"We'll be playing every night until they put him in the ground," says bass drummer Harry Cook. It's the traditional sendoff for a fallen musician -- nightly second-line parades leading up to the day of the funeral.
The band veers off the street into a big corner yard, where a barbecue grill exhales clouds of meaty smoke and older relatives watch from the side doorway. Lit by that door's single light, the musicians face the family and launch into the traditional jazz tune "Bye and Bye."
In the twilight, hundreds of tall, thin shadows dance under the two big trees in the yard and in the nearby streets. Near the back door, the well-dressed woman who led the parade sways, holding her sign high in the air. It's a photo of Joe Williams underneath a simple question: "Why?"
THE YOUNG WOMAN POINTS TO A SPRAY of light-green windshield glass shards lying on the asphalt. That's where he was parked, she says. The shards still lie in a rough rectangle, outlining the edges of the pickup truck that parked there for a tragic few minutes on Tuesday, Aug. 3.
According to New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) accounts, officers were stopping 22-year-old trombonist Joe Williams for driving an allegedly stolen vehicle when Williams slammed the white Ford F-150 into reverse, accelerating into an NOPD squad car and officer. His actions, says Deputy Superintendent Marlin Defillo, caused officers to fear for their lives and thus open fire, killing Williams.
That's not what she saw, says the young woman, who -- like two other self-identified eyewitnesses quoted in this story -- asked not to be named for fear of retribution. Police shot Williams with his hands in the air, she says. Her account comes, she says, from seeing the whole thing as she stood in front of the Food Store at St. Philip and North Robertson streets, a busy pedestrian corner in the Treme neighborhood.
She stands on the curb and talks about that day, tears running down her cheeks. The blood ran this way, she says, leaving the rust-colored, 6-foot-long stain that stretches into the road. The starting point was the truck's passenger-side door, she says. "He just fell out of the truck with his hands up, head down, his blood dripping onto the ground."
Williams had been heading to a nearby church to meet up with the other members of the Hot 8 brass band for a funeral gig. Word of the shooting spread almost instantly via cell phones, and so Hot 8 members arrived at the scene minutes afterward. They found an enraged crowd. "People were angry because they said that Joe had his hands up -- he had surrendered -- and the police just started shooting," says trumpeter Raymond Williams (no relation to Joe Williams).
He says that the bullet-riddled body hung there -- half in, half out of the pickup -- for at least three hours. Witnesses told them that, at first, Joe Williams seemed to be alive, despite being hit by nine bullets -- "nine shots too many," says Hot 8 snare drummer Dinerral Shavers.
The NOPD account doesn't specify how many shots were fired or how many hit Williams, but says that Williams was pronounced dead at the scene. With the police present, neighbors expected paramedics at any moment. "But I didn't see one ambulance, other people didn't see any ambulance," says Raymond Williams. "That became a question in the crowd: "'Why no ambulance?'"
Questions like that remain. Questions about the entire series of events, from whether the pickup truck was actually stolen to whether it hit any officers to why police could release Williams' rap sheet even though he had no convictions. Children who walked by were full of questions, says Jerome Smith, who heads the nearby Treme Community Center. "A lot of kids have been speaking about it. 'Why they shot him so many times?' or 'Why they shot him like a dog?'"
This is not about badmouthing police, bandmembers say, this is about one incident -- the Aug. 3 shooting of Joe Williams. The Hot 8, like most other brass bands, has spent countless hours marching behind squad cars at second-line parades. "We know a lot of police -- we play for them at their houses," says tuba player and bandleader Bennie Pete. Trumpet player Alvarez "Big Al" Huntley nods his head. "Police are usually cool with us," he says.
Neighbors in the area also say they are sympathetic to the dangers of policework -- especially now, during a month in which two cops have been shot, one fatally. "We need police," says one resident who's known Joe Williams his entire life, "but we also need the truth about what happened."
"THERE'S A PIECE OF MY HEART that's gone," says Hot 8 bass drummer Harry Cook. "And when we're playing our music, there's a certain part that's not going to be there." Cook and the rest of the band are sitting on folding chairs behind Treme Center, taking a few minutes between gigs to talk about their friend, who was mostly known either as "Lil Joe" or as "Shotgun Joe" because of his trombone's "shotgun," or slide.
In a town where bandmembers often treat each other like family, the Hot 8 is known for being especially tight-knit. "The majority of us don't have any brothers -- we are all each other's brothers," explains trumpeter Huntley.
