Later in the evening, my homebody Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band had a gig with a pick-up band of musicians from various brass bands for a birthday party at Vaso, a club on Frenchmen Street. Since the City of New Orleans had put a stop to brass bands playing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter around 2009 or so, bands often frequent Frenchmen, a funky, music street that appeals more to locals than tourists, although the police will occasionally run brass bands away from the Marigny neighborhood as well. On this occasion, the birthday girl wanted the band to parade up Frenchmen Street from Vaso to the intersection with Chartres Street and back, but at Chartres, there was another brass band playing at the entrance to a brightly-colored building that has always reminded me of the Caribbean. At least one of their musicians was wearing a shirt for the Young & Talented Brass Band, but Darren told me that the band was comprised of musicians from several different brass bands. As is often the case in New Orleans, the two bands confronted each other, although in a friendly manner, and they quickly locked in with each other on a version of the brass band standard “Tuba Fats”. The crowds of locals and tourists in the intersection near The Praline Connection were thrilled. Eventually, our band headed back down toward Vaso, leaving the other one on their corner. It was one of those serendipitous musical moments that happen frequently in the Crescent City.
Funerals in New Orleans are fairly strange. It is common for the family members to hire a brass band for the funeral, and those in attendance often seem to be celebrating rather than mourning, particularly during the processions after the service. Traditionally, the bands were hired to parade with the body from the church or funeral home to the cemetery, and then back to the church again. The band would play slow dirges and hymns on the way to the cemetery, and then would play upbeat jazz on the way back. While the boisterous dancing and music on the route back from the burial has often been described as celebration, others have attributed it to a retention of African beliefs- the fear that the spirit of the deceased might attempt to follow the mourners back from the cemetery unless it was warded off by the beating of drums and blowing of horns. For whatever reason, the jazz funeral was invented in New Orleans.
Nowadays, the brass bands rarely parade all the way to the cemetery from the church. Instead, they generally accompany the coffin as it is carried by the pall bearers to the waiting hearse out in front of the church. From there, depending on the plans of the family, they may march to a nearby neighborhood or bar. On this particular morning, the TBC Brass Band was assembled outside Israelites Baptist Church while the funeral service was going on inside. The wait seemed interminable, while dark clouds gathered to the south and west, threatening serious storms. But suddenly, the service was over, and the pall bearers emerged carrying the coffin down the steps of the church. TBC began playing upbeat music, while family members, though obviously grieving, still danced exuberantly on the sidewalk outside. The band and the family members proceeded down a side street to a tiny brick building painted with music notes which turned out to be the Gladys Bar. There we encountered other friends and family members of the deceased, and the vibe was more one of celebration than mourning, with everyone dancing in the street, including young people who had come out from nearby houses and off neighborhood porches. I was especially impressed to see that one of the band members had brought a little boy with him (perhaps his son), who had a toy trumpet that he was blowing. This is the way the tradition is renewed.
New Orleans is actually quite the breakfast city, and it has always had a huge number of choices for food to start the day, but the last year or so has seen even more new locations open up for an eye-opener. On my trip in early August, my Yelp app (which I heartily recommend as the best way to discover new restaurants) showed a place called Two Chicks Cafe near the Convention Center in the Central Business District. So, with my friend Darren Towns of the To Be Continued Brass Band, we headed to the CBD, and with a little difficulty, found the location, which is about a block from the Howling Wolf. Despite the Convention Center Boulevard address, the cafe really fronts on Diamond Street, and there is street parking in front, although it costs. Although the place is fairly small, it didn’t feel cramped, and it was bright and sunny, with plenty of glass. The menu includes breakfast and lunch items, and is surprisingly varied and diverse, with options ranging from juices and breakfast sandwiches to omelettes, sandwiches and po-boys. I opted for the seafood omelette, and was very impressed , and my friend thoroughly enjoyed his breakfast as well. Service was prompt and cheerful, and prices reasonable. Two Chicks is definitely a welcome addition to the breakfast scene in New Orleans.
Two Chicks Cafe
901 Convention Center Blvd, Suite 109
New Orleans, LA 70130
After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
My homeboy Darren Towns plays bass drum for the TBC Brass Band, which in my opinion is New Orleans’ greatest brass band. They don’t play a lot of gigs in night clubs these days, but they get called for a lot of birthday parties, wedding receptions, funerals, and second-lines, so when I heard that they were playing over in the 9th Ward, I couldn’t wait to get out there to see them. Any TBC performance is an experience, and in the Crescent City, even a birthday party is a really big deal.
Monday morning was still overcast and rainy, but at least the rain had breaks in it. My homeboy Darren and I went and picked up Bunny, the tuba player from the TBC Brass Band, and we all headed over to my favorite breakfast place, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy in the Marigny neighborhood. Afterwards, we headed over to the Treme neighborhood, where there was a new mural in honor of the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, the musician who died suddenly in Japan earlier in the year due to complications from a dental procedure. Although the rain was starting back up, we managed to take some pictures there, and then I was trying to pick up a TBC Brass Band t-shirt, but we could not get in touch with the band member who had the shirts. So I dropped Darren and Bunny back off, headed Uptown to a new coffee bar called French Truck Coffee, which was really good, and then hit the road back toward Memphis.
When I headed out from Monroe on Sunday morning, it was still raining. Although I had hoped the rain would end, it really did not, and was still going on when I arrived in New Orleans. I stopped and ate lunch at a place called Dis & Dat on Banks Street, a burger concept opened by the same people who started Dat Dog. From there I made my way over to the Treme Coffeehouse, and enjoyed a latte, as the second-line I had hoped to see was not being held due to the rain. Instead, I called my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band, and we ended up riding out to Pizza Domenica with him, and then to the Maison Bourbon for live jazz. Ultimately, we ended up at the Howling Wolf in the Central Business District, where the Hot 8 Brass Band plays every Sunday night.
