I thought, this can’t be happening to me.”
Four months in the hospital, six surgeries and a lot of pain followed. He lost both legs above the knees.
“They tried to boost my morale. They showed me films of people without legs running marathons or jumping out of planes. To this day, I still have depression points.”
Batiste did it his own way. He lay in his hospital bed, quietly planning out what he’d do. He’d continue playing music, he’d get into producing songs. He looked ahead, not behind.
“I figured I’d drive myself insane if I kept asking, ‘Why me?’ So I just learned to maneuver on my own.”
And he went back to the Hot 8 Brass Band.
“It was rough in the beginning,” he says. “I’d have to hop out of my chair and climb stairs to get on stage. A lot of places, especially in Europe, aren’t made for wheelchairs.”
Batiste moved back to New Orleans in 2007, shortly after good friend and Hot 8 founding member Dinerral Shavers was murdered. He moved in with his mother, but then heard about Musician’s Village, a Habitat for Humanity community being built to help house displaced artists. So he applied. He went through the requisite financial counseling and first-time homeowner’s workshops, and enjoyed them, but the necessary sweat equity was more daunting. Applicants must put in 400 hours of work, much of it helping to build a house for someone else.
“I had to do all mine at the Habitat Restore,” says Batiste. “It was frustrating, because there was a lot I couldn’t do.”
It seemed, says the musician, that he’d never finish his hours.
“Then, a week after we got back from the Grammys, I was down, cause we hadn’t won. And I got a call and they said, ‘We have a house for you.’”
Batiste drove to see it, and immediately loved almost everything about the trim corner cottage.
“I changed the color,” he says. “It was an ugly green.”
But everything else was a match, from the newly widened doors and smoothly sloping ramp to the open living space and ample front porch.
Before he could take ownership, however, Batiste had to finish those sweat equity hours. “I would work my schedule, and then I’d drive over and look at my house. I’ve been here every day since I’ve had the key.”
Batiste’s band mates knew the situation. And the band manager put in a call to Habitat. Could the band help work off those final hours? In the way they do best?
They could, and they will. When the Hot 8 Brass Band plays at Saturday’s Habitat Romp, the concert will count as the final few hours that Batiste needs to own his new Habitat house.
“That’s when it will be official,” Batiste says. “When the concert ends, we will crack that champagne bottle.”