It was my first Mardi Gras morning in New Orleans ever, but it was hardly the stuff of dreams. It was grey, dreary and overcast, a chilly 34 degrees with a wind-chill, and the announcer on the television was warning of the possibility of icing on bridges and overpasses north of the lake. TBC Brass Band was not marching with the Zulus this year, but rather with an organization called the Jefferson City Buzzards who were gathering at Audubon Park at 7:30 in the morning, so there was no time for breakfast or even coffee. The Jefferson City Buzzards, founded in 1890, are what is known as a “walking club” rather than a “krewe”. While they technically stage a parade, these clubs have few floats, if any (the Buzzards had one), and generally have only one band, often a brass band, to provide the cheer and motivation for the paraders. In style, these predominantly-white clubs seriously resemble the Black social aid and pleasure clubs. Their parading routes often follow backstreets, particularly in the early part of the day, and the route is set up to stop by particular people’s houses so they can be greeted, to stop by neighborhood bars, or to interact with other walking clubs.
This particular organization takes its name from a lost and nearly forgotten town, the City of Jefferson, Louisiana, that once existed in the 1850’s, when the area now known as Uptown New Orleans had been part of Jefferson Parish. As the railroad that would later become the famous St. Charles streetcar was being built, towns and villages sprung up along it, and besides the City of Jefferson, there was the Village of Lafayette and the Village of Carrollton. All of these eventually became neighborhoods of New Orleans, and the lost city of Jefferson is commemorated only in the name of the Jefferson City Buzzards, who were founded in 1890, when doubtless there were still people living who could remember when Jefferson was a town. The oldest Black social aid and pleasure club, the Young Men Olympian, was founded five years earlier, in 1885. The similar parading styles of the two clubs, and the fact that the first predominantly white jazz and spasm bands appeared in the same era raise interesting questions about the degree to which Blacks and whites were influencing each other in late 19th Century New Orleans.
The weather was cold enough when we started, but after a few blocks of parading, we began to warm up to a certain extent. Several band members caught up with us after the first few blocks, and we stopped in front of several houses to greet people, perhaps elderly members of the Buzzards, or perhaps spouses and significant others. All of this seemed perfectly familiar to me from my experience with second-lines, the only real difference being that second-lines don’t happen on Mardi Gras Day. Soon we stopped at the Buzzards’ headquarters, where we were met and saluted by another walking carnival club called the Lyons, who had hired their own brass band for their Mardi Gras morning as well. Also very much like second-lines were the occasional stops at neighborhood bars, although these were briefer. One of these, at a bar called 45 Tchoup on Tchoupitoulas Street, was to salute a female walking club called the Pussyfooters. As we headed up Napoleon onto St. Charles Avenue, we began to encounter large crowds. The Buzzards were falling in directly behind the Zulus, and in front of the Krewe of Rex. On the opposite side of the Crescent City Connection bridge, the sun finally came out, producing a spontaneous cheer from paraders and spectators alike, but when we approached Canal Street, everything came to a halt, due to a float in the Zulu parade that broke down. While standing in the street not marching, we began to get very cold indeed, but somehow they got things moving again, and we swung around onto Canal Street, which was flanked with massive crowds on both sides. Getting back to Audubon Park after the parade proved to be more difficult than anticipated. We were supposed to have ridden the one float back, but the float operator said he was heading back to Mardi Gras World, not Audubon Park, and that he could not take us. So those of us who had come with TBC Brass Band had to squeeze onto the school bus that had come for the Buzzards, and there really wasn’t room, but somehow most of us made it back.At one point the bus had to stop because a street Uptown was blocked by a spontaneous group of Indians,paraders and a brass band. My homeboy Darren had not been feeling well all day, and decided to stay near Canal Street and call his wife to come get him. And TBC had been scheduled to play a gig on Bourbon Street at 10:30, but with all the delays involved with the Buzzards parade, it was after 1 PM, and way too late for that gig. Once I got back to my car, my agenda was to start about the task of finding something to eat, which I knew would not be easy on Mardi Gras Day.