Sunday, December 12, 2010
First in Line for the Second Line
When I was a little school girl growing up in a vapid suburban town in Southern California, I would take my textbooks outside and do my homework listening to jazz music playing on the local public radio station. It was at the age of eight that I started collecting jazz compilations with whatever money I could scrape together and by the time I hit middle school, I was listening to Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo, Louis Armstrong and his scat singing, Billie Holiday and her crooning about love. I dreamed one day that I would grow up and experience the world of music and life, something totally antithetical to the homework and parochial school that defined my existence at the time.
Shortly after reaching that magic age of 18, I lived in Berkeley, San Francisco, Budapest, Hanoi, and New York City. I managed to sneak in some fantastic nights in jazz clubs in European towns like Krakow and Budapest, but while living in San Fran and NYC, for the most part I was distracted by the wave of local hip hop, punk rock, and alternative (emo) music that defined collegiate urban counter-culture at the time.
And then I moved to New Orleans a few months ago. It was then I began in earnest my search for old jazz--that one dominated by brass, by vocals, by all those things that once were part and parcel of great music, and that gave it mythological status in my pre-adolescent imagination. Searching high and low, I went to clubs on Bourbon Street (what a joke), Frenchman Street, Magazine Street, all the usual stops. And I learned that New Orleans is not unlike New York City; there is great music, but because of the size of the population and amount of clubs around, there is also mediocre music, and even absolutely unlistenable music.
So by now, I've heard really good jazz performances, right up there with totally lifeless, mediocre-skill performances. Like Goldilocks trying out chairs, my thirst for that je ne sais quoi in jazz continued--and was finally quenched when I went to a second line.
The second line parade is a tradition dating back almost one hundred years. So named because they used to followed a main line of a parade (the floats and main dancers), today they are something of a parade in themselves, characterized by a brass band and dancers in thematic costume. Second lines are hosted by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (S&P clubs for short). The earliest known predecessor to the modern S&P club dates back to 1783 and was called the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association (PBMAA). It was comprised of freed slaves who bought their liberty from their slaveholders by saving funds earned from various crafts on the side. The PBMAA served as a means in which the veteran freed slaves would assist their newly-free brethren.
After the Civil War, S&P clubs also began providing loans, assistance,
and legal counsel to the newly emancipated slaves. The end of the Civil War also left an abundance of readily available brass instruments formerly used by military bands, and Black brass bands began rising from the ashes. It didn't take long for the African-American tradition of the jazz funeral to form, wherein a multi-piece brass band would accompany mourners playing both dirges and songs of jubilation. S&P clubs began collecting dues in order to ensure a proper jazz funeral for its members and served as a rudimentary form of life insurance for low-income blacks in New Orleans, to whom these services were not available otherwise in a racially segregated United States.
Eventually, with the end of Jim Crows laws, the social service components of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs became redundant, and hence removed. The clubs were transformed to Social Pleasure Clubs, or S&P Clubs. No longer was a death required in order for the clubs to perform; instead each club hosted a second line.
A second line performance is the culmination of a year's worth of preparation. Costumes are designed and prepared by specialized tailors and cost hundreds of dollars, as is the case with the exotic shoes sometimes made of alligator skin. The fashion genre is frequently some combination of funkadelic meets 40's chic--in other words, beyond description. Dances are highly stylized and rehearsed, reflective of a century of the jazz tradition, with flairs of African tribal heritage. The dancers are accompanied by a full brass band of 10 or more musicians, and sometimes there will be two bands battling it out, one hosted by the women's contingent in the S&P, the other for the men.
The paraders are accompanied by a caravan of revelers following them through the side streets of New Orleans for about four hours, stopping at neighborhood bars and stimulating some local business. And there are no lack of provisions for the in between; part of the caravan is comprised of vendors carrying little else than a cooler with wheels, chock full of light beer in cans, and a mobile barbecue follows throughout, luring the weary with the fragrance of grilled sausages, chicken and ribs. In addition to the vendors, there are also police nearby. S&P clubs are required to pay a pretty penny for a permit, which buys a day-long police escort, with officers on horse, motorcycle, and car.
Because of the expense and level of production, S&P clubs typically host a second line once annually, but in a town where you can throw a brick and hit an S&P, there is a second line every Sunday over the span of about nine months. Needless to say, I have been eager to witness this in the flesh.
But, as with many things involving music, dance, and alcohol, and New Orleans, second lines can also be rife with violent assault and murder. As early as the sixties, locals recall the occurrence of stabbings at a second line. The first second line after Katrina was marked with lethal shootings. And, just this fall, one of the first second lines had a lethal shooting, as did another soon after. In both cases the victims were unintended bystanders of stray bullets from a gang altercation that occurred shortly after the passing of the second line and their police escorts. In the latter case the victim was two-years old.
