Around downtown New Orleans, drummer Kerry “Fatman” Hunter was basically kin to everyone.

“He was family. Not by blood. But family,” said Glen Finister Andrews, who saw Hunter as a mentor. Partly in music, since Andrews also plays the snare drum. “But mostly, I learned about life,” Andrews said. “Life, more than the drum. Tips from here to there.”

Hunter was born and raised in downtown New Orleans, in the 7th Ward. And this is where the pain of his sudden death has resonated since he was hit by a car on North Claiborne Avenue early on Mardi Gras morning.

As is the tradition when a musician dies, fellow musicians have gathered nearly every night to play for him. On Sunday, the Treme Sidewalk Steppers, the social and aid and pleasure club that he helped to start, dedicated the parade to him and wore memorial ribbons with his photograph on them.

Musicians and friends rolled all day for him by Charbonnet Funeral Home on Friday, slated to be the day for mourners to view him at Charbonnet before his big funeral Saturday at Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. All afternoon, impromptu horns blew and drums beat, in nearby Tuba Fats Square on North Robertson Street, around the block, up and down North Claiborne, and in and out of the main room at Charbonnet. 

Wherever the musicians went, they were led by a young group of second-liners, who waved a framed photograph of him high in the air as they danced for their Uncle Fatman.

“He was a father figure to me, to everyone,” said bass drummer Bernell Edwards.

“To everyone, old and young,” emphasized Edwards’ auntie, Margo Turner. Though Turner is a generation older than Fatman, she, too, respected him like an elder – because of the way he carried himself, she said. Or, as Lionel Nelson, put it: “He was young, only 53. But he made himself feel like he was old.”

Hunter’s old-man ways were on display in how he played his drum – and how he approached people. “His favorite saying was ‘It don’t go like that,” said Chris Terro, who plays bass drum and cowbell for the Big 6 Brass Band.

Hunter loved his piece of the world, the 6th and 7th Wards of New Orleans. When he was home, people knew it. He saw shows. He ran errands with his wife Romanda and other family members.  He was out in his neighborhood.

A Beloved Part of Downtown New Orleans

Despite earning a Grammy Award and traveling the world playing music, Hunter loved his piece of the world, the 6th and 7th Wards of New Orleans. When he was home, people knew it. He saw shows. He ran errands with his wife Romanda and other family members.  He was out in his neighborhood.

“I saw Fatman every day,” lifelong friend August Collins said. Often, they ran into each other at Kermit’s Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge or near the neighborhood gathering spots underneath the bridge, the raised portion of North Claiborne Avenue.

On Lundi Gras night, a few hours before his death, Hunter was with Collins at the Mother-in-Law. As he left, he dapped off his friend. He was on his way home, after a stop through Da Jump Off Lounge a few blocks away, to catch some of the Big 6 Brass Band. “See you tomorrow,” he said.

As always, Hunter did what he said he’d do. He parked on the neutral ground on North Claiborne near Pauger Street and ducked into Da Jump Off to watch the Big 6. Though he often ordered from Shack Brown, who was outside Da Jump Off selling food, he had demurred that morning. “Shack, I’m about to go home,” he said, putting his hands in the pockets of his Carnival-colored jacket against the chill. He turned to show Brown the coat’s yellow back, with the words “Preservation Hall” stitched on the back of it.

Brown said good night, then got back to selling food. Shortly afterward, he and others outside heard a noise that sounded like a tire had blown. They saw a dark sedan that was on the way up the ramp slow down and put on its flashers. No one associated that with Hunter. “We looked and said, ‘Oh man, I hope that guy makes it home okay,’” he said. “In my mind, I thought Fatman was already home.”

Civil-rights icon Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, pictured here on an RTA bus, first put a drum in Hunter’s hand as part of the Tamborine & Fan cultural program.

‘We All Come Out of Hunter’s Field’

Hunter got his start at Hunter’s Field, under the watchful eye of Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, the much-loved Freedom Rider and Civil Rights activist. As the story is told, one day, Smith put drums into the hands of two young men, Hunter and the kid who would become his lifelong collaborator, bass drummer Cayetano “Tanio” Hingle, with whom he would form the New Birth Brass Band.

Steven Hodges remembered the day, which he thinks was around 1978. Hodges was playing football at Hunter’s Field. Fatman’s older brother, Oliver “Squirkey Man” Hunter, was his quarterback. But Hunter’s Field didn’t just send its team to games. “Everywhere our football team went, we brought the band with us,” Hodges said. Kerry Hunter became one of those children in the band.

