Second Lining in New Orleans: On the Floor and On the Streets

It’s approaching 2 AM on a Wednesday night in late July, and for the first time in an hour several of the members of the TBC Brass Band are seated. The band continues to play as members move into seats or climb atop tables towards the exit of Celebration Hall, with audience members dancing along behind them. Their path towards the door signals that the show is approaching its conclusion, but few people leave just yet. Right when it appears that the band is finished, one of the members chimes in with a horn riff and the party starts all over again. For the next twenty minutes or so, the process repeats itself as a stray singing voice, bopping tuba or rustling snare revives the groove. When the club finally shuts its doors around 2 AM, I call for a taxi. Outside, a belligerent and possibly drunk audience member confronts bandleader Brenard Adams over a matter unknown to me. Adams takes the man aside, and instead of arguing, they face one another and begin to dance, with a small circle of peers forming around them. Somehow, the situation has been defused. As the crowd outside the club disperses, I’m left waiting for my taxi. Two of the staffers at the venue generously offer me a ride to Canal Street, explaining that the area isn’t safe late at night and they doubt any taxi is going to pick me up there.

I caught the TBC Brass Band in the fourth week of a month-long research trip to New Orleans. Initially, my plan was to study the apparent links between black musical traditions in New Orleans and the musical genre known as “funk,” a groove-centered, highly syncopated style of African-American dance music that developed in the late 1960s. I found ample support for my starting premise, adapted from scholar Alexander Stewart, that funk rhythm and orchestration is largely rooted in the beats of New Orleans brass band music, jazz and R&B, but I also began to wonder how useful that premise really was. Not only is it impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of any musical style or genre, but attempting to do so assumes that genres or styles themselves, which are often variably defined and formulated after the fact by outside observers, are coherent and epistemologically valuable constructs. As drummer Gerald French explained to me, “Here in New Orleans, music is just music. It’s not something that you put in a time capsule.” As a term to describe a musical feel and an attitude towards playing, “funk” remains a valuable coinage for New Orleans musicians and scholars alike. In describing a particular, historically bounded musical style, the term is more nebulous, particularly in a city where musicians cross stylistic boundaries so frequently. Through the many live performances I witnessed and interviews I conducted, I found that some of the most vital music in New Orleans today is being performed not by ostensible “funk” groups but by brass bands themselves. Developing out of the “second line,” a street parading tradition that dates back more than a century, New Orleans brass band music continues to change as new generations of players emerge, but it retains a remarkable number of the key features that were present as far back as the turn of the 20th century.

The second line is a New Orleans tradition that dates back more than a century, rooted in the African-derived worship dances observed in the marketplace now known as Congo Square since the 18th century. Free and enslaved blacks would gather to honor their ancestors with singing, drumming and dance on Sundays. Over the course of the 18th century, the city’s black population formed mutual aid societies to provide for the social welfare and funeral arrangements for its members, who as slaves and second-class citizens lacked the protections of police, the government and other civic organizations. At the same time, the city was in the midst of a marching-band craze then sweeping the nation, and by the latter decades of the century most social clubs, black or white, sponsored their own brass bands to march in Mardi Gras and on other festive occasions. Most crucially, black brass bands marched and played in funeral processions for members of the mutual aid societies that sponsored them, and it was in these processions, now known as “jazz funerals,” that they found their most enduring legacy. While the dirges played by the brass bands accompanying the procession to the burial site were slow and mournful, the upbeat, syncopated music they performed on the way back prompted members of the funeral party and neighborhood revelers alike to improvise dance steps and rhythms in a line behind the band.  Developing out of the same complex—which scholar Samuel A. Floyd calls “dance, drum and song”—that bridged the living and spirit worlds in West and Central African cultures and found its way to America through Congo Square, second lines and jazz funerals persist today, offering black New Orleanians a link to the traditions of their ancestors and a means to reenact African cultural memory. During my fieldwork interviews, numerous individuals mentioned the spiritual dimension of second lining. “I describe it as a form of medicine,” Action Jackson noted to me. “There’s two things that can cure the soul, and that’s dance and laughter.”

