New Orleans’ Second Lines: Grand Procession
Where There’s Smoke, There’s a Second Line
Smoke pours out from barbecue grills perched on truck beds with the smell of sizzling sausage filling the air. The trucks are parked at the start of the parade to provide a quick sandwich or cold beer that will give the second liners the stamina to buckjump in the streets for the next four fun-filled hours. They will show up again at the parade “stops” that are usually at barrooms, various club headquarters or people’s homes. A cold drink is never far from hand as vendors push shopping carts or makeshift wagons laden with ice chests along the parade route.
When a brass band really starts kicking in and the club members and second liners get down with the groove, dancing for all they’re worth, it’s almost as if the parade becomes a single entity. From afar, it looks like a human locomotive rushing by. In the middle, one can become lost in time and space, swept up in the rhythms and joyfulness.
It’s called rollin’, and it happens during that time of year peculiar to New Orleans, second-line season.
The Four Seasons
An often-heard complaint about the Southern United States is that it lacks four distinct seasons. Some New Orleanians might argue that their city simply defines its seasons differently. In the Crescent City, winter is the Carnival season that runs from Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, and ends on Mardi Gras Day, which prededes the first day of Lent. Then, starting in April, there’s the festival season with the French Quarter Festival followed by the biggie, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The next time of year, of course, we’d rather do without. That’s hurricane season. The fourth is one few folks around the country and even many locals have yet to discover—second-line season.
While the duration of most seasons remains constant, the second- line season, when New Orleans’ many social aid and pleasure clubs celebrate their anniversaries with colorful brass-band parades, keeps expanding. It now runs from the last Sunday in August and continues with breaks during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and a sprinkling of other dates, with the Perfect Gentlemen Social Aid & Pleasure Club capping it off on Father’s Day.
Alfred Carter, widely known as Bucket to those in the street culture, has been a member of the 123-year-old Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association for an amazing 68 of his 73 years. Carter attests to its growth. He remembers when the Sunday processions would start up in August and be over by the end of September. “They didn’t have but four or five clubs,” says Bucket, naming historic groups like the Young Men Olympian, the Square Deals, the Prince of Wales, the Treme Sport and the Jolly Bunch. He recalls the ensembles of the day that provided the lively beats as the Eureka, the Young Tuxedo, the Olympia, Doc Paulin’s and George Williams’ brass bands.
Takin’ It to the Streets
Traffic is stopped, and a trumpet calls out to announce that the parade is about to begin. A brass band like the ReBirth, New Birth or Hot 8 kicks in as the club members make their high-stepping exit out of a neighborhood bar, community center or house. Smiles and excitement greet them on this, their “Cinderella Day,” a day they rule the streets, a day they work for and anticipate all year. Sharply dressed in matching outfits and putting on “check me out” attitudes, the members wave feathered and decorated fans as each does their best to impress the crowd. In an indication that they mean business, some sport fat cigars to portray the bravado of a big shot.
“That’s the highlight of the parade,” says snare drummer Benny Jones. “Everybody looks to see what each club member is going to do when they come out of that door.” As a co-leader of the Treme Brass Band, a member and co-founder of the Black Men of Labor association and a longtime parade follower, Jones has participated in the social aid and pleasure club processions on multiple levels. Growing up in the musically rich Treme neighborhood, he’d check out all the parades that passed his door and was always in the crowd to hear his grandfather, Chester Jones, who played drums with the Eureka and Olympia brass bands. In the 1960s Jones joined the Sixth Ward High Steppers and Sixth Ward Diamonds and later the Money Wasters social aid and pleasure clubs. In 1977 he picked up the bass drum with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“I love both,” Jones says of marching and playing at the anniversary events. “I enjoy parading because it’s a traditional thing for me. But when you’re playing music, that’s another thing because you get paid,” he adds with a laugh. “I like to play the snare drum and have fun because I like to make people happy. That’s my thing.”