I found this element disheartening, and I did not venture to second line for several months after moving here here. But things seemed to change; In a compact little town like New Orleans, typically there are no informants after a murder, for fear of retribution. But in an uncharacteristic rage, witnesses and informants stepped forward and the murderer of the child was apprehended. Since then, not another incident occurred. Sadly, perhaps that two-year old was the sacrificial lamb bringing about at least a few months worth of second line ceasefire.
My first second line was two months ago, in the Irish Channel, hosted by the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the oldest dating back to 1928, and so named in the honor of a 1927 visit to New Orleans by the Prince of Wales. I was accompanied by my friend and former boss, Shawn, a talented photographer, who was well-versed in the ways of the second line and had a deep connection to the Mardi Gras Indians (more in another blog entry). I decided that between his company, and staying close to the police escorts, that I could finally venture into this world about which I've been so curious.
Last Sunday was my second, second line, hosted by the Dumaine Street Gang. I am now a repeat second liner.
What I saw at these events--or more accurately, what I heard, was what I had hoped for when I moved here, but what I couldn't find on the sanitized streets of the more affluent sections of the city. The degree of care in the costumes, the level of jubilation in the dancers was something I had never seen before, not in this country, nor in my travels abroad. Joy, sheer joy, and tradition; all these things clearly led up to what I saw.
And the music, well finally I was hearing local jazz. That kind of jazz that
is played only by those who have grown up surrounded with the stuff, in their schools, in their families, in their friends, in the history of their hometown, when that hometown happens to be where jazz was born.
Second line jazz is distinct from what I have heard in clubs and bars here and abroad. The players are clearly feeding off the surrounding dancers, and paraders, many of whom are friends and family, and you can hear it in the power and tone of the instruments, aside from the technical acumen. It is loud and it is powerful, enough to move hoards of people to dance, sort of like a high school marching band, but really really good, without the goofy uniforms, and played by young, Black, New Orleanians for the most part. In the span of four hours we pass under freeways, out of and into neighborhood after neighborhood, by hundreds of houses, rich and poor; almost always, residents perch on their stoop or peer out their open windows, dancing and smiling as their eyes and ears fall into the music.
At one point I wander over to the itinerant grill and meet up with Rudy, a teenager living in one of the public housing projects in Central City. He is a hefty kid, sweet, positive and kind, and I know him through my work (with an affordable low-income housing developer). Rudy is a second-line lifer, and stuffs his ears with second-line music at decibel 1000 every chance he gets. He is a parader of another S&P club, and goes out every Sunday to enjoy and support the other clubs' parades. It is a sunny, crisp, cool day, and I am bundled in a light sweater, walking along for hours already when he asks me if I'm having fun. I tell Rudy that the second line--this part of the world that comprises his whole world--is one of those reasons I am glad to live in New Orleans, and that it makes me happy. "Yes, indeed. That's why we do it. To make people happy, to make us happy. We parade through the neighborhood, lifting spirits one block at a time."
New Orleans is a strange mix of deeply-rooted culture, based more-often-than-not in the poorest segments of the population, sitting smack dab in the middle of a criminally rife neighborhood. It almost seems as if this has always been so: as a young man, Jelly Roll Morton played piano in brothel; as a well-established musician, Louis Armstrong traveled alongside a host of agents, most of whom were heavily involved in the mafia; King Oliver made his name playing in New Orleans' red-light district
This crazy little place is so damn thick with talent, and in some of the most dangerous segments of town. Search the Disneylandish streets of Bourbon Street, and you'll get little more than strippers luring frat boys and middle aged men while dancing to loud bubble gum music. In Marigny, you'll find lots of talented musicians, very few of whom grew up here, and many of whom you could bump into in Austin, New York City, or San Francisco. But follow the second line through the back streets of Central City, or along the edges of the Irish Channel, or around and about Treme, and you will hear the music, that kind of music for which New Orleans is fabled, that Storyville I once thought myself corny to want to be true. Though second line jazz has a modern flavor of its own, in many ways it serves as the folk music of New Orleans, serving communities with its boisterous power to bring about dance.
As I continue to listen to live music here, over and over I pose myself this question: What makes good music good? What is the secret of a good musician? Is it the hard living of New Orleans, the recklessness of it all that produces the countless legends that were born and bred here? Is it the nothing-to-lose mentality of poverty that pushes a great musician to give it all he's got? Is it the brigades of tradition and support the New Orleans culture has provided for the musically inclined?
I doubt there is a single answer. And I don't care. There is no lack of music here, great music, and lots of it. It was trickier than I thought finding that local sound borne of tradition. But now I know, and on many a Sunday, I am first in line for the second line.