I did not attend any jazz funerals during my stay in New Orleans this summer. If I had, I’m not sure I would have written about my experience here unless I was already acquainted with the deceased or their relatives. New Orleanians are rightfully concerned about exploitation when it comes to the documenting of their culture: a persistent concern of the Mardi Gras Indians, for instance, is that photographers from elsewhere in America and Europe have profited from photographs taken of their costumes and processions without ever compensating the Indians themselves. Although the city’s rich cultural heritage has always been open to profiteering from outsiders, it is that same heritage which has made New Orleans a tourist mecca, and second line parades are a regular feature of the many festivals which celebrate the city’s music and culture and draw thousands of visitors annually. The thin line between upholding and promoting traditional culture and exploiting that same culture for profit is a growing source of tension between practitioners and chroniclers of the culture. As someone who is still very much an outside observer, I must stress that my own impressions are subjective and may not be an accurate reflection of how brass band musicians and social aid and pleasure club members view their traditions. Herein I have chosen to document two second-line brass band performances in very different settings: the first an “indoor second line” performance by the TBC Brass Band at the Seventh Ward venue Celebration Hall, and the second an outdoor second line that ran as part of the annual Satchmo Summerfest in August.

New Orleans brass band music is distinguished by its intense syncopation, call-and-response horn exchanges, and a flexible rhythmic feel known locally as “between the cracks.” After a period of decline, the city’s brass band scene was revitalized in the 1970s by several young alumni of Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Band. The foremost exponents of this scene were members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who combined traditional New Orleans jazz and brass band rhythms with features of contemporary funk, soul and rock music. Following on the Dirty Dozen’s heels in the early 1980s was the Rebirth Brass Band, which has since become perhaps the foremost brass band in the city. The TBC Brass Band is one of a crop of younger groups emerging in the 1990s and 2000s, many of which incorporate elements of the hip-hop music they grew up with. Live and on recordings, TBC’s debt to hip-hop's influence is most apparent in the chanted or rapped lyrical passages that hook many of its songs.

I learned about the TBC’s gig at Celebration Hall from Melissa Weber, a New Orleans native and funk and soul aficionado better known to music lovers as DJ Soul Sister. I interviewed Weber about her work as a DJ at a café in the Marigny neighborhood, and when I mentioned my interest in brass bands she told me the TBC’s Wednesday night performances at Celebration Hall were not to be missed. Well off the beaten path of French Quarter and Marigny clubs, and frequented mostly by locals, the venue offered me an opportunity to experience brass band music among the habitués of the scene. Celebration Hall does not have a website or any sort of Yelp listing, and its exterior has the nondescript look of a corner store. The inside looked like the banquet room of an aging community center. Outside, as is common at many gigs in New Orleans, was a vendor selling sausage and oyster po-boys. When I got inside, my first task was to speak to another local DJ, Action Jackson, the unofficial ambassador of New Orleans second line at community radio station WWOZ. It was Jackson who described TBC’s performance as an “indoor second line.” He couldn’t have been more correct: the concert I witnessed was a fundamentally interactive performance where improvisatory dance was as important as the music itself. Performances I had witnessed by the Treme Brass Band and the great all-female group the Original Pinettes and the Hot 8 Brass Band had a similarly interactive flavor, but none were as intense or as enveloping as that by TBC at Celebration Hall. I encountered musicians there from at least two other brass bands, which suggested that this was a gathering spot for local musicians.

The band’s first song “Don’t Fuck With Me,” coupled repeated lyrical chants with a polyrhythmic lattice of drums and percussion and a riff-based horn arrangement. Like many of the newer generation of brass bands, TBC featured a bell alongside the traditional bass and snare drums, and the music’s percussive elements were foregrounded throughout. Oddly, the stage had no light to illuminate the musicians; instead, the brightest lights shone on the center of the floor where much of the audience was gathered. The result was that the musicians provided the aural component of the concert but were almost entirely peripheral to the visual experience, which was dominated by the dancers. Nearly everyone had their own style of movement, but a number of common features were evident both here and at the following Sunday’s second line. Second line dancing tends to focus almost entirely on the lower half of the body, and is often low to the ground, with the hips leading the torso and feet, legs bent at the knees, and wide steps. As Gerald French and other musicians emphasized, these dance movements are mirrored by the low-end emphasis of New Orleans drumming and brass band arrangements, which emphasize the syncopations of the bass drum, the tuba and the trombone. “That’s the thing that makes it different as a [New Orleans] drummer,” French told me. “We approach playing music from the bottom up.” Although the floor was tightly packed, space would periodically open up for dancers to strut their stuff. When the band took a break after about 45 uninterrupted minutes of music, DJ Action Jackson returned to his station to spin some popular hip-hop songs, and one of the best dancers in the crowd executed a number of raunchy moves to cheers from all around him. The band’s return to the stage was marshaled by a whistle, an implement traditionally used to control the movement of a second line. As before, the performance was fundamentally interactive, with dancers and musicians carving out distinct spaces while at the same time moving together as a single organism. It was in the exchanges between band and audience, between individuals and the whole mass of people, that the atmosphere of the New Orleans street parade was recreated.