Williams, they say, was the band's clown and cutup, a guy so generous he'd give you the heart from his chest. He was also incredibly creative, always humming his next tune or arrangement, often calling bandleader and tuba player Bennie Pete early in the morning to scat a new number or ask an opinion on a new bassline. Most of the Hot 8's tunes and nearly every part in every song were his. "He was our Aaron Brooks -- the majority of our music came from Joe," says tuba player Pete.
The music just came from inside him, says childhood friend Shamarr Allen, a former member of the Hot 8 who now plays trumpet for the Rebirth Brass Band. Growing up in a musical Ninth Ward family, Williams knew traditional brass band music backward and forward. His compositions reflected that, with a twist. "Most brass band songs don't change as much," Allen explains. "But in Joe's songs, the changes are distinct."
Williams' great grandfather was Deacon Frank Lastie, one of the first men to play drums in a New Orleans church and the father of well-known musicians like trumpeter Melvin, saxophonist David, drummer Walter "Popee" Lastie, and singer Betty Ann Williams, Joe Williams' maternal grandmother. His uncles include Lincoln Center drummer Herlin Riley and Preservation Hall drummer Joseph Lastie Jr. Within the extended Lastie family are many of New Orleans' other legendary musicians, performers such as singer Prince La La, Jessie "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" Hill, trumpeter James Andrews and trombonist Troy Andrews. Brother Aria Williams plays tuba, sometimes with the Hot 8.
Like his great grandfather, Joe played drums -- and trombone -- in the church. And when it came to music, he was a natural. "If Joe was playing next to you, you could feel him playing. Just raw talent," says percussionist and backup bass drummer Ellis "E-Jo" Joseph. He was a soulful player, says trumpeter Raymond Williams. "The stuff he would play, it seemed as though it came from the depth of him -- he played with so much feeling, and it was funky. He played in a way that made the people jump, made the musicians feel good."
Williams' licks and the way he filled out the music was always skilled and occasionally jaw-dropping, says fellow trombonist Jerreau Fournett. "Sometimes he played something and I just had to stop," says Fournett, a more recent Hot 8 addition who became both Williams' musical understudy and his steady ride from the Lower Ninth Ward.
"He was just jolly, squeaky-voiced Joe," says snare drummer Shavers, who attended Alfred Lawless High School with Williams. In 1996, the two were playing in a band called Little Jazzmen when Bennie Pete recruited them for what would become the Hot 8. Soon, Williams began phoning Pete every morning. "I miss him calling," says Pete. "Even if we got into town at four and I had brought him all the way to the Ninth Ward, he'd call around eight or nine -- 'Wake up! What's up?'"
But there was also something fragile about Williams, the roots of which are not hard to understand. When Williams was about 8 years old, his father killed his mother, walking up to her at the dinner table and shooting her in front of young Joe and all his siblings. Williams testified in court against his dad, who was convicted and sent to the penitentiary. Williams often told his bandmates how painful it was for him that his mother, Unae Williams, wasn't there.
That grief fueled a heroin habit that reached its worst this spring, when Williams often looked disheveled and sleepy. Sometimes he'd pawn his horn and then needed help getting it out before gigs. Ellis Joseph says that the habit didn't affect his playing, then pauses for a second and corrects himself. "Actually, it may have been reflected in his playing, because that's the way he let everything out."
In June, Bennie Pete learned about a musicians' rehab program in California. He immediately called a meeting with the rest of the band and they decided to fly Williams there. Then, the next day, Williams was arrested on burglary charges that were later dropped. He spent a month and a half in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), going cold turkey. The first two weeks, he was sick and in withdrawal, but after that, he started calling people every day, just like old times. "He'd say, 'I want to get home; I got about seven new songs,'" recalls trumpeter Terrell Batiste.
He was also calling Bennie Pete and begging him not to wrap up their CD while he was in OPP. "That was his worst fear -- that we'd finish our CD without him," says Pete. When Williams was released, they were so focused on recording together that the trip to California went on a back burner. "It was like us giving him a last shot, giving him a chance to prove what he was telling us," Pete says.
He did do better -- and consequently was much more like himself. After some of the band's regular fans told Williams that the Hot 8 had been less hot without him, he made a new cell phone message that said, "This is Shotgun Joe, that fire trombone player from the Hot 8 brass band." The old confidence was back, says Shavers.
On the day of the shooting, Batiste heard that same confident voice when he called Williams, using the walkie-talkie feature they've all been overusing since they got the phones. "I asked him where he was," says Batiste, "and he said, 'I'm in the Sixth Ward -- I'm coming.'" Batiste kept calling back but never got an answer.