“Fun!” is exactly the word tuba man Phil Frazier exclaims in describing his experience co-leading the ReBirth Brass Band at second- line parades for the last 23 years. The ReBirth came up under the influence of the Dirty Dozen that ruled the streets with its revolutionary sound that mixed modern jazz and rhythm and blues with the brass band style. When the Dirty Dozen took to the road, the ReBirth became the band to beat on the street. Its energized presence encouraged younger bands to get involved. Frazier is proud that he’s been able to help keep the parade tradition, which dates back over 100 years, alive.
“It’s meant the world to me,” Frazier says, speaking as a professional musician as well as a member of the community. “It gave me a lot of experience. It opened my ears up to different sounds and different types of music and opened my heart and eyes up to different people.”
Roll With It
“Every parade is a good parade because it happened,” philosophizes longtime parade follower and folk artist Ashton Ramsey. Each of the 40-some social aid and pleasure clubs that present four-hour parades that weave through primarily back-of-town black neighborhoods boasts its individual parade route, style and purpose. The mighty Young Men Olympian hires a whopping six brass bands for its parade, with each providing the music for separate units of the organization. At the front is the first division of older gentlemen, including Bucket, who step to classic tunes and hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” or “Bourbon Street Parade.” The Treme or New Birth brass band is usually selected for this position and in keeping in the tradition arrives attired in the required black and white uniforms and caps.
“If you want to jump and flip-flop and all of that, go to one of the other divisions,” Bucket advises, referring to the hot, modern style that’s heard at the back of the parade from groups like ReBirth and Hot 8, as well as second-line parade newcomers To Be Continued (TBC). The rear of the procession was often the spot where bands would face off for good-natured, though seemingly ferocious battles. The head-to-head confrontations as well as tricky maneuverings designed to outwit the competition—like taking a shortcut to ambush another band on the corner—really razzed a crowd. These spontaneous and often hilarious interactions, which also occurred at other “lines,” seem to have stopped since Hurricane Katrina.
Frazier agrees, saying, “There are still little friendly battles, but right now everybody kind of pushed that to the side because we’re worried about keeping the culture going, so that’s the last thing on people’s minds. Right now, everybody needs everybody.”
It is a credit to the social aid and pleasure clubs that they have been able to keep their organizations strong and their anniversary parades on the street despite the scattering of their members and the adversity following the storm. Many folks come in from places like Houston and Atlanta just to continue to march with their organizations, and parade routes and tunes often reference the terrible event.
“I’m proud that all of our core members are back,” says Ronald Lewis, the president of the Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club. He explains that his organization purposely decided to begin its 2006 parade in the city’s hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward and go over the St. Claude Bridge to the city’s interior Seventh Ward.
“That was to show the spirit of the people of our community that even though we took all of this devastation and took all of this hardship that we’re not going to pass it off. We are a part of the city of New Orleans, and we are going to continue to be a part of it.”
When the Big Nine presents its annual parade on Dec. 23, it will reverse the route and start in the Seventh Ward and end in the Lower Ninth. “Now it’s really time for us to bring it to our house,” declares Lewis, a community activist who is the curator and director of the second line/Mardi Gras Indian museum, the House of Dance & Feathers, which is housed in his Lower Ninth Ward home.
Every social aid and pleasure club and their parades are different. Each organization has its own bylaws, some which are held in great secrecy, and each decides whether it is to be for social services or just fun.
Originally, the benevolent societies were established to provide a type of insurance to assist African-Americans with healthcare and funeral expenses, with money raised through dues. The annual parades acted as a form of advertising to gain membership. Since they provided jazz funerals, the idea was to say, hey, this is what you get; join our club. Some, like the Young Men Olympian, retain the benevolent aspect.
“We take care of our sick and bury our dead,” says Bucket. Others are involved in social services to varying degrees, but all remain community organizations that act as a core to their neighborhoods.
“A social aid and pleasure club is two things,” says Sylvester Francis, curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which specializes in second lines, jazz funerals and Mardi Gras Indians. “The first is familyhood. A club is like brothers and sisters; they keep in step. The second part is the culture that they’re really trying to keep going. They’re not trying to keep it going for New Orleans,” Francis continues, noting that the clubs are self-reliant and have historically found little respect from the powers that be. “They are really trying to keep it going for their ancestors, so when they look back they can say, ‘My mama did this or my daddy did this.’”