Four days after the TBC’s concert, I finally witnessed an outdoor second line. The parade followed the Sunday morning “jazz mass” at St. Augustine Catholic Church—the oldest African-American Catholic church in the nation, situated in the heart of the historic Tremé neighborhood—and culminated in the annual Satchmo Summerfest, a three-day celebration of the musical legacy of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The Treme Brass Band provided musical accompaniment for the jazz mass, and they were joined by at least two other brass bands along with numerous Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs for the second line. Although these two events dovetailed as part of a festival geared to tourists and spectators, second lines do in fact follow Sunday church services throughout the long parading season, which stretches from fall through spring. As the Treme Brass Band struck up a traditional tune and led parishioners carrying umbrellas out of the church at the end of the service, I assumed the second line was about to begin. Instead, the short procession dispersed, and for the next 45 minutes or so musicians, social aid and pleasure club members and spectators milled about along Henriette Delille Street.

The scene on Henriette Delille Street before the second line, August 4, 2013

Members and associates of each club generally occupied their own area and as bands amassed and spectators wandered around, scattered cries of “It’s starting up!” signaled. In the thick of a growing crowd, I was back far enough that I could neither see nor hear the front of the procession, where the Treme Brass Band and umbrella-wielding second liners were strutting down Governor Nicholls Street. When another brass band struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In” near where I stood, however, people finally began to move their feet.

As the parade took off down Governor Nicholls Street, I raced back and forth in an attempt to capture as much activity as possible on my iPhone. Since so many other spectators were doing the same, it was often difficult to get a decent view. Early on, I moved up to the front of the parade where the Treme Brass Band was playing, but I soon found that most of the activity was in the middle, where brightly-suited members of various Social Aid and Pleasure clubs seemed to dance as much for the spectators as for themselves and for each other. Some of the groups featured young children uniformed and dancing with them. At various points, groups would pause to dance in a more coordinated fashion, often in the circular formations so common throughout Afro-Atlantic culture. Sometimes they would pose for photographers, as in this brief video of the Dumaine Street Gang that I took on my iPhone:

Further up in the procession was a Mardi Gras Indian in full costume, along with the Shaka Zulu stilt walkers, a New Orleans version of the “moko jumbie” dancers found in Carnival festivities throughout the Caribbean and North America. The Shaka Zulu were accompanied by a percussion ensemble, although from my vantage another brass band was audible simultaneously. In the following video, the juxtaposition of at least two different ensembles playing different rhythms is clearly audible:

By the time the procession hit Esplanade Avenue, which led to the site of the festival at the U.S. Mint, I was simply trying to see as much of the parade as I could. Even more so than the TBC Brass Band concert I’d witnessed several nights before, the parade lacked a definite conclusion; instead, it gradually dispersed as we reached the festival site. I regret that I’d done so much photography and so little dancing, but I am sure there will be more opportunities to second-line when I return next spring.  It is only through such firsthand engagement that I or any other scholar can begin to understand the second line, a tradition which situates “dance, drum and song” at the very heart of American musical culture.

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References

French, Gerald. Interview with author in New Orleans, July 24, 2013.

Jackson, Action. Interview with author in New Orleans, July 31, 2013.

Stewart, Alexander. 2000. “‘Funky Drummer’: New Orleans, James Brown and the Rhythmic Transformation of American Popular Music." Popular Music 19(3): 293-318.

Turner, Richard Brent. 2009. Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Benjamin Doleac is a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology. He received an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.

 

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