Perhaps no New Orleans experience is more enjoyable yet exotic as the Sunday afternoon parades called second-lines. Inspired by the bass-drum, cowbell and tuba-driven grooves of a brass band, the second-line is basically a rolling party led by one of the many social aid and pleasure clubs in the Black community of New Orleans. Unlike more traditional parades elsewhere in the United States, these are participatory events. People come off their porches and fall in behind the marching band, or jump onto high places to dance and be noticed. The refreshments roll too, pulled by vendors with coolers on wheels, so with the music and cold drinks easily available, the average second-liner might not even realize that he’s been marching and buckjumping for nearly four hours in the hot New Orleans sun. Plus, unlike other parades, second-lines stop. The sponsoring club needs to rest, as some of the members are not young, and besides, they are usually dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes that are extremely hot to wear. They also need to salute other clubs by visiting the bars where they hang out, so a second-line is everything- the beat of great music, the exuberance of impromptu dancing, the colorful brilliance of suits and costumes, the joyful meeting of friends or relatives, and ultimately a statement of identity- what it means to be from New Orleans.
On this particular Saturday, the second-line was being sponsored by the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a downtown organization, so the parade lined up at the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the Congo Square Rhythm Festival was going on inside the park, so there was quite a crowd in the vicinity. Revolution is one of the bigger parades of the season, and this year, it featured three bands- the TBC Brass Band, the Sons of Jazz and the New Breed Brass Band, which had formerly been known as the Baby Boyz. With a 70% chance of rain predicted, I had been concerned about the weather. It was certainly grey and overcast, and as the parade began to get underway, big drops of rain came falling down, sending a rush of people into the Ace Hardware on Rampart Street to buy ponchos and umbrellas. But once the parade was up and rolling on Basin Street, the rain abruptly ended, never to return, and eventually, up on Broad Street the sun came out. The crowds grew steadily bigger through the afternoon as we headed down Broad Street toward A. P. Tureaud. At one stop along the way, the club members disappeared into a building, and then came out in completely different attire. Since there had been no “coming out the door” at the beginning of the parade, this was their first “coming out” of the day. All downtown second-lines get kicked up a notch when they hit the I-10 overpass at North Claiborne Avenue. For one thing, the acoustics under the bridge are amazing, and the bass drums and tuba lines seem to hit harder, and the dancers get more creative. For another, there’s usually a crowd of people gathered under the bridge awaiting the arrival of the second-line. The neutral ground of Claiborne was a place of significance in Black New Orleans before the interstate was built, and the ground remains important to the community today, even in spite of what has been done to it. Outside of some establishments were large groups of people, particularly at Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge near the intersection with St. Bernard Avenue. On the last stretch of parade down St. Bernard Avenue, there was some question as to whether we would be allowed to continue, because the parade had run past its permitted time of 5 PM, but the police finally relented and allowed the parade to continue to its end.
Second-line crowds are always reluctant to disperse, and that is even more true of the ones downtown. Lots of people come out with custom cars and motorcycles, cruising up and down North Claiborne Avenue, despite the efforts of the police to break it up. An hour later, there was still a street party in full swing under the bridge. As the sun sets, it gradually breaks up naturally most of the time, the revelers headed home tired but happy until the whole process is repeated the next Sunday.
It took me nearly an hour to get from Metairie to the North Claiborne Avenue area where TBC Brass Band was supposed to be playing, and where, incidentally, Darren had told me I might run into some of the Mardi Gras Indians. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find any parking, but out north of the Interstate bridge, I found a vacant lot across from a church where nobody was charging any money and lots of people were pulling in and parking. It meant a long walk across a long, vacant commons towards the new Lafitte Project, but the sun had come out and the weather seemed a bit warmer. Under the I-10 bridge, the crowds were truly massive. There was a large stage on St. Bernard Avenue, where bounce rappers were performing, but I could not find any of the TBC Brass Band members anywhere. Since it was more than an hour after they were supposed to start playing, I might have missed them. There were vendors and food trucks, a DJ spinning on a street corner, people zooming around on motorcycles and four-wheelers, and up at the far end, elaborately-costumed Mardi Gras Indians, as I had hoped. I soon found, however, that eager crowds pressed around them so that it was hard to shoot pictures or capture video. But still, seeing the Indians in their beautiful costumes up close was amazing in itself, and I was able to follow one tribe and its drummers down into the Treme neighborhood as they were on their way home, and got some better pictures and footage there.
Choosing the area under an interstate bridge for a festival site may seem strange, but the evidence is that the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue was a festive site for New Orleans’ Black community long before the interstate was built. Community leaders in the Treme neighborhood had tried to halt the interstate construction, but had failed. More recently, since Hurricane Katrina, some activist white kids had suggested removing the interstate in that area, redesignating I-610 as I-10, and restoring the neutral ground of Claiborne as the grassy, tree-lined site it once was, but with the Superdome so nearby, that is unlikely. Black residents resent the overhead interstate, but continue to use the space during Mardi Gras and also after second-lines, when large crowds often gather there. The one positive thing that I’ve had people tell me about the bridge is that brass bands sound really good under there.
Gradually, it got dark, and the crowds began to gradually disperse, so I left as well, headed Uptown to see if I could find any of the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian tribes.
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.