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.
Sherena had never been to a second-line, so on our weekend trip to New Orleans, I wanted her to experience one first-hand. And by chance, we ended up going to the biggest second-line of the year, the four-hour Young Men Olympian second-line, with its five divisions and five bands. As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the YMO is the oldest social aid and pleasure club still existing in New Orleans, and would seem to be the largest as well. One of the divisions had hired the TBC Brass Band to play with them, so when we got to the starting point for the second-line after a leisurely breakfast at Slim Goody’s Diner on Magazine Street, we looked for TBC and quickly fell in behind them. Sherena had brought her tambourine, and though it was all new to her, she fell into the rhythm perfectly as if she had been doing it all her life. Despite the hot weather, the turnout was truly large, with hundreds of people buck-jumping behind the various bands. The division behind us had hired the New Creations Brass Band, and I met some of their members when we stopped at the Sportsman’s Lounge at Second and Dryades. When we passed by a cemetery on Washington Avenue, some young boys were actually dancing on top of tombs along the fenceline, an example of the tendency of dancers to look for elevated locations where they can be seen, although there may be further significance to dancing on graves. The act might be a defiance of death itself. But the heat took its toll on Sherena, and the large crowds made it hard for us to keep up with one another. When we got back to Simon Bolivar Street, we decided to leave the second-line and find something indoors and cooler to get into.
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.
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.
After dinner, I had tried to go to the Kermit Ruffins/Rebirth Brass Band show at Tipitina’s, but they would not allow me inside because I had camera equipment. And TBC had a gig in Avondale anyway, so I headed out to New Orleans East and checked into my motel room, and by that point it was time to head to the Avondale gig, which started at midnight. The location proved to be another hole-in-the-wall club, this one across the street from a large and busy truckstop on Highway 90. The event was apparently a birthday party, and the little club was packed to overflowing, but somehow or other the crowd parted and TBC made their way inside to play for around 20 minutes or so, then marched back out the door and disbanded outside. By then it was nearly 1 in the morning, and I decided to call it a night.
Normally, when I drive into New Orleans, my first order of business is to hit a restaurant and get something to eat, but on this particular Saturday, Darren Towns, my bass-drumming partner from the TBC Brass Band had told me that the band had a gig in the French Quarter at 5 PM, so I came straight off the Causeway and headed into the Treme neighborhood, because there’s always free parking available near the Treme Coffeehouse, and when the weather is fairly pleasant and warm, as this day was, the walk is not difficult and rather enjoyable. Unfortunately, I arrived at the museum where the parade was to start a little late, and the band and revelers had already left. I actually had already run into them as I was passing Jackson Square, but I didn’t recognize them because the tuba player was playing a green tuba, and I had never seen Bunny from the TBC with a green tuba. Finding everything dead around the Pharmacy Museum, I decided that the band I had seen must have been TBC after all, so following the distant sounds I heard, I caught back up with them on Royal Street. My eye caught Darren’s and he smiled, and tourists in the quarter were lining the street and filming. The occasion was actually just a private wedding, but quite a crowd was assembling all the same. We headed around the Supreme Court of Louisiana building and finally ended up at K Paul’s Restaurant, where the whole thing came to an end. It was a great way to start a weekend in New Orleans, and Bunny and Darren decided to meet me at Frankie and Johnny’s uptown for some seafood.
The TBC Brass Band had two gigs on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, but fortunately, there was enough time between the first one and the second one for my homeboy Darren and I to grab dinner at a new spot in Uptown New Orleans on Freret Street called the Hi Hat. The second gig was at a little hole-in-the-wall club in Gentilly that had a crowd spilling out onto the front lot and the street. This event was apparently also a birthday party, but instead of having the band come inside the tiny club, the decision was made to have them play on the outside and then parade around the neighborhood with the revelers. It was wild, but the whole thing amounted to a little late-night second-line that lasted about 20 minutes. Altogether, it was a lot of fun.