Many brass-band members were inspired to take up an instrument by experiencing the second lines in their neighborhoods or initially joining a club. The Tambourine & Fan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a youth-oriented recreation organization, spawned many players including the New Birth Brass Band’s rhythm section of bass drummer Tanio Hingle and snare drummer Kerry “Fat Man” Hunter. ReBirth’s Phil Frazier remembers listening to the big warm sound of Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen at parades winding through his Treme neighborhood.
The general public isn’t really in on the inner workings of the clubs and many people aren’t even aware of the anniversary parade tradition. The events are not advertised in the mainstream media, as clubs spread the word using “route sheets”: fliers that announce the date, time and parade route. On encountering parades by chance, the unaware often mistake them for jazz funerals.
The clubs come in all sizes. Some have just a handful of members dancing to a single brass band; some have several units parading; some are elaborate affairs; some are quite simple. Most people would agree that it is the music that controls a parade—it sets the tempo and the attitude—so the clubs hire bands that suit their tastes. Organizations such as the Black Men of Labor, which was founded to keep traditional music on the streets, hire the Treme and New Birth to provide the classic style. Other clubs, particularly those with younger memberships, call on groups like the ReBirth and Hot 8.
Naturally, there are those who bemoan the changes in the music heard on the streets today and feel that the young musicians don’t have the proper background to be out there. Sometimes, however, a young band, such as To Be Continued, is just perceived as not knowing traditional music because it is usually called upon to play in the hot style. With members ranging in age from 18 to 22, TBC pleases its young followers by using popular hip-hop tunes as hooks to develop a groove and takes it from there. It does want folks to know, however, that it is capable of playing in the classic style.
“If they want traditional music the whole parade, we’ll give them traditional music the whole parade,” says Darren Towns, the bass drum player with TBC and the nephew of the Dirty Dozen’s trumpeter, Ephram Towns. “We didn’t know too many traditional tunes at first,” he confesses, “but we got our mind right.”
The TBC was formed in 2001 and first spotted by most blowing hard on French Quarter sidewalks. The Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club was the first to hire the young band for its 2002 anniversary parade. The event inspired the teenagers, who were then still in high school, to get serious in their musical endeavors.
“That made us feel like we could really do this,” Towns says. “That was like an open door for us and we could take it further than we thought we could do. I love the crowd; the crowd keeps me going. It’s like the crowd is moving to our music. I could groove but the people keep you going in a different groove.”
There’s no denying that the introduction of R&B, modern jazz and now hip-hop into brass band music significantly changed the sound. While Frazier, whose ReBirth brass band contributed to the music’s evolution, acknowledges that fact, he also hears the old in the new.
“The trombone is still tailgating,” he enthusiastically declares. “[The bands] are still on the same wavelength. They’ve just drifted a little bit and jazzed it up. Even though the rhythms sound more syncopated and modern, it’s still in the same beat, in the same groove.”
Frazier also observes a fairly recent shift in the roles of certain instruments in the brass band setting, particularly citing the prominence of the tuba. “It’s a lead instrument now,” the tuba man declares with a hint of bravura. “Everybody wants to hear that tuba in the parades more. The trumpet still stands out, but the tuba has become more outspoken now than the trumpet. Everybody has to have trumpets, but we’re catching up to their sex appeal.”
“You have to move with the times,” says veteran Benny Jones, who as an original member of the Dirty Dozen and understands that change is inevitable. “More younger people follow the parades and they want more modern music, more uptempo music. “That’s [the bands’] market,” he explains, and adds with a smile, “There’s always a spot for the traditional music.”
While some social aid and pleasure clubs might balk at hiring young, unproven groups, the Big Nine, which now more than ever plays a vital role in its Lower Ninth Ward community, views it as a way for the groups to gain experience.
“We’re an equal opportunity club,” says club president Lewis. “We never had a problem hiring start-up bands in our parades. We might have the Hot 8 and a start-up band or the ReBirth and a start-up band. Our club had to start somewhere to give these young people an opportunity to come out and show their worth, I felt good about that.”
Originally published in December 2007