Smith, now 84 years old, recalled how the band of that era was led by jazz icon Danny Barker. Drumsticks were plentiful: he would get boxes of them and sometimes instruments sent to him from a store in New York owned by a Civil Rights movement supporter. Smith, along with Fred Johnson and others from Tamborine & Fan, handed out sticks and drums at Joseph A. Craig School in Treme and Marie C. Couvent Elementary School, where Hunter attended.

As he became a teenager, Hunter taught Tamborine & Fan day-camp classes where trumpeter Dewon “Itchy” Scott learned music and was schooled on professionalism. “We had to have black pants, a black belt, black shoes, a band hat and our shirts tucked into our pants,” Scott said. “He stood on that.”

In those days, Smith’s son Taju played drums. So did Squirkey Man, who later became better known in the second-line world as a dancer, who could jump high into the air and do the splits. Drumming expressed the spirit of the community at the time, Smith said. “Everybody around here could pretty much play, because it was in here so strong.” Sometimes, he said, they’d take garbage cans, play on them, and bring them back to their owners in the morning.

James Andrews was on trumpet and his younger brother Terry “Buster” Andrews was on drums in that Hunter’s Field band. “I’ve known Fatman my entire life,” he said, on Friday night, as he led a band through the streets of Treme. “But we all come out of Hunter’s Field.”

Hunter often paid homage to his start on Hunter’s Field, in ways big and small, especially taking time with children. A few years ago, as his niece Remy Evans, now 14, started to play the snare, he would pick her up and bring her to the field every week. “He’d give me lessons there,” she said. “That’s where I learned to roll off for the first time. We’d sit there and play.”

Kerry Hunter was known for his work with budding musicians. In this January 2007 photo, taken after the funeral of saxophonist Frederick “Shep” Sheppard, Hunter encourages 1-year-old Hector Campbell. (Photo by Tyrone Turner / used by The Lens with permission)

‘The Heartbeat of the Band’

As the owner of Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins saw Hunter jump in and immediately stop fights with a few words – “Hey, stop that.” He was determined to see people respect each other, said Ruffins, who knew Hunter both as a friend and as a regular. Hunter stopped through nearly every day and watched Saints games there on Sundays. He laughed and joked. When someone they loved passed away or endured heartache, the lounge mourned together.

Most of the bar’s regulars grew up together. So, they knew that Hunter had lost his parents young and was raised by his aunt Coretta. In some ways, music was Hunter’s way to traverse grief, they said. When snare drummer Reginald Millon lost a brother to gun violence and his grandmother to COVID, Hunter sought him out and encouraged him to stay focused. “He told me, ‘Just keep your head up. Keep doing what you’re doing,’” Millon remembers.

While Hunter’s family was first, next came the drum, Ruffins said. “He was a bad-ass musician.”

To illustrate that point, drummer Mike Rickmon pulled up a 2002 video of the New Birth Brass Band playing “Get Your Mind Right” during that year’s Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade. “New Birth was our band and here’s why,” Rickmon said, pulling his phone close, to better hear the distinct rhythm section. “It’s that entire back row – Kerwin (James) on tuba, Fatman on snare, Tanio on bass drum. They brought a different sound to New Orleans second lines,” he said.

Though Hunter’s early expertise was traditional and brass-band music, his range was broad. “He was a versatile musician,” said lifelong friend and longtime Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Derrick Tabb, naming off just some of the bands Hunter played with – New Birth, Pres Hall, Dirty Dozen, Olympia, Junior Olympia, Treme, Roots of Music, Rebirth, and the Nightcrawlers, with whom he won a Grammy.

Still, no matter what band Hunter played with, there was a constant element, Tabb said. “That was Fatman’s distinct straight beat: Buk, buk, buk a dat.”

At age 34, Terro, of the Big 6, is 20 years Hunter’s junior. But Hunter took the time to teach Terro the subtleties of music, especially musical dynamics – how to play louder or softer, to make the band sound better. “Fat would say, ‘You gotta bring it down, drummers. You can’t be on top of that solo.’”

Upon hearing Hunter’s drumsticks hit the snare, Terro, like Rickmon, heard innovation. 

“Fatman created a groove,” Terro said. “When Fatman sets a pace, the whole band would stay there. No faster, no slower. The band did not move without Fat. He set the pace and he kept the pace. He was the heartbeat of the band.”