FOR HOT 8 TRUMPETER Terrell Batiste, the official New Orleans Police Department reaction is hard to understand. "The police don't believe they've done anything," Batiste says. "They just believe they've done their job." Treme Community Center director Jerome Smith agrees. "The questions are not being asked," he says, not about the shooting or the whole series of events that led up to the shooting.
According to NOPD accounts, at around 10 a.m. on the day he died, Williams stole a white pickup from the 5000 block of Urquardt Street. NOPD is withholding the name of the truck's owner in order to not identify a witness, according to Defillo.
But no one in the 5000 block of Urquardt recalls ever seeing a white pickup truck around there. "I sit out on this porch 24/7, and I've never seen no white pickup truck," says one resident, who lives around the corner. One resident on that block confirms that he lives on the 5000 block of Urquardt and says that only one neighbor owns a pickup truck, and it's an old red Ford. His friend drives up to take him to work and says that he lives down near the Delery Street house where Joe Williams lived. "That's not the first time [Williams has] been driving that truck," he says. "I've seen him driving that truck several times before."
Currently, the NOPD is investigating all reports. "We encourage anyone and everyone who has any information about the shooting to come forward and provide information to investigators," says Defillo. "All of the information collected will be turned over to the district attorney's office for their review and consideration."
Defillo gives the official account of what happened at the scene: "The officers were able to stop the vehicle at the corner of St. Philip and North Robertson, one vehicle in front and one vehicle in back. The driver then accelerated the vehicle in reverse, hitting an officer and striking the vehicle in behind. He then, we believe, put the vehicle into forward and tried to accelerate forward. Apparently the vehicle was connected to the front bumper of the police car and the officers fired, fired their weapons. The officer was taken to the hospital where he sustained injuries to his lower extremities from the truck. The suspect was pronounced dead on the scene."
Jerome Smith calls the official explanation "shabby," and is calling for an independent investigation. "You have to go to the outside because there's no righteousness from the inside," he says.
Certain details -- where eyewitness accounts and police accounts disagree -- seem to merit a second look. A few minutes before the shooting, according to the NOPD, the truck's owners saw Williams driving their truck in the Treme neighborhood and began following him, then called police on their cell phone. Neighbors say they saw a marked NOPD car following the truck as it drove along North Robertson Street. The truck and the squad car were just part of traffic, nothing unusual, they said.
Everyone agrees that, at the corner of St. Philip Street, Williams pulled over and let a young lady out of his truck. At that point, NOPD cars boxed Williams in and officers yelled, "Freeze!" The alleged eyewitness who had been standing in front of the Food Store says that the truck may have moved a little, but that Williams definitely had his arms in the air before the officers began shooting.
"I was in shock," says the woman. "I couldn't believe it -- why didn't you shoot up the tires?" No weapon was found in the truck, she says -- a fact that's confirmed by the NOPD.
Two young men standing nearby say that Williams did put the truck in reverse and tried to make a run for it. But, they say, when that didn't work, he put up his hands and was surrendering when police opened fire, shooting about two dozen shots -- 10 each into both doors and three into the windshield.
All three self-identified eyewitnesses, when interviewed separately, contend that the truck didn't strike an NOPD officer. They say that, at the time of the shooting, two officers were standing on the curb and one was standing on the other side but to the front of the car. And, contrary to police accounts, Williams never did go forward, they say, because his reverse lights were still on after the shooting was over.
The crowd was then pushed back a block in all directions, something that no one present said they had seen before. The NOPD said that this was necessary because the crowd was hostile. But Hot 8 trombonist Jerome Jones says that this increased the level of suspicion, because people in the crowd had been at other murder scenes and this was unusual. "Usually, if the victim is here, you're right there on them," says Jones. "This time, they didn't want anyone to see it."
This week, Bennie Pete says, they plan to organize a march to push for answers about Williams' death. In his heart, Pete believes that Williams did surrender. "He died with his arms in the air. For me to see him lying lifeless out of the truck, his hands still up -- he was killed like an animal."
AFTER THE HOT 8 HITS its last notes of the night, the tall shadows begin to move away from Williams' house. Out on the street, a few young guys pose in front of a van hung with a spray-painted sheet that reads "RIP Joe, H8T."
Big Al Huntley walks to the side of the yard, holding his trumpet in one hand. His orange and royal blue Hot 8 shirt is wet with perspiration and his face beaded with sweat. "We played hard," says Huntley, swabbing his forehead with a towel. "It's just different. Something's missing. Someone is missing."