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.
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.
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.
My morning panel at the Cutting Edge NOLA Music Business Conference was so early that I barely had time for breakfast, which I grabbed across the street from the conference hotel at John Besh’s Luke Tavern, which was good, if pricey. But after the panel, I decided to run out and see if I could grab lunch at the legendary Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme, a restaurant I had never gotten to try. I wasn’t at all sure I would get to. There are restaurants like Franklin’s Bar-B-Q in Austin that are just too crowded to get into, and Willie Mae’s has recently been featured on some Food Network TV shows. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, and after all, Willie Mae’s is known for one of my favorite dishes, fried chicken, and I wanted to see how it stacked up against the hometown favorite Gus’s in Memphis.
One thing that anyone visiting Willie Mae’s needs to know is that they do things a little differently than most restaurants. Though there is always a wait, there is not a waiting list as such. Instead, you stand outside under a tent, and people are seated as tables become available. Individual diners are encouraged to sit at the bar, and people are seated according to the number in their parties and what tables come open, not the order they first started waiting.
As for the menu, it is a typical soul food menu, but what almost everyone wants is the fried chicken, and with good reason. Like Gus’s in Memphis, it gets a pretty dark-brown coating, but Willie Mae’s seems a little less spicy than Gus’s, although there is a spice-laden finish that grows with Willie Mae’s over time. The crunchy coating encrusts pieces of white meat chicken that are juicy but not greasy at all, and for an up charge, one can get a breast and two wings. Although there are mashed potatoes and greens, I opted for the french fries instead, and they were basically good. The atmosphere, though crowded and bustling, is basically homey, and great soul music plays from overhead.
As for how it stacks up against Gus’s, I would have to call it an even tie, although there are subtle differences of course. As a lover of fried chicken, and both restaurants, I cannot proclaim either one the winner.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House
2401 St. Ann St
New Orleans, LA 70119
While walking back to my car, I spied this interesting chair on a porch in Treme. The text on the top of the chair says it is a throne of St. Expedite (St. Expeditus), a Catholic saint who is extremely popular in New Orleans and amongst practitioners of voodoo in the city. The rest of the chair is covered with “veves”, drawn symbols that represent the spirits (or “loas”) of voodoo. The names of two of the voodoo loa, Baron Samedi (the lord of the cemetery), and Legba (the guardian of the crossroads) are emblazoned on the seat and legs of the chair. The cult of St. Expeditus in New Orleans is interesting in its own right. Tradition says that Saint Expeditus was a Roman soldier killed by the Roman Empire for converting to Christ. Supposedly, when he decided to become a Christian, Satan tried to deter him in the form of a crow, which called out “Cras, cras”, which is the Latin word for “Tomorrow.” Expeditus is said to have replied, “No, I’ll become a Christian today”, and threw the crow to the ground, stomping it to death. Much of the iconography of St. Expeditus pictures him saying “Hodie” (“Today!”) while crushing the crow beneath his feet as it is saying “Cras!” (“Tomorrow!’). But how Expeditus made his way to New Orleans is less clear. The best (and funniest) story is that during the French colonial period of New Orleans, some statues of saints were shipped to a church in New Orleans, perhaps Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Most of the crates were labeled with the name of the saint whose statue was within, but the last one was stamped only with the French word “Expedite” (literally “Rush!”). According to this story, the people at the church assumed that Expedite was the name of the saint whose statue was within the box, and it was set up in the church with that name! At any rate, St. Expedite soon became a favorite saint with the older Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans. When she fixed love potions, or perhaps cast spells or curses, she taught her followers that prayers to St. Expedite would make everything happen sooner! And I’m reliably told that Expedite is much beloved in the Black Spiritual churches of New Orleans too.
Somehow, on previous visits to Treme, I had never come across this little neighborhood bar called the Little People’s Place, but when I saw it, I immediately recognized the name as a place that had once been famous for live music in the Treme neighborhood. I could only imagine how thrilling it was to see Kermit Ruffins there, or one of the brass bands. Unfortunately, the Treme began suffering the depredations of gentrification even before Hurricane Katrina, and two of the earliest wealthy newcomers filed a lawsuit against the club in 1998 to stop the live music. I hope that one day perhaps the live music can be brought back to little neighborhood spots like this.
When the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church finally ended, the Treme Brass Band came marching out of the church, and the second-line, which had already lined up outside, got underway. The Treme Brass Band was at the front, with the Baby Dolls and Zulus behind them, and then I walked with the TBC Brass Band, who were marching with the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and behind us came the Fi Ya Ya Warriors with their chief and their drummers. We marched first down to Rampart Street, past a couple of hotels where tourists were cheering from the balconies, and to the entrance of Louis Armstrong Park, which was entirely appropriate given the purpose of this festival. From there, we headed back down Rampart to Esplanade, and down Esplanade toward the old U.S. Mint where the festival stages were located. Although I had imagined the second-line as something of an artificial thing scheduled for tourists, I was pleasantly surprised to see it pick up second-liners and buckjumpers as it proceeded down Esplanade. By the time we passed through the festival gates at the Mint, there was hardly room to move. I had meant to hang out at the festival, but I soon found that all of my homeboys in the TBC were leaving out to walk back up toward the Treme, and I was tired too. It took every bit of strength I had to walk back up to the Treme Center where I had parked my car.
Each year on a Sunday, usually in August, the Satchmo SummerFest sponsors a second-line that runs from the St. Augustine’s Church in the Treme neighborhood to the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, featuring Indian tribes, brass bands, the Baby Dolls and various social aid & pleasure clubs. This year’s second-line was scheduled to start at 12:30, and I thought it would start on time, so I felt I didn’t have time for a leisurely breakfast down in the city, and I grabbed a quick breakfast near my hotel at the Tic Toc Cafe in Metairie. With the parking situation so expensive and limited in and around the French Quarter, I decided to park my car up in Treme, close to the start of the parade route, and, fortunately, I had no problem finding a place to park near the Treme Coffeehouse. It was already extremely hot outside, so I grabbed an ice coffee from the coffeehouse, and then started walking down towards the church where the second-line would be starting. Like many other mornings when I had been in the neighborhood before a parade, the Treme was calm and quiet, but with a sort of eager anticipation in the air as well.
It was Satchmo Summer Fest weekend in New Orleans, and my friends in the To Be Continued Brass Band, or TBC, had invited me to spend the afternoon with them going around to their various gigs. They had already played several gigs before I got to New Orleans and caught up with them in the Treme neighborhood around 3:30 in the afternoon. I quickly learned that there’s really no better way to get a crash course in the unique culture of New Orleans than to spend a day with one of the city’s brass bands. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, I rolled with the TBC from a repast in Treme to a memorial block party in honor of someone who had died recently in Gert Town, to a birthday in another part of Gert Town, to a wedding in New Orleans East, to the Divine Ladies Ball at the Mardi Gras Ballroom of the Landmark Hotel in Metairie before winding things down at the Sportsmen’s Ladies event at the Autocrat Social Aid and Pleasure Club on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward. Along the way I saw much of the unique “buck-jumping” dance of New Orleans second-lining, members of various social aid and pleasure clubs, and even a few of the Indians in their elaborate hand-sewn regalia, all accompanied by the festive music of one of New Orleans’ best brass bands. The long day of music and celebration ended at 1:30 AM, as the band members and I all headed our separate ways for some badly-needed rest.