My love affair with New Orleans brass bands actually began with a disappointment during the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference back in 2010. Hearing of a place called Donna’s Brass Band Headquarters on Rampart Street, I walked all the way from my hotel room at the Westin Canal Place to it, only to find that it had closed for good, its owners relocated to Florida. I really wasn’t sure what New Orleans brass band music sounded like, but I wanted to find out.
Fortunately, while I was in town for the conference, I saw that the Stooges Brass Band were playing a gig at a place called the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, and drove out there to catch it. In those days, the Hi-Ho had a decidedly inner-city vibe about it. People parked on the neutral ground in the middle of St. Claude, and there was a truck out front with a huge oil barrel smoker on the back cooking chicken wings and such. Inside the dark and steamy lounge, a standing-room-only, predominantly-Black crowd was enjoying brass band music, with a large crowd of buckjumpers in front of the stage. I had heard the traditional brass bands at Preservation Hall, but this music was at once rawer, newer and quite different. The rhythms of it were more African or perhaps Caribbean, the attitude more of young Black New Orleans than jazz tradition. I found both the music and the vibe thrilling, and then, unexpectedly, the band decided to take a break. As they walked out the front door to the sidewalk, I heard the beat of drums, and suddenly a brass band materialized from the dark neighborhood behind the lounge. They marched up to the Hi-Ho and called out the Stooges to a battle right in the intersection of the streets, and as the two bands battled back and forth, I was especially impressed with the band that had marched up to challenge the Stooges. As they played a tune that I later would learn was called “Why You Worried About Me”, I asked a young white girl if she knew who they were. She handed me her business card, which said she was Lisa Palumbo, and told me that they were called TBC Brass Band. That night, TBC became my favorite brass band in the world.
Within a year, the Hi-Ho had come under different owners, and brass bands were out. DJ’s, bounce rappers and electronic music were in, and the owners were clearly going for a different crowd. So I never would have imagined in a million years that I would be seeing a brass band in the Hi-Ho Lounge again, and certainly not To Be Continued. But Mardi Gras does strange things, and as I came into New Orleans from my day-long trekk across Mississippi, Brenard “Bunny” Adams texted me that they were playing at the Hi-Ho, so I made my way to the spot as quickly as I could. Finding a place to park was not as easy as it had been eight years before, but I could hear the unmistakable sounds of my favorite brass band coming from the club from several blocks away as I walked up. Unfortunately, as I walked up to the entrance to see about going inside, I heard them announce that the last tune had been their final one, and to wish everyone good night. Although I was disappointed, the TBC band members were glad to see me, and we spent nearly an hour out in front of the club getting caught up and talking, while other bands set up and played for the party crowd that was gearing up for the holidays. Because Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras are actual holidays in Louisiana, lots of people are off work, so the Sunday night parties go on into the wee hours of Monday. But I was exhausted, so I ended my night early at the house of a friend on the West Bank.
Back in 2011, the Stooges Brass Band were one of the more active street brass bands in New Orleans, with a regular residency at the Hi-Ho Lounge in the 9th Ward, which is where I first heard them. Over the last four years, like the Dirty Dozen before them, they have morphed into more of a touring entity, although they have a street version that still marches for certain second-lines during the year. The traveling version of the band is somewhat stripped down, with fewer horns, a set drummer instead of the traditional snare and bass drummers, and the addition of non-brass-band instruments like keyboards and electric guitar. Still the band generates a considerable amount of crowd participation as it runs through its combination of standard brass band repertoire and unique originals like “Wind It Up” and “Why They Had To Kill Him”, the latter a tribute to Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, a trombonist shot to death by the New Orleans Police in the year before Hurricane Katrina. Memphis has a number of New Orleans expatriates, and even more local fans of New Orleans music, and so Lafayette’s Music Room was packed for the performance, which was rescheduled from an earlier date that had to be cancelled due to snow and ice.
Last year, the Lady Jetsetters second-line had started in the new apartments that replaced the Calliope projects, but this year the starting point was a placed called Ed’s Bar in a neighborhood to the north called Zion City, caught in a triangle between Washington Avenue, Earhart Boulevard and South Broad Street. I had never heard of Zion City, but as I walked its streets toward the parade’s starting point, I was amazed at how isolated and rural it looked. A lot of houses and buildings were abandoned, and clearly this area had not come back much since the hurricane. But some of the houses were occupied, there were a few churches, and a bicycle repair shop for the neighborhood kids, and a tiny bar tucked between two houses where vendors and second-liners had gathered. Soon some musicians began to appear as well, members of the Stooges Brass Band who had been engaged for the day’s events. The weather was warm and pleasant, and as we headed out Washington Avenue, we were already a large group. Like all second-lines, the crowd grew bigger as we proceeded, and the dancers became more exuberant, with young men jumping up on roofs and slamming street signs as we came to intersections. Toward the end of the afternoon, the Stooges began playing a number of crowd favorites, including Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby” and Mel Waiters’ “Got My Whiskey”. Although the parade disbanded at the Foxx II on Washington Avenue, it wasn’t all that far away from where we began, and it was easy enough to walk it.
In New Orleans, “buckjumping” is another name for second-lining (in Memphis, it refers to “gangsta walking”), but the term “buckjump” seems to have masculine connotations, and by some accounts, in the earlier days of Black New Orleans culture, it was not common for women to second-line. So, when a group of women started a social aid and pleasure club, they named it the Lady Buckjumpers. Nowadays, they have a men’s auxiliary called the Male Buckjumpers, and their uptown New Orleans parade in November featured two brass bands, the Stooges and the Rebirth, and was one of the largest second-lines I have ever seen. Despite being the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the weather was warm and sunny, and there was a decent crowd at the beginning of the parade route, and of course second-lines pick up participants as they proceed. Here and there, exuberant dancers jumped up on power boxes, roofs, porches, and even graves as we passed by a cemetery, while others slammed the street signs as hard as they could, a tradition whose rationale has been lost to time. At each stop along the route, the crowd seemed to grow larger, and at one of them, the Rebirth Brass Band didn’t take the break, but rather gathered in a circle and played a haunting rendition of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.” The act seemed a ritual, probably in honor of fallen musicians. My homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band had come with me, and fortunately, he had left his car at one end of the parade, and I had left mine at the other, as this was one of those second-lines that ended several miles away from where it started. At the end of it, I was thoroughly tired, but the pleasant sort of tired, for nobody can really leave a second-line unhappy.
The Downtown NOLA Party was held at the Lucky Lounge, which I seem to remember being Antone’s at one time, and as soon as I walked in, I ran into members of The Stooges Brass Band, one of my favorite New Orleans groups. The place was somewhat crowded, but not uncomfortably so, and the Stooges had been hired to provide the music which they did, with a more indoor version of their group featuring a set drummer and keyboard player rather than the street style they typically display outdoors. Still it was upbeat and fun, and was apparently being sponsored as an opportunity to lure tech businesses to downtown New Orleans. Toward the end of the evening, an unexpected guest appeared, the legendary Bushwick Bill from the Geto Boys. He joined the Stooges on stage for a freestyle before the end of the evening.
From Pop’s House of Blues, the second-line made its way down Dryades to the corner of Second and Dryades, where it disbanded in a huge crowd in front of the Sportsman’s Corner, an Uptown lounge that I have heard is a location for Black Indian practices. The music continued for some time after reaching the end of the line, and the groove is kept up not only by the band, but by the ad hoc percussionists from the crowd who are playing empty bottles with sticks, or cowbells that they brought with them. One such man tells me that he is the “Bottle Man”, but I suspect there are numerous “bottle men” in this second-line and every other. Unfortunately, as things were breaking up, I faced a dilemma, as this was my first second-line that disbanded at a different place than it began, and in fact, four miles away. Already I was dead tired, and the prospect of a four-mile walk back to the Calliope projects didn’t particularly appeal to me. But this proved to be one of those seeming problems that often has a simple solution in a magical city like New Orleans. Since I knew some of the Stooges Brass Band members, I asked them how they were getting back to the Calliope where they began, and one of them told me that they and their instruments would ride back on the tailgate of his truck. So in beautiful, late afternoon 66-degree weather, instead of a long, tiring walk, I got a ride back to the projects (and my car) with members of one of my favorite New Orleans brass bands. The day could not have ended any better.
After we left Silky’s, we had a brief unscheduled stop about a block away in front of a boarded-up building, the purpose of which I never figured out, but the Stooges Brass Band kept playing all the way through it, and soon we were on our way again, to the corner of 7th and Dryades, where I learned that the old Joe’s House of Blues has become Pop’s House of Blues, and is apparently under new ownership. An older man had set a lawn chair directly on the point of the club’s roof, and was sitting up there in the sun. When we arrived, he got out of his chair and began dancing right where he was up on the roof.
It probably doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but the more exuberant second-liners still end up on the roofs of buildings, as a good place to dance and perhaps to also be noticed by the crowd, as two young men did at the intersection where Silky’s bar was, one of the scheduled stops on the second-line. One of the men scaled a fence and ended up on the roof of a small garage behind a residence, where he wowed the crowd with his moves, before proudly yelling to us all that he represented the CTC (Cross The Canal) Lower 9th Ward. A girl near me said “That boy reppin’ by himself, way uptown here”, and her friend replied, “You gotta respect it.”
From the S & S Club, our parade worked its way down sidestreets to a club called Silky’s, where the largest crowd of the afternoon so far was gathered, and also where some of the most exuberant dancing broke out.
Like most second-lines, the Lady Jetsetters’ parade picked up a lot more people as it made its way down Martin Luther King to a scheduled stop at the S & S Club, where another hundred or so people were gathered.